Do Conservatives Really Care about the Poor?

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks has a new book out this week, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. In the past, Brooks has expressed concern that a large portion of the American public doesn’t believe that conservatives (and libertarians) have much of a heart—that they don’t care much about the problems of the poor and disadvantaged. He has made countering this impression a major part of AEI’s mission, sponsoring events like AEI’s “Vision Talks,” in particular this one from last June, titled “A Conservative Vision for Social Justice,” which featured Brooks himself as well as former New York City social services guru Robert Doar and Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle.

In the book, Brooks observes that the spread of the institutions of free market capitalism has been consistent with dramatic reductions in poverty around the world—the percentage of people living in “starvation-level” poverty, for example, had declined 80 percent since 1970. And he names the five institutions that he thinks have been most important: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship. With this history of increasing prosperity, one would think that a capitalist economic system would be pretty popular among advocates for the poor. But, of course, Brooks reminds us of the paradoxical reality that we see today.

…it is precisely the loudest champions of free enterprise—the heroes of poverty relief in the developing world—who the public trusts least to fight for struggling people here at home. Conservatives have the most effective solutions for human flourishing in our intellectual DNA. Our ideas have lifted up people all over the world. But the American people do not trust us to put those principles into practice to help those who need help right here.

So why the paradox? If a free economy does so much good for so many people, why are advocates for capitalism so often on the defensive? For Brooks, the primary reason comes down to a communications failure: “The defenders of free enterprise have done a terrible job of telling people how much good the system has done around the world.” He points out that conservatives themselves often focus on dry issues like deficits, taxes, and budgets, while those of the political left—despite the repeated failure of their policies—continually insist that they’re primarily dedicated to improving the well-being of the poor and vulnerable.

That rhetoric matters in American politics. As the old saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It might not be the first impulse of many conservatives and libertarians to incorporate such touch-feely language into their discussions of public policy, but if they leave such appeals out entirely, their message will simply get tuned out by a significant portion of the public—and the electorate.