The Economy Is a Moral Issue

Posted: May 11, 2012 12:01 AM
The Economy Is a Moral Issue

Rick Santorum endorses Mitt Romney, the man he once described as the "worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama." The presumptive nominee impressed the former senator from Pennsylvania with his "deep understanding" of the connection between social and economic issues.

If the endorsement was neither surprising nor resounding, it's probably good enough to begin uniting the social conservatives for a tough campaign ahead. A thermometer stuck into the bubble of rhetoric over Santorum's head would reveal the air as pretty tepid, but the white-hot anger that drove the Santorum campaign was gone.

Santorum said his meeting with Romney cleared the air and persuaded him that the governor would work hard to overturn Obamacare if the Supreme Court does not. He was persuaded that Romney economic policy would preserve and strengthen the family. The two men not only agreed to oppose abortion and gay marriage, but to work to lower taxes, reduce the national debt and make government smaller.

This was not earthshaking news, but it goes to the heart of what's expected from conservatives in November -- to make the moral link between economic and social issues, which would unite Republicans, not splinter them. The Santorum rhetoric has often spilled over the top, especially when he talked about birth control and the separation of church and state, and mocked the value of a college education for young people from blue-collar families. But on the economy, the issue essential to attracting independents, the two have much in common.

No matter how it's stated, the issue most on the minds of most American voters is the economy -- and lack of jobs. Even the stupid, in the famous campaign formulation, should see that. The case for growth is fundamentally a moral debate that goes to the heart of what we think is right and wrong. Arguments over moral positions evoke the culture wars of the 1990s and often focus on parochial, social issues, but Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, makes a strong case to Republicans for framing economic policy as a conservative moral issue, one that goes to the nation's roots in individual freedoms and free enterprise.

In his new book, "The Road to Freedom," he argues that it's a mistake for conservatives promoting an economic agenda to make a narrow defense of efficiency and material wealth. Instead, he says, conservatives should appeal to the ideals and virtues inherent in "earned success," in the individual accomplishment, equality of opportunity and necessary fairness that is required to make the system work.

We don't live in a perfect world, but individual liberty and personal responsibility, crucial to free enterprise, have the force to make lives better for everyone. Breaking down barriers to entrepreneurship, which generates jobs, is one of the most important economic moral imperatives.

The recession identified blame and exposed the greed and corruption of those who benefitted from the housing bubble, who received big bonuses on Wall Street and the corporations bailed out by the rest of us, but Brooks reminds us that the same free enterprise that can run amok can also make us more socially responsible.

America remains a generous nation; charitable donations add up to about $300 billion annually, with 75 percent of that contributed by ordinary men and women. No other nation comes close to matching those numbers. Those who believe in, and work in, the free enterprise system give considerably more than those who don't.

While illegal immigration gets our attention, we ignore the destructive immigration policy that expels talented foreign students who earn degrees here and then are sent home when their visas expire. Recent research concludes that for every immigrant we educate in science, technology and mathematics or engineering, the nation can expect the return of two new jobs for other Americans.

Brooks offers hard proposals from a moral base, such as entitlement reductions, major changes in Social Security, including raising the age of eligibility, means-testing and changing the formula for raising benefits based on wage inflation. If debt is a moral issue at the individual level, it is also one at the national level, because debt steals from future generations.

"The Road to Freedom" may be more Bible than blueprint for economic reform, but it can start a necessary debate over changing the way we discuss economic reform. Liberals want more stimulus, higher taxes and still more borrowing. Conservatives want tax reform, less government spending and fewer obstacles to entrepreneurs. Conservatives have the facts and data, but they must add the moral dimension. We "grow" the economy, or we "grow" the bureaucracy. It's as simple as that.