Arthur Brooks’s Dishonest Case for Conservatism

Arthur Brooks has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today that starts with a kernel of truth: Republicans are in trouble because most Americans think they don't care about people like them or about the less fortunate. But he gets the diagnosis completely wrong, saying Republicans can fix this by refocusing their messaging. In fact, this perception is accurate: Conservative policies aren't good for the middle class or the poor.

Brooks argues that conservative policies are already good for the poor, and that would be clear if only they were framed differently. For example, he writes:

"The core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens."

Set aside that there is no "impending insolvency" of Social Security, which can be made sustainable for a century with moderate adjustments to revenue, benefits or both. The Republican agenda on entitlements is the opposite of what Brooks outlines here: They would let old-age entitlements grow uncontrolled for at least a decade and cut the safety net to make that affordable.

Recent House Republican budgets call for quickly and deeply slashing Medicaid -- the largest safety net program -- in order to hold harmless old-age entitlements for a decade. Republicans have spent the last two campaigns attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare. Mitt Romney called for increasing Medicare spending by more than $700 billion over 10 years.

There is a political party that favors controlling the cost of old-age entitlements to ensure that a robust safety net is affordable. It's the Democratic Party.

Brooks also resorts to the most common hand-wave of conservatives wishing to pretend that they have an agenda for the poor: "education innovation and school choice." Results in this area have been decidedly mixed, and where they exist, they take decades to flow through to family incomes.

Conservatives have, quite reasonably, questioned the usefulness of universal preschool to combat poverty and inequality. So why are they so confident in the usefulness of their own unproven education initiatives -- and so sure that they are a substitute for income redistribution, which we know improves poor people's standard of living?

But the biggest failure of Brooks' op-ed is his grand misstatement of the difference between liberals and conservatives. He argues that the last few decades' decline in third-world poverty comes from fundamentally conservative sources:

"That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship."

There is no lesson here for domestic policy. Both political parties are in favor of property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship. Republicans have a stronger rhetorical commitment to free trade than Democrats, but it's not clear they have a stronger actual commitment. President Bill Clinton struck the North American Free Trade Agreement; President Barack Obama has gotten several bilateral trade agreements enacted and is pursuing large new ones in Asia and, now, Europe.

The most important policy question on which Republicans and Democrats differ is to what extent the government should support the poor within the context of a free-enterprise system, through programs like Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Democrats' position on that question is better for the poor than Republicans'. That, and not any failure of messaging and understanding, is why Republicans are perceived as not caring about the less fortunate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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    Josh Barro

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