Moral Arithmetic

“Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic,” writes Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. “They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.”

He thinks the solution is to “make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.” Entitlement reform is needed to help the “neediest citizens” and education reform is needed not to turn the clock back to 1950 but “because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.”

Family issues should be framed in the same way:

“Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien ‘bourgeois’ morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.”

Brooks adds, “By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.”

Wise words here, mostly. But the problem Brooks fails to confront is how what he dismisses as “minority moral viewpoints” are connected to the defense of the vulnerable he rightly emphasizes. He almost seems to acknowledge this with his talk of the need to defend a “healthy culture of family.”

He’s exactly right that “family values” shouldn’t be advanced out of nostalgia but in the interests of social health, especially for the poor. Anyone with the slightest contact with the poorest of the poor knows that alongside material poverty there is nearly always a string of broken family relationships.

But Brooks doesn’t explain how to defend family culture without advancing “moral viewpoints” that many Americans, perhaps the majority, no longer accept – like sexual restraint, fidelity in marriage, resistance to easy divorce. Once it’s clear that defending family might require a defense of unpopular values, it’s less clear that Brooks’s moral arithmetic adds up to electoral victories.

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