- - Tuesday, February 4, 2014


On the left-right political spectrum, there are certain public-policy positions that aren’t necessarily a good fit. For many liberals, this would include laissez-faire capitalism, capital punishment and support for a flat tax.

For many conservatives, the list would contain the preservation of a welfare state, public health care and above all, social justice.

There are a few liberals and conservatives who want to try and make these policy positions fit (somehow) for their ideological counterparts. It’s a difficult task, but you have to admire their determination and creativity.

For example, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks has just attempted to make the case for a positive social-justice policy for conservatives.

In the February 2014 issue of Commentary magazine, Mr. Brooks writes that the “American conservative’s reluctance to articulate a social-justice agenda of his own only feeds the perception that the right simply doesn’t care about the less fortunate.” Hence, he thinks, “Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right.”

In Mr. Brooks‘ view, there are “three pillars” that conservatives and free-enterprise enthusiasts can use to their advantage: “transformation, relief and opportunity — in that order.”

This would allow them to deal with pressing social-justice issues, such as poverty, welfare reform, labor-market woes, social safety net and the minimum wage. By doing so, it would disprove the myth that the “central, motivating purpose of conservative philosophy is not fighting against things,” but instead affirm that it’s “fighting for people.”

Mr. Brooks‘ article is worth reading from an intellectual standpoint. He deserves credit for trying to create a lasting link between conservatives and social justice. Unfortunately, the link that he envisions cannot be created in the model he has conceived.

Why? Consider the powerful messages of some sports commercials: “Image is everything” (Andre Agassi and Canon EOS Rebel), “Failure” and “Let your game speak” (Michael Jordan and Nike), and “Hey, kid, catch!” (“Mean” Joe Greene and Coca-Cola). When it comes to Washington, the message is — and will always remain — “Politics is perception.”

Perception is a vital tool in politics. While the introduction of a strong, conservative-oriented social-justice policy would win over some voters, most Americans would perceive this policy shift as a means of pandering to the masses.

Like or not, conservatives haven’t been historically associated with social justice for many generations. Therefore, people aren’t going to buy into the sudden creation of a link between conservatives and social-justice policies.

Maybe conservatives should simply claim social justice as part of their mantra. Canadian conservative author and columnist Ezra Levant tried to do this a few years ago when he wanted to be called a “liberal feminist.”

He wrote in the November 2006 issue of Canadian Lawyer magazine that he wasn’t using this term “in the radical sense of those words, fighting pretend battles for infinitesimally small gains in already liberal and feminist institutions, like law schools. But in the literal sense of those words, and against true threats, like Shariah law.”

Fair enough. Yet in a world of few classical liberals and droves of left-wing feminists, Mr. Levant’s thought-provoking attempt could only go so far. While political terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” have changed over the years, other terms remain virtually set in stone.

More to the point, I don’t think conservatives need to support social justice. A nuanced return to compassionate conservatism would be a far better option.

This political philosophy has been associated with historians Douglas Wead, Myron Magnet and World magazine editor in chief Marvin Olasky. It was popularized by George W. Bush in his first presidential term, but fell out of favor when it was commonly associated with big-government conservatism owing to increased social spending.

Yet a modern, up-to-date version of compassionate conservatism would be the most viable (and positive) way for conservatives to use aspects of social justice to their advantage.

The strategy would be threefold: Blast away at left-wing solutions for poverty, keep government intervention to a bare minimum, and let the free market works its magic. This could include workfare programs, breaking down the chains of welfare dependency, aid from faith-based charities, and privately funded education and training programs.

By emphasizing the role of private enterprise and religious institutions in helping the poor and disenfranchised, conservatives would be, in Mr. Brooks‘ words, “fighting for people.” That’s the sort of compassion the right truly needs.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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