Arthur Brooks wasn’t always the conservative president of a leading think tank. Before he was at the helm of the American Enterprise Institute, he was a young self-proclaimed “liberal bohemian” native of progressive Seattle. At age 19, he dropped out of college to tour the world playing concerts. He moved to Spain to convince a girl named Ester to marry him – which she did.
After years of living this global adventure, he found that it no longer was a source of happiness so he signed up to earn an inexpensive BA degree by correspondence from Thomas Edison State College. It was during those college studies as a twenty-eight-year-old that he found himself falling in love with economics. He went on to earn a masters degree and then a Ph.D. in public policy. He learned that:
“We can’t change behavior just by passing a law against something we don’t like. I learned that people are complex and respond to different incentives, which is why so many social problems are not fixable through government programs. But most of all, I learned that American-style democratic capitalism was changing the world and helping billions of poor people to build their lives. To my shock, I also learned that this outlook made me a ‘conservative.'”
In The Conservative Heart, Brooks calls for us as conservatives to “reclaim the moral high ground” and stop arguing against things and instead start advocating for people. He boldly calls for us to “put forward a hopeful, optimistic governing agenda – one that focuses on improving the lives of all people, especially the most vulnerable, through authentically conservative policies.” This means that conservatives are actually not opposed to a safety net (and here Brooks cites the iconic libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek and Ronald Reagan) but that conservatives see the purpose of that safety net as a means of helping the poor people “lead lives of dignity, independence, self-reliance, and above all, work.” Less typical of conservative rhetoric is Brook’s assertion that we need to stop fixating on the rags-to-riches narrative. Instead:
“Our movement should be focusing not on the people who make it to great wealth, but rather about those who never get rich – but thrive by lifting themselves up out of poverty, building their lives, supporting their families, and understanding their true purpose. That’s the essence of American entrepreneurship.”
While there are policy highlights and suggestions throughout the book like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a wage subsidy administered through the tax system that Brooks calls “the most powerful pro-work, antipoverty measure”, the real strength of the book lies in the many examples of conservative private sector solutions to pressing concerns. For example, Brooks highlights the work of the Doe Fund, a program in which homeless men (many of whom had been incarcerated) would live in a community and learn to work, earn, save, and prepare to “enter society as value-creating, values-conscious individuals.” And Brooks gives us both a birds-eye view of this successful program (since 1990, the Doe Fund has helped over 22,000 people) and a ground-view through the personal stories of men like Dallas Davis who had been incarcerated on drug charges and who entered the Doe Fund program, developed a strong work ethic, and graduated at the top of his class (giving the commencement address), with certification from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fix boilers and sprinklers.
Brooks also sprinkles bullet point takeaways throughout the book to reinforce the values that are on the conservative heart. Principles like “Work is a blessing, not a punishment” and “Human dignity is not a function of wealth.” He also offers an excellent critique of the rhetoric of conservatives, writing: “the left talks about the human experience while the right talks about GDP growth, tax rates, and spending levels.” We need not be afraid, says Brooks, of morality shaping our rhetoric: for example, we can boldly declare that it is immoral to deny people the opportunity to participate in the dignity of work!
In his concluding chapter, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives”, Brooks offers some counter-intuitive advice like “Get Happy” (doomsday rhetoric doesn’t inspire) and “Go where you’re not welcome” (reach across the aisle, not just as a political move, but because you actually care). He is quick to point out that this chapter (and indeed the whole book) is not a manual of rhetorical tricks designed to fool people into voting for you. No, the point is “to make us better at expressing the content of our own characters so we become better servants for people in need.”