Paul Mero: At the heart of social and political disintegration is the plight of our poor

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk near the newly fenced off area along Rio Grande St. in Salt Lake on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

In writing “faced with the prospect of a return to barbarism,” Harvard scholar Christopher Dawson implored all of western civilization to “preserve every existing breakwater against this flood” by maintaining “islands of civilization” through the “virtues of justice and goodwill, the virtues of truth and patience, above all the virtue of prudence ... the truly rational and practical state of mind.” To not heed this counsel or abrogate this responsibility, Dawson believed, would sacrifice the just and good society to social and political disintegration.

Dawson wrote those words in 1946. His prescient instruction is ever more relevant today. America is coming apart, socially and politically.

At the heart of social and political disintegration is the plight of our poor, uneducated and disenfranchised neighbors. There is no faster way to condemn lasting civilization than by ignoring the poor, the needy and the voiceless. Sooner or later such inattention will come back to bite the ruling elite, regardless of party or position.

Conservative thinkers have been trained to view general prosperity as the antidote to social and political discontent. And with good reason. Capitalism has lifted the standard of living for billions of people worldwide. Practically applied, it benefits a majority of people. As an economic theory, it has its merits. As humane policy, addressing the dignity, value and worth of every person, it often misses the mark.

Many conservative thinkers forget that, as economist Wihlem Roepke argued, free markets need social and moral frameworks to achieve their highest purposes. If conservative thinkers truly cherish freedom for all people, we must value justice, human dignity and the common good as much (or more) as we value free markets and personal responsibility.

Utah can and should become an island of civilization existing as a breakwater against the tide of “barbarism” that seems to have hold on America today in the form of social and political angst, anger, fear and scapegoating. Our leadership begins by perfecting our conservative paradigm about the poor. Conservatives need to stop fighting against things and start fighting for people.

What if, instead of seeing the poor as “them,” we saw the poor as “us”? What if, instead of judging or stigmatizing a struggling student in a struggling school as an isolated case of personal failure, we saw that student and school as our student and our school? Instead of seeing women’s economic issues as a peculiar set of individual circumstances, what if we saw these issues equal to every other economic concern? What if we viewed the public safety net as if we, personally, would have to rely on it?

Would these different perspectives change not only our understanding of these important issues but also our willingness to be open to new policy ideas? Of course they would.

For Utah to become an island of civilization in a rapidly disintegrating and fractured America, we must build a transcendent political culture — a culture in which Utahns see others as ourselves; a culture full of constructive dialogue and sound public policy; a culture that prioritizes the common good over individual or special interests; and, a culture of inclusivity and connectedness.

A transcendent political culture can best be achieved through a strategic focus on Utah’s poor and needy. Utah society and politics are redeemed through seeing those in need, helping to meet those needs and helping them flourish independently. The hard work — the redeeming work — of truly becoming a transcendent culture rests upon the degree to which conservatives in this state work toward having “no poor among them.”

Conservatives should own every humane public policy in Utah. We should lead the way. A legacy of authentic conservatism should be the champion of the people. If true conservatism is about anything it is about justice, prosperity, quality of life and human happiness — applied prudently and effectively for all.

Paul T. Mero

Paul Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund.