- - Wednesday, July 15, 2015



By Arthur C. Brooks

Broadside Books, $27.99, 272 pages

“We are a humane and a generous people and we accept without reservation our obligation to help the aged, disabled, and those unfortunates who, through no fault of their own, must depend on their fellow men.”

That was Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address as California’s governor, affirming his support and the support of his fellow conservatives for a strong social safety net for the poor and needy, quoted here by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who has made the case for free enterprise in strong and readable prose in hundreds of articles and 10 books.

Ronald Reagan “recognized the moral truth that a real social safety net is one of the great achievements of our free market system.” In fact, Mr. Brooks writes, one of the key reasons conservatives fight to limit government is that “fiscal profligacy actually poses a massive threat to the social safety net,” and only a return to conservative fiscal principles can guarantee its continued solvency.

“Because we believe in a true safety net, we must protect it with fiscal discipline. There is no other way.”

The purpose of that safety net, as Ronald Reagan pointed out, is to care for the truly needy and provide temporary assistance to those who need a hand up. But beyond that, the ultimate objective should be to encourage all Americans to achieve success. “It is the mission of the conservative movement — the very reason of our existence — to make it possible for every single American to earn his or her own way.” And it’s only “a culture of opportunity, fueled with a policy agenda of education reform, private job creation, and entrepreneurship [that] can truly set people up to flourish.”

In the end, this is an inherently compassionate view, although Mr. Brooks eschews the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” Grafting compassion on to conservatism, he says, is like attaching an unnatural appendage. “[A] creed that flows from the optimistic belief that every person is valuable and capable of earned success is inherently compassionate to the core.”

That is what Mr. Brooks calls “the conservative heart.” The challenge for conservatives, he says, is “to explain to the world what is really written on the conservative heart to reclaim the mantles of fairness and compassion for the movement that truly lives up to them.”

Mr. Brooks names four essential principles that should underlie any successful conservative social movement — “People are assets, not liabilities; Work is a blessing, not a punishment; Values matter most in lifting people up; Help is important, but hope is essential” — principles built on a foundation of what he calls “institutions of meaning” — faith, family, community and meaningful work.

These are all basic conservative principles, but conservatives — especially conservative politicians — often seem unable to articulate them, focusing instead on what they are against rather than what they are for, and in the process inevitably wrong-footing themselves in the national political and ideological debate, especially as it’s conducted by and filtered through a largely hostile national media.

What is needed is for the right to set the terms of that debate with a positive agenda, as Ronald Reagan did, and as Mr. Brooks puts it, to “transform itself from a protest movement to social movement,” with a “hopeful, optimistic governing agenda” that “focuses on improving the lives of all people through authentically conservative policies.”

“And if we want to win elections so we can do all this, we must remember how to speak in a way that reflects the moral bedrock of our case.”

A tall order, to be sure, especially given today’s particularly factious and mindless politics, with one of our major parties adopting much of Norman Thomas’ old Socialist Party redistributionist agenda, and in the process resurrecting resentments, exacerbating racial tensions, and fueling class warfare.

But not too many years ago, when the nation seemed similarly dispirited and directionless, Ronald Reagan took the reins, and suddenly it was morning in America, with a rebirth of those policies and principles espoused by Mr. Brooks.

All it took was character, integrity, optimism, rock-solid belief in our free-enterprise system, love of our exceptional nation, and total faith in the American people.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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