Why Conservatism Should Lead with a Heart

A Conversation with Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute

Economists talk about GDP, trade growth, and other topics that fail to connect with many Americans. To Arthur Brooks, economics isn't about numbers – it's about the lives that are improved at home and abroad when America shares what makes it great.

Unlike this fictional newspaper, real news outlets rarely humanize the effects of globalism.

Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of  The Conservative Heart. An economist by training, Brooks moderated a discussion with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on “The Opportunities and Obligations of Freedom during the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s recent Forum on Leadership.

Before their discussion, Brooks sat down for an interview with The Catalyst’s William McKenzie and Amanda Huber. His comments focused on a number of disruptive economic forces, but his bottom line is that conservatives must “win hearts” if they are going to prevail in larger debates over globalization, trade, and immigration.

We live in this era of rising populism, which on one level helps more people get engaged with their communities. But, in this environment, how do you champion the idea of an open society where goods, information, and services can flow across borders?

Part of the reason that arguments about immigration, trade, and globalization are falling on hard times is because we don’t tend to talk about the impact that they have on human welfare. We talk about them as if they were economic concepts, about money and commerce and GDP growth. But that desiccated stuff doesn’t move any hearts.

When people are feeling frustrated and shut out of the system, they don’t want to hear about your lousy economic growth rate. They want to know how this is going to affect them, their communities, and their families. How is it going to affect the world? You’ve got to start there.

The reason that I care about globalization is because I have learned the positive impact of trade, entrepreneurship, property rights, and all those academic concepts. I became an economist when I was in my 30s because I learned that 80 percent of world hunger had been eradicated since I was a child.

The reason that I care about globalization is because I have learned the positive impact of trade, entrepreneurship, property rights, and all those academic concepts.

Nobody knows this. This is not front-page news in The New York Times. You know, “Millions not hungry this year.” You don’t see that.

But I learned that the reason two billion of our brothers and sisters have been brought out of poverty since 1970 is the American free enterprise system was sent around the world. There’s no other way that could’ve happened.

If I believe that the least of my brothers and sisters deserve special love and care, I’ve got to have a system that works for them. There’s no other way to do it. And I’ve got to be a warrior for it and I’ve got to stand up for it, and I’ve got to help people who share my values understand that this is an American gift to the world.

Arthur Brooks on stage with Dr. Condoleezza Rice at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership, April 18, 2017. (Paul Morse/George W. Bush Presidential Center)

You have described yourself as a “Matthew 25 conservative.” What does that mean?

Being a Matthew 25 conservative is to understand that I cannot be rich as long as I am hoarding the goods and values of our society. We must share them with others because our happiness, potential, dignity, and goodness in our own lives is interlinked with that in other people’s lives.

Being a Matthew 25 conservative is to understand that I cannot be rich as long as I am hoarding the goods and values of our society.

Matthew 25:40 essentially says: As you did to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did for me. It goes on to a litany of things that people needed in the time of Jesus Christ: When did you see me naked? When did you see me homeless? When did you see me in jail?

Well, what would that litany be today? I’m convinced it would be more: Lord, when did I find you jobless? When did I find you without prospects for a good life? When did I find you at the margins of our society? When did I find you addicted to opiates?

You need a system that treats people with dignity and lifts them up according to whatever those points are in our society today. To be a Matthew 25 conservative, whether you’re a Christian or not, means what do people need and how can I need those people in my life as well.

What does this mean in countries where their leaders may be oppressive? How does being a Matthew 25 conservative translate there?

We’re also in a moment where people are kind of cynical about the ability of the United States to do much good outside of our borders. I would probably add to the updated version of Matthew 25:40: Lord, when did I see you under the sun of a repressive tyrant?

People want freedom. People deserve freedom. This is not something that we can or should hoard for ourselves. The promise of America is an idea that lives in our hearts. I can’t tell you how many people who live outside the United States feel like they are Americans in their hearts.

People want freedom. People deserve freedom. This is not something that we can or should hoard for ourselves.

If it’s good enough for me, and it’s good enough for me to fight for my kids, I should fight for it for somebody else’s kids, too. It’s not right. Can I do everything in every place in the world? No. I’m not insane. I get the whole world’s policeman argument. I also get that putting Americans in harm’s way can be a very dicey business. But to say we will ignore Libyans and Syrians, that’s to ignore my own kids.

Syrian refugees arrive from Turkey near Molyvos, Lesbos on an overloaded dinghy. (Nicolas Economou / Shutterstock.com)

How do you translate this into policy?

The bottom line is we need a multi-dimensional set of tools that puts others before ourselves.

The interesting part is not the technical aspects of monetary policy and where we stage our forces overseas. It starts with the moral proposition. That’s the barrier. When we say, “it’s not my business, it’s not my problem,” then it doesn’t matter where you put your airplanes. It doesn’t matter what you do with the money supply. You have to get your heart right.

From there, we can talk about the policy solutions. That’s what I do all day. I run a think tank, I’ve got 280 warriors, but what I really need is 280 moral warriors and thank God I’ve got them.

As I listen to you speak, I still think about those who may say, “I hear you about how I can achieve freedom, but I feel stuck.” How do you speak to them about these forces of automation and globalization?

I completely get it. I would be really frustrated too if I heard idealists say, “We’ve got to help people in Bangladesh,” when the mill shut down in my town or the mine shut down in my town and my kids are addicted to OxyContin. I’d be thinking: What’s in it for me with this globalization thing?

The truth is, globalization is not leaving people behind. It is the inability and unwillingness in our society, and especially our education establishment, to get people ready for what the modern world is going to bring.

The truth is, globalization is not leaving people behind. It is the inability and unwillingness in our society, and especially our education establishment, to get people ready for what the modern world is going to bring.

Americans are productive and smart, and they tend to be highly motivated. The problem is that we don’t have a structure to get people ready for how the world is changing. When we tell people that we can only throw a little welfare at them if the economy leaves them behind, we are telling them that they are a charity case. We are telling them they are a liability to manage instead of an asset to develop.

We have an education system in America that’s completely inadequate to our needs. It alternates between taking students from families in the bottom 25 percent of the income ladder and getting them ready for practically no jobs in the economy that pay even minimum wage, and telling everybody else they have to go to college. That is craziness.

Do they all need to be pushed into Duke and Harvard? No. They need skills. And if we had an education system that focused on vocation, apprenticeships, skills, the dignity of ordinary work and all the things that we need to modernize our economy, we could stop fretting about changes in our economy and about the fact that we’re shipping jobs to the Dominican Republic.

We would even stop worrying about the fact that three million people make their jobs as truck drivers and those jobs are going to change. We would say we’re ready for that.

This will take a motivated national campaign of skills training in this country. We need to approach this as we would any other big national opportunity. This is a space program for skills.

Until we get behind that we’re going to have the same dumb conversations: Should we close the borders or open the borders? Should we let in the foreigners or kick out the foreigners? Are we worried about the Chinese or are we not worried about the Chinese? Unproductive. Unnecessary.

In your writings, you tout earned success, equality of opportunity, charity, and basic fairness as forming the moral core of the free enterprise system. Why those elements?

The free enterprise system is not an economic system. It’s a manifestation of culture so you have to talk about the moral elements of a culture.

It’s fine to talk about free enterprise as simply being about economic competition bounded by rule of law and redressing market failure with government that can regulate when it can and should. That’s fine, but it doesn’t get you far.

Free enterprise is interesting because people voluntarily submit to competition. That’s an amazing, unprecedented thing. The reason they do so is they trust each other and are willing to serve each other. They have a moral sense of what fair play is all about, and not just the law. They’re willing to help each other and are not hostile to the idea of even doing something through the government.

Free enterprise is interesting because people voluntarily submit to competition. That’s an amazing, unprecedented thing. The reason they do so is they trust each other and are willing to serve each other.

That’s what free enterprise is all about. But when those things break down, and they are now weakened, that’s when free enterprise breaks down. It’s no coincidence that when people trust each other less, when they’re less charitable to each other, when they treat each other with contempt, when there’s less unity, then suddenly competition doesn’t work very well.

How do you explain those core moral elements to people who may be tempted to go to a hybrid state capitalist model, like we see in China? Or they may be open to illiberal democracies in places like Hungary and Poland?

Those are two different kinds of cases. They come from illiberal tendencies in different sorts of ways. Illiberal democracies are pulling up the draw bridges on the basis of ethno-nationalism, a European-type of conservative identity politics. The Chinese model is more of a non-democratic capitalist state.

The United States is a great country because of our willingness to embrace competition within the context of rules and morals. This is the first time it’s ever been achieved in the history of the world. Woe be unto us if we trade that away.

That’s the reason people are so proud of it. That’s the reason we don’t need a cop on every corner. That’s the reason most business takes place with a common handshake. You don’t want this kind of system? You can get rid of it. You can get Poland, Hungary, or China, but I don’t want their system.

I look at data all day long, and the interesting thing is that the big majority of Americans don’t want that kind of system, either. They’re terrorized by the 30 percent of the population that thinks about this in the wrong way. We’re the majority.

Seventy percent of Americans on the right and the left agree about the rule of law, property rights, the culture of entrepreneurship, and whether markets properly understood are a good thing. We may disagree on how much government we need, what the retirement age should be, and whether we need a union. But we are the majority and it’s time to take our country back. It’s time for a backlash. I’m ready to fight this fight. I’m in, man!

We may disagree on how much government we need, what the retirement age should be, and whether we need a union. But we are the majority and it’s time to take our country back.

Again, let’s say you are in Hungary or Poland, and you have greater tolerance for authoritarian rule. How do you persuade that person about these values?

One reason Americans are more open is that we left those places. We probably have a genetic and cultural proclivity towards openness. This is an entrepreneurial country because it’s a country based on immigrants who escaped from those places.

A group of Hungarian refugees leaving the Camp Kilmer Reception Center in New Jersey in 1956. (USCIS History Library)

Immigration is the single-most entrepreneurial activity because it’s entrepreneurship without putting capital at risk. You are putting cultural, linguistic, and religious capital at risk as you get on a boat or a plane or walk here or whatever. That is the ultimate immigration experience.

It also means you are going to leave behind people who have a high tolerance for no competition and a much higher tolerance for people telling you what to do. Americans don’t put up with that and it’s why we are Americans. That’s super important to remember, and you have to fertilize that society with people who just kicked themselves out of their own country.

Immigration is the single-most entrepreneurial activity because it’s entrepreneurship without putting capital at risk. You are putting cultural, linguistic, and religious capital at risk as you get on a boat or a plane or walk here or whatever. That is the ultimate immigration experience.

Does that mean you can share everything we take for granted with every other country at every other time? No. That’s why it’s hard to go into Iraq. That’s why it’s hard to go into Syria.

For that matter, that’s why you just can’t rip through Poland with a free enterprise party. They’re going to be like “what are you talking about?” You can’t do it as easily or fast.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share it. There are patriots in those places who see it as well.

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