Commentary Magazine


Justice, Politics and the Poor

In an important Wall Street Journal op-ed, Arthur Brooks point out that fairly or not, “over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.” This is a problem, according to the American Enterprise Institute president, because:

Citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

Mr. Brooks, with whom I co-authored a monograph on the morality of democratic capitalism, lays out the case for how conservatives can make improving the lives of vulnerable people a primary focus. (The main reason to do so, Brooks makes clear, is that it’s the right thing to do.)

As it happens, I’m reading a book by Tim Keller, Generous Justice, in which he makes the case for promoting justice and compassion from the vantage point of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Keller points out that God gives the poor and downtrodden particular attention and has a special place in His heart for them. The Lord has a “zeal for justice” that binds Him to the socially weak, the dispossessed, and those living in the shadows of society.

Dr. Keller focuses on why a just society should care about the poor and reflect God’s concern for justice; he wisely doesn’t interject himself into our contentious political debates. But Keller’s argument does have political implications, since the case for “generous justice” (which includes a commitment to care for the poor) is based on the nature of the human person and their intrinsic worth. And those issues are central to political theory.

I understand that politics involves a balancing act and prioritization. There are obviously many issues that cry out for attention. Still, it seems to me that any political philosophy or party that doesn’t take into account the care and concerns of the weak and marginal is morally desiccated and hardly worthy of one’s allegiance. At the risk of sounding simplistic, what matters to God ought to matter to us, not for reasons having to do with arbitrary and outdated doctrines but with our basic design. The child in inner city Detroit and sub-Saharan Africa have worth because God has bestowed worth on them, as on us; because they and we are created in His image and likeness.

Now precisely how solidarity with the poor works itself out in public policy is a complicated matter involving prudential judgments. But that a society should care about the poor really is not.