AEI Embraces Social Justice (2014 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

The biggest show in American politics is the struggle between two large factions – the Progressive-Democrat-Leftist group versus the Conservative-Republican-Rightist opposition.

In this perpetual conflict the advantage goes to the leftists because while they have substantial disagreements among themselves, they share a core objective – grow the welfare state. Any problem is a signal that more government involvement is needed. And when times are good and Americans are prosperous, that is also a cue for more government intervention. After all, “if we are a rich country,” only a mean spirited, stingy person would object to expanding entitlement benefits.

The Conservative-Republican-Rightist alliance is far more heterogenous, not well organized, and – most important – not in agreement about what their prime objective should be (beyond defeating the Democrats). Right wing activists quarrel among themselves. A small proportion on the right understand and appreciate the concepts of individualism, natural rights, and free markets. But this minority, who are attacked and branded as “extremists” both by the left and by “realistic, establishment, mature” conservatives, is not yet influential enough to bring its vision of liberty into reality.

A large segment of the conservative faction are classic conservatives who want a smaller (as opposed to limited) government, state-funded sanctions for “traditional values,” and reflexively oppose the progressives largely because progressives want “change.” To a classic conservative not all old things are good, but most good things are old. Classic conservatives are famous for opposing leftist government initiatives when they are new and then defending those same programs as vital when they have “stood the test of time.” Think of social security and medicare. Note that the American welfare state has been in place and has been growing at least since FDR. Consequently, classic conservatives view the welfare state as an institution to be preserved, nurtured, and amended – but not to be recklessly attacked.

On the right, one of the most influential think tanks is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) which describes itself as “committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise.” An outsider might think that the organization enthusiastically supports the ideals of individualism and limited government, but AEI’s president, Arthur C. Brooks – personifying the classic conservative attitude – has a different vision which is reminiscent of Bush 43’s compassionate conservatism. In a detailed essay “A Conservative Social Justice Agenda” he argues that conservatives should demonstrate their concern for the less fortunate and act to reform the welfare state by improving, fine-tuning, and adding to the handiwork of leftist progressives. Of course, this is antithetical to replacing welfare state programs with voluntary, private actions.

Taken in its entirety, the essay is both a rebuke to the champions of liberty and a love letter to leftist progressives. It communicates that Dr Brooks mostly agrees with the progressive attitude regarding the role of government (important problems require government intervention) and does not seem to consider a principled defense of freedom as essential.

Start with the expression “social justice.” Dr Brooks certainly knows what it connotes and how it is exploited by leftists to trick people into accepting a collectivist notion of humanity. By using the term he is embracing the progressive paradigm that is inconsistent with the rationale for liberty. While “justice” refers to a person getting what he or she deserves, “social justice” is a flawed concept that discards the importance of the individual and replaces it with group identity. Social justice advocates are not so concerned with any particular person. Instead they are focused on evening things out among groups. Their interest is on buckets of people – sorted by gender, class, income level, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Throughout his essay problems are described that might be solved either by private action or by government muscle, and Dr Brooks usually favors the hand of the state.

He writes that “conservatives need a social-justice agenda of their own” and that “reluctance to articulate a social-justice agenda … feeds the perception that the right simply doesn’t care about the less fortunate.” Of course, right wing pundits have for many years been touting the advantages, both moral and practical, of replacing government-run programs with private, voluntary initiatives. Dr Brooks recognizes and dismisses this approach when he writes that “private donations cannot guarantee anywhere near the level of assistance that vast majorities of Americans across the political spectrum believe is our moral duty.” This is straight from the leftist-progressive playbook – the assertion that “need” trumps freedom. It is true that with voluntary action there is no guarantee that you will get what you want. That is a feature of taking liberty seriously. Free people have to be persuaded one-at-time to comply with your request. Leftists assert – and Dr Brooks seems to concur – that individual freedom can be discarded if social planners have “really important goals” that may not be accomplished without government force.

Where does Dr Brooks disagree with the leftists? He parts with them in two ways. He and his cohorts pledge to use the coercive power of government more effectively and efficiently. Instead of acting hastily, conservative social justice will be a more prudent and measured intrusive hand.

Also, his programs will be designed to discourage people from becoming wards of the state. Conservative social justice initiatives will have conservative-friendly objectives – moral transformation (under the guidance of government), material relief (a smarter safety net financed by tax dollars), and assisted opportunity (improved government-directed education, putting taxpayers on the hook for relocation vouchers, and – surprise – encouraging the free enterprise system).

As expected from the president of AEI, Dr Brooks regards the free enterprise system as vitally important. But he seems to believe that a sufficient justification for free enterprise is that it is a superb generator of wealth that lifts people out of poverty. Of course, he is correct that it does these things. But Dr Brooks fails to emphasize the even more basic reason for a free market economy. It is the only system that explicitly and consistently respects individual rights. If you recognize that each person has legitimate sovereignty over his or her life, you can see that all dealings must be by mutual consent. This makes government meddling out of bounds. The essential role of government is limited to assuring individual rights by prohibiting force and fraud.

When Dr Brooks – a distinguished classic conservative – comes to appreciate the core moral foundation of free enterprise he will have no problem discarding his infatuation with “social justice.”

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