This article was originally published in the News & Observer of Raleigh.
Conservatives can win — but only if they understand that winning the debate means understanding that the real clash “is a moral fight, not an economic disagreement.”
That was the lesson Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, proclaimed recently at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Raleigh.
He pointed out how conservatives generally lose an argument. Conservatives tend to focus on GDP growth rates, employment figures and other such statistics. Then a liberal fires back: “I know a woman and her young daughter who are living in their car. Why don’t you love them?'”
Bang — the conservatives have just lost the argument. That’s because, Brooks says, social science research shows that morality is more important to people than rationalism and materialism. Conservatives can win the debate only if they make the moral case for free enterprise.
How do they do that? First, moral issues rouse emotion. Therefore conservatives must be passionate about the nation’s ongoing economic tragedy. They must express their outrage at the plight of the homeless mom and her girl, and at the millions of people who aren’t getting the opportunity to succeed. Conservatives believe that a free society provides opportunities for everyone. Unemployment is more than an unfortunate statistic — it’s a tragedy to the out-of-work individual and his family, and conservatives must make that utterly clear.
Then conservatives need to turn the nation’s attention to those who are accomplices in this economic crime. For isn’t it amazing that the bureaucrats still have their jobs, the political hacks still get their paychecks and pensions, the well-connected Wall Streeters are still raking in their bonuses, and the professors still have their tenured positions?
Conservatives must highlight the inherent injustice of this Solyndra economy. The statists say they’re going to help people. But too often they siphon off that money to themselves. Conservatives need to denounce that corruption loud and clear.
Moreover, paternalistic liberalism teaches people to be helpless; free enterprise teaches them about earned success. Research proves that earned success is the true key to contentment, Brooks said. “The free enterprise system is not a wealth system. It is a happiness system.”
That’s what conservatives ought to be saying: We are fighting for real happiness; we are fighting for a way of life that lets everyone truly earn, and thus truly enjoy, whatever success they have.
And the reality is that free enterprise benefits more people than any other system. Just in the last few decades, Brooks noted, free enterprise has lifted billions of people out of abject poverty. That’s real justice, as opposed to government throwing a few dollars to those who are down on their luck. Conservatives must make the moral case that free enterprise is not about the fabled 1 percent; it’s about providing the best chance for real success and genuine happiness for 100 percent of the people.
Finally, the free enterprise system is the one that most respects human dignity. Free enterprise sees men and women not as helpless, hopeless objects of pity, but of capable people who can achieve their goals. So conservatives must turn the focus to how under this system all kinds of people can thrive.
For instance, consider recent news reports about a real mother and daughter, Annette Giacomazzi and her daughter Elli. The girl suffers from Brittle Bone Disease. To comfort her after a broken arm, Annette made some bright, colorful covers for the cast. Annette said, “Elli was starting to get quite a few compliments at school and suddenly it hit me — this was a business!”
Her venture, CastCoverZ!, now provides products that benefit thousands of people. Not everyone wants to or needs to start a business. But only under free enterprise can people truly be free to pursue their own happiness.
That’s why it is the system that can provide the best way for that mother and daughter to stop living in their car, find a home and live fruitful lives. When conservatives really take that to heart, and set aside the pie charts and spreadsheets, then they start winning the debate.
Jim Tynen is the communications director for the John W. Pope Civitas Institute in Raleigh.