Commentary Magazine

Conservatives and Social Justice

To the Editor:

On reading the title of Arthur C. Brooks’s piece, “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers” [February], I thought it was wonderful that a conservative was going to address the need, both practical and moral, to affirmatively work to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Unfortunately, the article offers more of the same distortion and avoidance that’s typical of the conservative approach to the question of social justice in America.

Mr. Brooks starts out by blaming President Obama for the growing disparity in wealth and income since he took office, and for the increase in food-stamp enrollment and the decrease in labor-force participation; he attributes these to the president’s “progressive agenda.” Nowhere does Mr. Brooks acknowledge either the dire condition of the economy when Mr. Obama took office or the unprecedented obstruction of congressional Republicans preventing him from pursuing his initiatives.

Despite this obstruction, Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were able to enact the initial economic stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act. In a vain attempt to secure bipartisan support, the president watered down the stimulus by dedicating roughly 40 percent of the program to tax cuts long advocated by Republicans. The stimulus was still a major success in helping to prevent the economy’s descent in 2009 and 2010 into a full-bore replay of the Great Depression.

Mr. Brooks predicts that, if “left unchecked,” the ACA’s costs will crowd out other parts of the safety net. He accuses it of failing to achieve its stated goal of universal coverage by excluding 8 million low-income Americans. In making his cost prediction (on what basis we have no idea), he contradicts both the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation in their projections that the ACA and its associated initiatives will, on balance, “reduce budget deficits” over the next two decades. And he compounds this by failing to note that 8 million needy Americans will be left without coverage because of the intransigence of Republican governors and state legislatures, callously refusing to participate in the Medicaid-expansion component of the ACA.

Of course, this is par for the course in the conservative disinformation campaign, as reflected in Mr. Brooks’s essay. He engages in the typical conservative tactic of “blame the victim,” by noting the disproportionate prevalence of social pathologies among the poor while failing to acknowledge that these pathologies may be the manifestation of their poverty more than its cause. He uses the scare tactic of noting the precipitous cut in social spending as a part of Greece’s austerity program without noting that fiscal austerity is just what his conservative brethren advocate for the United States. Indeed, he says that “austerity always and everywhere hurts the poor the most, by wakening the economy and shredding the real safety net.” And yet, he has written glowingly of Paul Ryan’s approach to slashing the social-safety net, which cuts taxes and slashes entitlement spending.

Mr. Brooks goes on to suggest that “conservatives focus on the main source of misery in America’s present stagnation: our dysfunctional labor market.” He notes “that the wealthiest American workers have already recovered to full employment…[n]ot so the working poor, whose persistent double-digit unemployment rate is reminiscent of the Great Depression’s.” But instead of reflecting on what this tells us about our economy, Mr. Brooks attacks the president’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage. He focuses on only one aspect of the twin challenges facing our country—the lack of jobs for working-class and poor Americans, glossing over the equally challenging reality of stagnant and inadequate wages in what jobs there are for them. Because he ignores these other facts, it’s easy to make the case that raising the minimum wage would be counterproductive. It’s also easy to then suggest that the solution to this problem lies in cutting the minimum wage, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and providing direct wage subsidies for the working poor. But let’s recognize this for what it is: a disguised way for the government to subsidize employers for paying below-subsistence wages, and at a time when corporate profits are at historic heights.

The long-term solutions to our problems—both economic and social—lie in redressing the imbalance between capital and labor. We need to empower workers to share more equitably in the fruits of their labor. We need to tax capital income more fairly (by eliminating its favored position relative to wage income). We need to encourage investors to redirect their investments into the real economy by discouraging the wasteful, short-term trading in dangerous, non-productive, and opaque financial instruments that dominate our capital markets today. And we need also to reverse the trend of the last several decades and significantly expand public investment in infrastructure and education. Together, these steps would create additional jobs, including most particularly the kinds that pay a living wage, and they would also increase the competitiveness and productivity of our workforce and of our economy as a whole.

Christopher Lowery
Manhasset, New York

To the Editor:

This self-identified liberal found much to praise in Arthur C. Brooks’s essay. I have one question about the minimum-wage strategy he proposes. Mr. Brooks writes: “But wouldn’t this policy leave workers with too little to get by? Not in the forms that any serious conservative has proposed. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or, better yet, crafting more straightforward wage subsidies for the working poor would support poor families’ budgets without making them costlier to employ. Either approach would strengthen work incentives rather than undermine them.”

Isn’t the danger of this approach that we end up with employers of low-skilled workers (Walmart comes to mind) being indirectly subsidized by the government? The relentless quest for increased shareholder value would dictate that.

Terry Harms
San Mateo, California

To the Editor:

Arthur C. Books is right to assert that we should obey the biblical command to open our hand widely to our brother, to our poor, and to the needy in our land. To do so is an act of compassion, and Americans are renowned for giving more freely to charity than others do.

But Mr. Brooks makes a mistake in describing this private compassion under the rubric of “social justice.” The term “social justice,” in its contemporary usage, is used principally by the political left to justify the forcible redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and other coercive devices of the state. This process of compulsory redistribution has nothing to do with justice.

The classic definition of justice by Justinian is to live honestly, not to harm others, and to give to each person his due. Today’s “progressives” argue that our society is unjust because it tolerates great disparities of wealth. Of course, if someone’s wealth is gained by dishonesty, theft, or fraud, it has been unjustly acquired and he should be punished. But if he has acquired it lawfully, as most wealthy Americans have, it is not held unjustly. As Thomas Patrick Burke states in his excellent book, The Concept of Justice, “an injustice cannot exist unless someone has done something wrong.”

In a free society, disparities of wealth are inevitable because people differ in their degrees of motivation, diligence, intelligence, and other useful attributes (including luck). We should celebrate rather than condemn the success of those who get ahead using their natural talents.

Mr. Brooks makes some very good suggestions in his article, in particular his discussion of the “transformational values” of faith, family, community, and work. But he makes a bad category error by describing his program as a “crusade for social justice.” There is no such thing as “conservative social justice.” To use this bizarre phrase is to play the game on the enemy’s turf, where conservatives are unlikely to prevail.

Joseph F. Johnston Jr.
Alexandria, Virginia

To the Editor:

While I respect Arthur C. Brooks, trying to counter the progressives by adopting a “conservative social-justice agenda” is too defensive and forces conservatives to argue on progressives’ terms.

Does anyone even know what “social justice” means? I know that justice is what we as a society should strive for, and I know how difficult it is to define and work toward justice. Inserting the qualifier “social” muddies the water and renders the goal unintelligible. This is exactly what the progressives strive for—a standard that cannot be measured or defined. Thus, progressives will always argue (emotionally) that we have fallen short of the nebulous mark and that we need more punishment of success, more counterproductive spending, more damaging taxes, and more government control.

On the other hand, Mr. Brooks’s point about the destruction of countless lives in Greece due to that country’s progressive utopia is something that we need to alert our fellow Americans to. We have the benefit of the European laboratory to see the results of every program progressives here wish to enact. The results are devastating—12 percent unemployment, 50 percent of 18- to 32-year-olds forced to live with their parents, no economic growth, little innovation, 8-dollars-a-gallon gasoline, utility bills twice as high as the average American utility bill, and large debts. In England, a sixth of all households are 100 percent on the dole.

Conservatives need to convince the American people that we want to save them from the disastrous results that Europeans cannot even dream of escaping. The beauty of the argument is that it is true. It also happens to be virtuous and compassionate.

Josh Baker
Birmingham, Michigan

To the Editor:

Arthur C. Brooks’s essay is truly outstanding. It describes ideas that are important for many of us, including the compassionate conservatism championed by President George W. Bush. The author mentions that these ideas are also compatible with the ideas of Friedrich Hayek.

Mr. Brooks states, accurately, that the first pillar of this action program is “personal moral transformation.” In his book Who Are We? the late Samuel Huntington wrote that at least until 1960 the American creed was essentially the “Anglo-Protestant creed” brought to this country by the pilgrims, Puritans, and other early settlers. It is clear that this is no longer the case.

The Founders of our country, including Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, believed that for a representative democratic republic such as they had created to succeed its population must be moral, religious, and industrious. So we once were, with all our imperfections, and so we need to become again.

G. Richard Jansen
Fort Collins, Colorado

Arthur C. Brooks writes:

It is a rare privilege for a scholar to find readers who carefully and critically consider his arguments. My thanks to those who wrote letters in response to my essay. The comments are both interesting and intelligent.

Christopher Lowery is skeptical that free enterprise will remedy our economic ills. He proposes regulatory crackdowns and pouring more money into “shovel-ready” stimulus. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these policies would effectively deliver either short-term relief or long-run prosperity.

Prudent regulations build important guardrails around economic activity, and genuinely necessary infrastructure projects provide a helpful foundation for a strong economy, but modern post-Keynesian macroeconomic research (see the work of my colleague Kevin Hassett) has shown that neither is a driving force behind long-term growth per se.

Both Mr. Lowery and Terry Harms ask whether an expanded EITC or wage subsidy would effectively use taxpayer money to cut businesses’ bottom lines. This is a reasonable question. The core issue here is straightforward: Our society believes that everyone who works full-time should be able to support himself, but some of the jobs available to low-skilled Americans don’t pay enough to make this possible. As a matter of social policy, we can do one of two things in response: Let labor markets function normally and supplement low-skilled workers’ natural wages with public assistance, or force the social benefit indirectly through the private sector by setting an arbitrary price floor for labor.

To a low-wage worker who stays employed, the financial impact of these approaches would look very similar. But remember that increasing the price that businesses pay for labor will reduce the quantity of labor demanded. A wage floor that makes low-skilled employees artificially costly will destroy job opportunities for the most vulnerable Americans. By contrast, the wage supports that conservative reformers favor do not have this negative effect. They create a subsidy that is divided between firms and workers, and maximize low-skilled employment rather than reducing it.

Joseph F. Johnston Jr. and Josh Baker are dubious of my claiming “social justice” for conservatives. Mr. Johnston suggests that the concept is inherently at odds with economic liberty. Leaving aside my own views on what societies owe their poor, I will simply note that free enterprise is the most effective tool ever discovered for improving the lot of vulnerable people and achieving a host of objectives more commonly associated with the left. Free-enterprise policies fulfill most progressives’ moral goals better than their own policies do. We should use all the tools at our disposal to trumpet this remarkable fact, including language that may not come naturally to the right.

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