AEI President Arthur C. Brooks to Call for Compassionate Conservative Leaders


Arthur C. Brooks, president of the nation’s most prominent conservative think tank and author  of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, grew up a musician and a self-described bohemian liberal in the Democratic metropolis of Seattle.

Then, at age 28, he went to college, got a degree in economics, learned about the power of the free market and the failures of social programs and found out how American democratic capitalism was lifting billions out of poverty around the globe. In short, he became a conservative.

“I didn’t become a fan of free enterprise because I forgot my concern for struggling people,” Brooks wrote in his best-selling The Conservative Heart. “To the contrary, I learned that supposedly ‘conservative’ ideas about markets were actually the best means to achieve the supposedly ‘liberal’ moral goals that were so important to me.”

Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, will speak 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater as part of Week Three’s programming on “Moral Leadership in Action.” The week explores questions such as if all leaders should be moral leaders, what it means to operate for the public good, and what the daily practices and disciplines of the nation’s top moral leaders are.

Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said her department gave Brooks no instructions. They simply told him the week’s theme and asked him to share his thoughts.

“We’ve invited him several times because we appreciate the efforts of the American Enterprise Institute to offer civil, conservative points of view,” Babcock said. “He is perfect for this week because he is a moral leader and studies compassion from a free-market perspective.”

After attending Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey, for his undergrad, Brooks went on to earn a master’s in economics and then a Ph.D. in public policy at the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School. He joined the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, before becoming a professor at Syracuse University and finally, in 2009, president of AEI.

A weekly columnist for The New York Times, Brooks has written against anti-conservatism in academia; how polarization leads to political discrimination; the need for optimists; and how carrying a Mormon suitcase made him more virtuous. He’s written five books in 10 years, and his biggest, The Conservative Heart, came out just last year.

In The Conservative Heart, Brooks calls for conservative politicians to show their compassion. He wants them to emphasize broader aspirations about eroding poverty and helping the poor. He said that much of the country scorns conservatives because they see Republican policies — such as lower taxes on the wealthy and refusing to raise the minimum wage — as greedy programs that help the rich get richer.

The problem, Brooks wrote, is not that conservatives don’t care for the poor. It’s that it is almost impossible to articulate in 30-second soundbites how their proposals use free market economics to lift people out of poverty.

In other words, it’s easy for President Barack Obama to say, “The American people need a raise.” It’s far more difficult, Brooks wrote, to articulate how raising the minimum wage will reduce the number of people who can get a job and feel the dignity of work, and that higher paid workers will make products more expensive for consumers.

Brooks continues to believe in conservatism. He wrote in The Conservative Heart that as a kid he saw an impoverished African boy pictured on the cover of National Geographic, and felt powerless to help him. That image has stuck with him, Brooks wrote, and he knows that American democratic capitalism, the free market, is the only way to help both children like that boy and children in the United States.

Since 1980, the number of people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day has fallen from 1 in 4, to 1 in 20, Brooks wrote, and the globalization of the American system is the reason.

“Conservatives have the most effective solutions for human flourishing in our intellectual DNA,” Brooks wrote. “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.”

Jason Mast

The author Jason Mast

Jason Mast covers the Interfaith Lecture Series, Mystic Heart Program and Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. Northwestern University class of ’18.