Who owns the term “social justice,” conservatives or progressives?
Nevada’s progressives desperately hope you say they do. They’ve built their entire 2014 campaign around a slew of traditional social justice issues: the minimum wage, entitlements and more taxes on the wealthy. Their argument is simple: Their social justice policies will make a dent in the state’s 16.4 percent poverty rate and make the economy more fair. It’s the right thing to do.
Not so fast. It stands to reason that President Barack Obama’s five-plus years in office would back up the left’s claims. After all, he has promoted more social justice policies than perhaps any president since LBJ or FDR. Surely his actions would have borne some fruit for America’s neediest people.
It hasn’t happened. Since he took office, the wealthy have been the only ones to gain ground. The percentage of Americans in the workforce has fallen to its lowest level since 1970. One in six Americans is now on food stamps. And income inequality has grown — even as the president and his party have tried to stop it.
How could this happen under a “social justice” president?
The simple fact is that intentions don’t equal results. The left’s policies aren’t working — which means it’s time for conservatives to step up to the social justice plate.
Conservatives should start by asking the downtrodden what they need most. In the conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve identified three things critical to reversing poverty: Moral transformation, material relief and opportunity. These are the central components of a real social justice platform.
Personal moral transformation is the most important. To illustrate this point, I used the 2010 General Social Survey — the country’s best sociological database — to identify what makes people happy.
Take the example of two men, identical in age, education, race and income. The first is religious. He’s married with two kids. He also works more and participates in his community more than 90 percent of the rest of the country. The other man meets none of these qualifications.
The first man is nearly 400 percent more likely to be happy.
In other words, real social justice must encourage people to participate in faith, family, community and work. Happiness — and success — are inextricably linked with these moral institutions. But these very things are in decline in most of the country’s marginalized communities — and cultural elites try to discourage reformers from reversing this trend.
Moral transformation goes hand in hand with material relief. No less a libertarian than Friedrich Hayek argued that government should provide “some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing.” No less a liberal than Franklin D. Roosevelt tempered this statement: “continued dependence” on government, he said, is “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
Real social justice strikes the right balance. Welfare must be a safety net, not a hammock. As Washington’s fiscal crisis shows, unlimited entitlements actually threaten the country’s fiscal future. Only fiscally conservative reforms can prevent future austerity cuts that would most endanger the poor.
The final piece of the social justice puzzle is opportunity — the path from welfare to well-being. Opportunity is under attack everywhere you look. Over the past generation, economic mobility has declined by a third. Too many parents don’t know if their children will have better lives than they did.
Real social justice restores the lowest rungs on the opportunity ladder. We need education reforms that serve our children’s’ futures, rather than adults’ job security. We need an economic plan that encourages job creation, rather than hobbling it with regulation and red tape. And we need to let the free enterprise system empower Americans everywhere to match their passions and their skills with their personal and career goals.
Conservatives can speak powerfully to these issues. Transformation, relief, opportunity — we have the principles that form the basis of real social justice policies. Now is the time for the free enterprise movement to reclaim the social justice mantle and give vulnerable Americans the help that they need.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.