On Monday at the National Geographic Museum, the American Enterprise Institute inaugurated its Vision Talks series with the topic of “A Conservative Vision for Social Justice.” It was neither — but it was not unpromising.
The evening began with the president of AEI, Arthur Brooks, who preached about the need for “moral transformation” and “hope” among the poor instead of illustrating concrete policy. He mostly encouraged conservatives to focus on increasing the poor’s access to the free enterprise system. While he did focus on one policy issue — ”Education is the civil rights struggle of our time” — he did not delve into this structural, fixable inequality with any specificity. Rather, his greatest contribution to the discussion was an attitude, sadly somehow rare among conservatives, that sees the poor as actual human beings. “It’s time to stop fighting against ideas, and start fighting for people.”
Journalist Megan McArdle dropped the moralizing in favor of thorough substance. Specifically, she outlined the poor’s reliance on social capital (giving up a job to help a friend is investing in eventual reciprocality), and how badly conservatives have misconstrued that system: “This is not an ethic of irresponsibility but of charity, duty, and loyalty.” Displacement and gentrification are so disruptive, she went on, because they break up these valuable social networks. Meanwhile, the poor are unable to rely on financial capital the way the middle class can (the inability to save money means poverty is expensive, buying ten pairs of cheap shoes instead of one pair that will last). Two ways to change that are long-term home ownership and microfinance. Home ownership is a financial asset that provides financial capital, while microfinance can be used either for entrepreneurship or for investment in social or “human capital” (i.e. paying a child’s school fees or medical bills).
AEI Fellow Robert Doar, the former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, drew on his experience in administering poverty programs to outline conservative approaches. His main insight was that work must be required in exchange for assistance, but that assistance must also reward work with health benefits, childcare, and the like in order to make wages go further. Doar also emphasized that the two-parent family must be a part of this conversation in order to decrease the economic burden on single mothers. Lastly, conservatives must work toward a job-creating economy so that diverse jobs are available to the poor.
Brooks said in the Q&A that the difference between conservative and progressive social justice is that the former “is about tearing down barriers, not increasing government involvement.” But this misses the other key characteristic of progressive social justice: it encompasses not only class, but also gender, race, and sexual orientation, among other factors. The intersections of these characteristics create a more complicated hierarchical economic reality that conservatives are usually ready to deal with, or willing to acknowledge. Conservatives are wrong to appropriate this movement to name their counterargument if it is not going to address those ideas.
Rather, conservatives need more of McArdle’s approach, which actually listens to the stated concerns and realities of the poor and uses their perspectives to challenge the establishment views. McArdle named her talk “Capital and Poverty,” a straightforward way to deal with the subject at hand, rather than trying to fit a conservative angle into a progressive “social justice” shoebox. The AEI vision talks could go somewhere if they weren’t trying so hard to be conservative-friendly editions of TED talks. And with the involvement of serious, undoctrinaire scholars like McArdle, they might.