A Positive Vision for Conservatism

In a previous article, I criticized the economic plans of progressive egalitarians and specifically radical egalitarian tax plans like the one proposed by Bernie Sanders. It is always easier to knock down a house than build one, and conservatives too often neglect to build their own. In this article, I will present a basic blueprint for the conservative response to social ills and economic injustice.

The growth of egalitarian tendencies is a misguided reaction to very real issues in the United States. Despite the relative affluence of the country, poverty still presents a problem, both to individuals and to the stability of society as a whole. For the traditional conservative, a concern for those in need is of paramount importance in considering the role of government in society. However, the practical response of conservatives to those in need differs vastly from the progressive liberal approach, and I would argue it is rendered more effective by a more solid anthropological foundation and broader conception of the needs of each person.

First, let us establish the conservative view of humanity. Although perhaps there is not one cohesive conservative view of human nature (nor, perhaps, a liberal one), the traditional natural rights view of the Founders can serve as a rough approximation. The Founders believed in a divinely created humanity and a world governed by a greater moral law. The rights which the Founders so passionately fought for were instituted with a purpose to protect the ability of people to fulfill their social duties and follow the moral law. It follows that conservatives in this line of thinking would aim toward a society that encouraged and enabled human beings to follow the moral law and pursue good or, in other words, to flourish.

Furthermore, conservatives view the ends of humanity as moral and relational. Those ends may require material means, but material wealth as such is not an end and confers no independent social or psychological benefit on the person. Additionally, those who affirm human rights and natural law often agree on the person as an inherently social being–which is why many regard solitary confinement as torture. It follows that the social being thrives in strong relational institutions, namely families and communities, and that any approach to a human problem must consider the power of these institutions. Lastly, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, widely accepted in psychology, posits that individual well-being requires meeting both material and emotional needs. The conservative seeks solutions to human problems that ideally strengthen, but at least do not weaken, the non-material sources that contribute to individual well-being.

Poverty is an impediment to human flourishing. Those experiencing poverty often struggle to pursue a vocation, begin or support a family, or participate fully in their communities. The incredible stress of their circumstances is an intolerable burden, and it is the duty of those who believe in the the importance of healthy, stable, participatory communities to work to alleviate this burden.

To start understanding a conservative approach to poverty, it is necessary to pull together elements from my previous critiques of egalitarianism. In one article, I posited that it is of no moral object whether some have more than others, but rather whether people have enough, also known as Harry Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency. The value of using the doctrine of sufficiency is that it keeps the focus of policy and considerations of distribution on those who are truly in need and those who are most in need first.

It is also worth revisiting Frankfurt’s definition of poverty: a condition from which we naturally recoil. Note that Frankfurt does not say anything about material wealth, not because he would exclude material need, but rather that the concept of poverty expands beyond the material needs of a person. Arthur Brooks, in his recent book The Conservative Heart, which builds off of his past work using social science to measure happiness, identifies faith, family, community, and earned success as the four key contributors to human happiness. A person lacking in any of these four areas can necessarily be said to be in poverty, in a state where they are unable to flourish. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that strong families and meaningful work can prevent or alleviate poverty. Material poverty can contribute to an inability to participate in these factors, but it is only logical that solutions to material poverty involve strengthening these elements or, at the very least, not weakening them.

The state need not directly involve itself in strengthening the family, encouraging religious practice, leading people to vocational fulfillment, or even building local communities and associations, but it should create conditions that allow for these things to occur naturally or with the effort of concerned and virtuous citizens. Strengthening the institution of marriage and discouraging capricious divorce, holding fathers accountable for their responsibilities towards their children, and lowering incarceration for non-violent crimes to keep parents in the home are valid ways for local and state governments to strengthen the family. Supporting religious institutions, or at the very least not burdening them, is vital to the moral strength and stability of a community. Allowing communities to shape their local public school curriculum, within bounds, and encouraging a comprehensive and fairly patriotic form of civic education in schools allows for more effective participation in government among the people and more community cohesion.

Considering the ties between happiness and earned success and the ties between employment levels and poverty, a government that seeks to lessen poverty must also promote a flourishing economy. A healthy economy with an abundance of opportunities for employment ensures those who want to work will be able to do so. Not only does a strong job market help alleviate poverty and ensure better outcomes for children, it also strengthens community and increases long-term personal happiness, something a check from the government affirmatively cannot do.

Governments must also respect the unique role that smaller units of society, namely, in order, the family, the church community, and the local community can play in alleviating poverty by addressing the unique situation of the individual. The recognition that the state or federal government cannot fully understand the needs and problems of a specific community is an act of humility and practicality. If each lower institution is unable to alleviate poverty, it is then the role of a higher governmental organization to provide support or intervene. However, it is wholly inappropriate and unnecessary for federal or state programs to take over the role of the family or of charities in providing material assistance to the poor without evidence that those smaller communities could not do it themselves.

Much of this view of alleviating poverty, as a very broad structure, requires the federal government to step back and allow institutions that are closer to impoverished individuals and communities to help. However, relegating the state and federal governments to a smaller role in assisting those in need necessarily requires that the citizenry be willing to fulfill its duties in supporting those around them. For decades, Americans (and, most notably, the less charitable and more state-friendly liberals) have been handing off their social responsibilities to the government. Doing so is alienating and harmful to individuals by virtue of their social nature, but society cannot reclaim its responsibilities unless it is willing and able to fulfill them. The conservative approach to alleviating poverty is more compassionate, more realistic, and more compatible with human nature. It is imperative that we instill in citizens an understanding of virtue and sense of duty so that we can carry it out.

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