If you believe David Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise has a fresh and sweeping vision for saving conservatism from the dustbin of history. That's odd, because when I read the supposedly groundbreaking article in Commentary magazine by AEI's Arthur Brooks about poverty and opportunity, his vision didn't seem so radically new to me. Yes, he's saying some unusual things for a top conservative, but mostly he's repeating the same things the right always says. And herein lies the problem for modern conservatism: If one of their star thinkers can't generate a truly new paradigm, the movement will continue its decline.
Let's get out our new ideas detector and take a stroll through Brooks' long piece. We'll look at each of his core claims.
Brooks frames his article this way: "What, then, do poor people say they truly need to lead prosperous and satisfying lives? The real answer is both simple and profound. They need transformation, relief, and opportunity—in that order."
By transformation, Brooks means "personal moral transformation." and adds that "By now, everyone acknowledges that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies."
Okay, so right off, Brooks is starting his supposedly new argument with the most familiar of conservative claims: that the individual (and family) is the locus of the poverty problem, as opposed to broader structures of society or the economy. He argues: "Transforming the character and values of individuals and communities is essential to genuinely helping those in need."
I'm disappointed by the narrow way that a smart person like Brooks handles this. Even if you do agree that individual moral character is all important, you must also acknowledge that moral character is greatly impacted by broader societal conditions. To take the most obvious example: It's easier to have a strong work ethic if it's easy to find a good paying job. Or something equally obvious: It's easier to be a good father if you can provide for your family. Or something less obvious: It's harder to resist the resist the pull of instant gratification when you live in a deeper consumerist culture that is shaped by a shallow, prurient, and violent popular media run by big corporations chasing profits.
If Brooks wants to break new ground with conservative arguments about moral character, he needs to reckon with the obvious ways that larger forces shape character and values. And no force is more powerful than capitalism: Just look at how personal and family values in fast developing countries like India and China are shifting rapidly, in both negative and positive ways, as markets remake those societies. The traditional values that Brooks champions are simply no match for the bottom line.
Brooks then moves on to the safety net, or "relief," and makes a solid argument that conservatives should favor a basic safety net. Good for him, but apart from the libertarian crazies who lately have so much influence on the right, what conservatives really disagree with that? The Heritage Foundation, for example, has always favored some kind of basic safety net. Brooks says that safety net programs "must be designed and administered in ways that fight fiercely against dependency." Didn't Charles Murray say that a quarter century ago?
Brooks then moves on to what he sees as a bigger problem, a "dysfunctional labor market." And what are his big idea here? To actually lower the minimum wage and also help Americans move to where jobs are plentiful. What Brooks doesn't address, though, is the broader reality that most jobs created in the United States nowadays simply don't pay enough to lead anywhere or particularly incentivize people to work. Just look at the jobs numbers on the first Friday of any month: as many as half of new jobs created tend to be low-paying positions in retail and restaurants without benefits. If Brooks wants to address the "dysfunctional labor market," he and other conservatives need to address the question of how to create more high-value skilled jobs in the United States -- the kind of jobs that can lead to a middle class life. Other countries, like Germany, do this better than we do, and we can learn from their example.
Lastly, on the subject of opportunity and education, Brooks argues for reforms that can disrupt the current status quo and lead to innovation. That's the familiar conservative solution: school choice, performance pay, etc. But what do smart conservatives like Brooks have to say about what may be the most pernicious aspect of the status quo: deep and persistent segregation by race and class, so poor kids generally go to school with other poor kids in poor neighborhoods with a weak tax base. School choice or ending teacher tenure doesn't do much to solve the segregation problem -- which a generation of researchers have told us is deeply damaging to kids. On the other hand, challenging the zoning laws that keep poor kids out of affluent communities could make a real difference.
It's great that Arthur Brooks wants conservatives to get more focused on poverty and opportunity. But he's not going to be so helpful if he sidesteps the most vexing challenges we face. Among other things, he needs to stop reflexively cheerleading for the free enterprise system and look at ways to make that system more compatible with the kind of human progress he wants.