The Conservative Heart – Arthur Brooks

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“There are two types of people in the world: those who think work is a punishment, and those who see work as a blessing.” – A. Brooks


  • Conservatives have a huge PR problem, they’re painted as uncaring and dispassionate people who want to tear apart the welfare state for their own self-serving needs
  • What C’s really want to do is bring fulfillment via work to the poorest
    • Doing > having, Brooks’ personal experiences in India where the poor but busy are happy, and the classic study of Marienthal, Austria where the rich but bored (factory town where the factory closed) drifted into depression, etc.
    • Handouts undermine the pursuit of happiness/self-actualization, an unalienable right – as per the Constitution

Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and an unlikely conservative; I found it interesting that the author establishes himself as an unlikely conservative. Dropping out of college to pursue music, Brooks took ten years off the ‘normal’ Academic track to play the French horn in Europe. Finally deciding to come back, aged 28, and to start a degree entirely by correspondence, Brooks developed an interest in economics, which convinced him that market forces tend to win and that government programs are often built to fail. His ‘hippie’ friends were shocked. This however, is not sufficient to make an argument for Conservatism – a proponent’s credential should not affect the strength of his or her argument (although this is something we consistently see Milo Yiannopoulos use to his advantage).

Despite this, Brooks makes a strong, convincing case for Conservatism. He argues that traditional Conservative values such as free enterprise and global leadership are what have contributed to both America’s economic success and a reduction in global poverty. His strongest argument, however, lies in proposing that work is what gives people dignity and fulfillment. Quoting the ‘unalienable rights’ clause in the Declaration of Independence, Brooks argues that though government handouts may provide life and liberty, they undermine one’s pursuit of happiness. Brooks also addresses the possible counterargument that free enterprise and markets lead to materialistic pursuits. To combat this, he suggests understanding the means-ends distinction: that money should be used as a means to collect experiences and not an end in itself. 

Brooks continues exploring what makes people happy, quoting evidence that shows that America’s poorest are the least like to marry, go to church, have good families, or work – what he terms “the four pillars of happiness.” And when he praises Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, a welfare reform act steeped in traditional conservative values (“less pay outs, more pay checks” kind of thing), which in 10 years reduced welfare rolls from 12.2m to 4.5m, he cites a study that found that single mothers self-reported happiness improved substantially thanks to this welfare reform. (What about other demographics though?)

Anecdotal evidence ensues. Brooks visits ex-cons who’ve been given a second chance by the Doe Fund, which rehabilitates ex-cons (at a very high success rate) by keeping them clean and giving them a job. Counter-intuitively, these men find self-actualization in roles one might consider unable to provide such a thing, i.e. being a janitor.  In their words, being considered productive member of society once again is what inspires them and gives them hope. More erudite analysis would suggest that would gainful employment does for such ex-cons is reverse the ‘learned helplessness’ they developed having living a life (usually) of poverty and crime. He then describes experiences he had in India where he observed the poorest of the poor revel in their work, and contrasts this with the academic study of Marienthal, Austria, an affluent factory town whose residents fell into a kind of depression when the factory closed – despite their sustained material wealth. 

Having recently read Hillbilly Elegy, a book by J.D. Vance that via a memoir style of writing explains what’s going on in poor, white America, The Conservative Heart struck a note with me. Vance made it clear that joblessness is a serious problem that leads to many chronic societally-adverse outcomes (joblessness->poverty->domestic violence->lack of education->joblessness, etc.); the Conservative Heart corroborates this, but the possible bias of the author must be considered.

Brooks ends his book with a 7-point plan for proselytizing conservatives:

  1. Be a moralist
  2. Fight for people, not against things
  3. Get happy
  4. Steal all the best arguments
  5. Go where you’re not welcome
  6. Say it in 30 seconds
  7. Break your bad habits

Most of these are self-explanatory, but I found the first point interesting. Brooks argues that Conservatives need to take the moral high ground in the political arena. Combining anecdotal evidence and certain studies, Brooks has built a reasonable position to suggest that this is feasibly not BS, i.e. that Conservatism can provide self-actualization where ill-managed handouts cannot.