THE CONSERVATIVE HEART: How We Have Changed the World—But Can’t Seem to Get Our Footing
I remember the first time I saw real poverty. It was the early 1970s, so I would have been seven or eight years old. Flipping through a copy of National Geographic magazine, I found a heartbreaking photo. It showed a malnourished African boy, about my own age, with flies on his face and a distended belly.
I had never seen poverty like that before. True, by today’s standards, my childhood neighborhood in Seattle would be considered pretty austere. As far as I know, my parents were the only ones in our working-class neighborhood with a college education. Some of our neighbors relied on food stamps. Most of the families were headed by a single parent. But compared to that photo in National Geographic, my neighborhood seemed like Beverly Hills.
The tragic image provoked two sensations in me. The first was helplessness. There was really nothing I could do for the boy, besides offering up some prayers or maybe sending my allowance to UNICEF. Even as a little kid, I grasped that anything I could personally do would be inadequate.
After helplessness came indignation. It was not fair that I was well fed and loved in my home in Seattle while that boy was starving to death in Africa through absolutely no fault of his own.
Of course, poverty didn’t just affect children in Africa. I was born on May 21, 1964, one day before President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his famous speech announcing the Great Society. As I would learn later, it was a time of growing awareness of the crushing poverty that existed in places like Appalachia and Mississippi, as well as America’s cities. We were recognizing that the poverty in our midst was an affront to our sense of fairness, and to the principle that everyone in America deserves a fair shot and a square deal. Was our domestic poverty less severe than that in Africa and India? Sure. But any poverty in a great nation like ours was a problem we had to solve.
I grew up, went to school, found a job, and started a family. But that image of the boy from National Geographic stayed with me. Not infrequently, I would look back and wonder, what happened to that boy? Of course, there is no way to know his specific fate. But more generally, I wondered, what happened to desperately poor people like him? Was life better or worse?
We know the answer. Poverty still exists around the world, of course. But on the whole, it has fallen dramatically since I was a kid. Consider the circumstances of the world’s poorest people— those who live on a dollar a day or less, which is a traditional measure of starvation-level poverty. This percentage has fallen by 80 percent since 1970, adjusted for inflation.1 When I was a child, more than one in four people around the world lived on that amount or less. Today, only about one in twenty live on that little. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history.
So how did this remarkable transformation come to pass? Was it the fabulous success of the United Nations? The generosity of U.S. foreign aid? The brilliant policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank? Stimulus spending and government redistribution?
No, it was primarily none of those things. Billions of souls around the world have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to five incredible innovations: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship. And by the way, in places like East Asia, these five things were all made possible by the historic peace after World War II that resulted from America’s global diplomatic and military presence.
Back when I was a kid, when we Americans saw the world’s poor, they saw us, too. We saw their poverty; they saw our freedom and our prosperity. They threw off the chains of poverty and tyranny by copying our American ways. It was the free enterprise system that not only attracted millions of the world’s poor to our shores and gave them lives of dignity, but also empowered billions more worldwide to pull themselves out of poverty.
The ideals of free enterprise and global leadership, central to American conservatism, are responsible for the greatest reduction in human misery since mankind began its long climb from the swamp to the stars. This remarkable progress has been America’s gift to the world.
But what about poverty right here at home? Paradoxically, here we have less reason to celebrate. To be sure, poor Americans have made material advances since I was a boy, like the rest of society. And in absolute terms, the American poor live more comfortably than poor people in the developing world. But relatively speaking, our progress in defeating poverty has been utterly substandard. While our values have been beating back poverty around the globe, the poverty rate here in America remains virtually unchanged since Lyndon Johnson’s day. While American-style free enterprise has radically reduced poverty around the world, our own progress against domestic poverty has ground to a halt.
Even more paradoxically, it is precisely the loudest champions of free enterprise—the heroes of poverty relief in the developing world—who the public trusts the least to fight for struggling people here at home. Conservatives have the most effective solutions for human flourishing in our intellectual DNA. 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.