Around the Institute

The Case for Compassionate Conservatism

June 29, 2012

American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks made the case for compassionate conservatism at the Institute’s Ideas Festival, softening the lines between what moderator and Atlantic Senior Editor Clive Crook called “the clash between hard heads and soft hearts.” 

The crux of his argument came down to the need for a joint definition of fairness. “A legitimate economic system has to give people opportunity, be fair, and adequately protect the vulnerable. Everyone agrees with this, but we disagree about how to do it,” he said. “What empirically is the system that helps the poor most here and around the world?” 

Brooks said free market capitalism had been the most empirically beneficial in bringing absolute numbers of people out of poverty, going so far as to say that “the financial crisis was brought on by a deficit of free enterprise.” He sees the ballooning deficit as structurally unfair— a “fiscal cliff that will destroy the poor,” while conditioning his objection to social welfare programs with the caveat that “civilized society owes it to itself to have a level below with no one should live. The poor are going to fall through the cracks because of the money we’re wasting on those who do not need it today.”

Messaging was also crucial, with Brooks admitting that “liberals have monopolized the concept of what we mean by fairness” and that advocating with data rather than compassion makes conservatives unconvincing, with “the words right, but the music all wrong.” But Brooks was pitch perfect when he said “moral arguments beat material arguments every time”—a lesson that those from all points on the political spectrum can surely agree with.