I wanted to share an anecdote that Arthur Brooks told at his AEI presentation for The Road to Freedom that did not make it into the book.
Brooks argues in his book that advocates for limited government have been trapped into making a 'materialistic' case. He writes that "free enterprise is a matter of the heart even more than the head" and that conservatives aren't doing a good enough job of making emotional appeals that win arguments.
Specifically, Brooks thinks that conservatives need better arguments to win at Thanksgiving (roughly around nine minutes into his speech):
"Maybe you're like me, maybe you're the only conservative in your family. Like me. And at Thanksgiving time, its always really kind of rough. And you're around the Thanksgiving table and people will always turn to you and say 'hey Capitalist guy, defend the free market system after the 2008 financial collapse.'
Not so great right? You say: Whoa! It wasn't free enterprise that was at fault, exactly the opposite!
It was the statist system that grew and grew, too much regulation and a housing market that was blown up by poor government policy. Furthermore, it instantiated corporate cronyism that required all these bailouts.
You know what we need? We need to get out of the way of entrepreneurs, we need to lower corporate tax rates. Did you know that the American corporate tax rate is the highest in the OECD?
It feels really good, you got all the facts. Nothing wrong with that argument.
But then your sister-in-law says, 'well you know, I think you just want to give bailouts and tax breaks to millionaires. And you know what else? I met a little girl who lives with her mother in a car. And free enterprise isn't so good for her.
I lose. I lost that argument. It doesn't matter that this is platitudes and anecdotes that I am up against. I lost that argument, because I was making a cold materialistic case and it was going head to head against a hot moral case."
This isn't a new problem. The idea that conservatives resist sentimental temptations while liberals give in to their emotional concerns is an old stereotype. It is sometimes true as well, consider the recent blog post we had about why the NATO protestors were misguided.
It is a bit surprising to hear Brooks' argue that conservatives don't use moral arguments enough. This is not a problem for conservative politicians. Conservative politicians use moral arguments all the time:
This shadow hangs over young people, who face a struggling economy and the rising probability of greater turmoil ahead. More than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in this economy.
This shadow hangs over seniors, who have been lied to about their retirement security.
And it hangs over parents. We wonder if we will be the first generation in American history to leave our children with fewer opportunities and a less prosperous nation than the one we inherited.
—Paul Ryan's 2012 Whittington Lecture, Georgetown University
“This is a moral discussion we’ve having in this country, because we‘re talking about what we’re going to leave for our children and grandchildren,” West said, going on to share his feelings about American liberals. ”I feel sorry for them because for whatever reason they don’t know the essence of the greatness of the United States of America.”
—Allen West's 2012 Lincoln Day Dinner Speech
"The American people woke up. It’s not difficult to understand that this legislation, taxation and deficit spending can only harm our country in the long run. Every American today owes $40,000 toward the national debt. Every child born owes that amount as well, and the number rises every day. The generational theft currently being perpetrated by big spenders in Washington, D.C. and by the Democratic Party is simply immoral and won’t be tolerated. Shame on Congress for failing to represent their constituents and engaging in a spending binge while everyday Americans are cutting back."
—A College Republicans letter to the Michigan Daily.
"We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in.”
—Mitt Romney, in a speech that is the main focus of a campaign ad, entitled "Moral Responsibility"
So why has Brooks written a book about making moral arguments when conservatives already make moral arguments and are able to win elections with them? (The House swung into the GOP column largely because of the strength of Tea Party moral arguments about spending and debt.)
Who is Brooks' real target audience? I don't think its politicians, though I suspect they appreciate his effort. I think he is targeting policy wonks, and data-minded individuals.
Moral arguments add power, but is Brooks trying to argue that moral arguments need to be made because he wants the extra oomph that morality can bring? Or because his data-based arguments are more lacking then he wants to admit?