Imagine a world without poverty. Isn’t that a worthy enough goal to cause Republicans to team up with Democrats and liberals to join conservatives? Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, urges bipartisan agreement between conservatives and liberals, on the basis that liberals are right to focus on poverty and conservatives are also right in presenting the best way to fight poverty — free market capitalism.
Brooks calls for America to get over its political polarization. He lays out the reasons for it in concrete terms — liberals and conservatives just don’t trust each other. This is “political motive asymmetry”:
That’s what psychologists call the phenomenon of assuming that your ideology is based in love but your opponents’ ideology is based in hate. It’s common in world conflict. You expect to see this between Palestinians and Israelis, for example. … In America today, a majority of Republicans and Democrats suffer from political motive asymmetry. A majority of people in our country today who are politically active believe that they are motivated by love but the other side is motivated by hate.
Looking at today’s fracas on college campuses, it’s hard to disagree with this analysis. Both liberals and conservatives sense that the other side is out to get them, but the real reason for passionate disagreement is more often a focus on ideology. Brooks acknowledges the differences, and warns against minimizing them. Citing psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, Brooks explains that “liberals care about poverty 59 percent more than they care about economic liberty,” while “conservatives care about economic liberty 28 percent more than they care about poverty.”
Next Page: How We Get Republicans and Democrats to Agree — Poverty And Free Markets
But these are far from irreconcilable differences. Brooks explains the best way to target poverty: “Free markets have created more wealth than any system in history. They have lifted billions out of poverty.” You might expect this to come from Ronald Reagan or Milton Friedman, but the quote was actually from President Barack Obama. Now, Obama said this to Brooks, and it may not reflect the president’s true views on economics and wealth, but Brooks quotes the president only to show that even the most committed liberals can acknowledge this truth.
If liberals can acknowledge that free markets are the most powerful way to bring people out of poverty, then conservatives can certainly acknowledge that poverty is a problem we need to address. These may be slight tweaks in ideology, or massive alterations in conservative or liberal thought, but that’s exactly what Brooks argues for:
We need a new day in flexible ideology. We need to be less predictable. … Do you ever feel like you’re always listening to people who agree with you? Why is that dangerous? Because when we talk in this country about economics, on the right, conservatives, you’re always talking about taxes and regulations and big government. And on the left, liberals, your’e talking about economics, it’s always about income inequality. Right?
Now those are important things, really important to me, really important to you. But when it comes to lifting people up who are starving and need us today, those are distractions. We need to come together around the best ways to mitigate poverty using the best tools at our disposal, and that comes only when conservatives recognize that they need liberals and their obsession with poverty, and liberals need conservatives and their obsession with free markets. That’s the diversity in which lies the future strength of this country, if we choose to take it.
Brooks may be accused of some naïveté — after all, a huge part of the Democratic Party is choosing an avowed socialist as the standard bearer of their party — but he is spot on about this.
He notes that, since 1970, the percentage of the world’s people living on a dollar a day or less has declined by 80 percent. “This, my friends, that’s a miracle….It’s the greatest antipoverty achievement in the history of mankind, and it happened in our lifetimes.”
Brooks points out the five reasons why “two billion of our brothers and sisters have been pulled out of poverty since I was a kid. Number one: globalization. Number two: free trade. Number three: property rights. Number four: rule of law. Number five: entrepreneurship. It was the free enterprise system spreading around the world after 1970 that did that.”
He acknowledges that free enterprise isn’t perfect, but it has reduced poverty in concrete terms. It works, and that’s the important thing. Liberals are right to be concerned about poverty, but conservatives are also right to insist on free markets. Together, there is no limit to what that combination can achieve.