Three people do not a mass movement make. But when the three are the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, the renowned scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), it is enough or should be enough of a trend to make conservatives perk up. Each in their own way is making the case that conservatism has become too aseptic, too abstract and too divorced from the real lives of real people.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

On Friday I wrote: “One other note: ‘Economic mobility’ is an abstraction; people are real. Republicans must remember that the reason they favor economic mobility is because they care about the people it will help. Republicans recoil against the language of empathy because they imagine it goes hand in hand with the expansion of the welfare state. But that is conceding the playing field to the left. Republicans need to construct their own message of compassion tied to effective policy (not the fuzzy sanctimony of noble intentions) and apply it to real Americans in all walks of life. And yes, that will eventually entail treating illegal immigration with a mix of compassion and realism, acknowledging there is no way we are going to deport millions of people.” That perspective, or a readjustment in perspective, is now beginning to catch on, or at least we should hope it does. 

In my talk with Brooks at the end of 2012 he explained that conservatives must recapture the fairness argument and reaffirm, “There is a better reason we are in the ideas game. We believe in people.” He argued that until conservatives recapture the “fairness” argument they will be at odds with the American electorate.

Ryan echoed a similar theme at the Jack Kemp dinner, “We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life – one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children. This vision leaves behind the failures of the past. It seeks instead to build on those reforms that have worked. It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another. It calls for a stronger safety net – one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance. It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system.”

Conservatives recoiled at the term compassionate conservatism because they were offended that regular ole conservatism was being labeled uncompassionate. But that is a failure of their own making, an accountant style of conservatism that speaks as if free markets and not people are the objects of affection. Free markets are a vehicle, not an end in itself to the emancipation of individuals and to their self-expression. 

Now comes along Himmelfarb (actually she has been turning out brilliant scholarship for decades) to wrap it up in a bow and present it to a movement surely in need of some scene setting: “Above all, what conservatives can do, and what Ryan and others are now trying to do, is to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it. Properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), compassion is a preeminently conservative virtue. It dignifies the individual (the donor of charity as well as the recipient); it thrives in a free and sound economy where the individual can “better himself”; it nurtures a spirit of independence rather than fostering the dependency that is too often the result of misguided entitlements; and it finds expression and fulfillment in civil society more often than in government. This is not to deny the validity or utility of safety nets and entitlements in principle, only to define and limit them in practice. Nor is it to deny any role to government, only, again, to define that role more precisely and to limit it more severely. “

After all, conservatism is a political theory, or more properly, a disposition, not pure economics or quantum mechanics. Unless grounded substantively and rhetorically in the needs and aspirations of real people it becomes sterile and irrelevant. Why do conservatives want to reform entitlements? Not merely to balance the books or return to “limited government” but to preserve opportunity for ourselves and our children, allow a thriving economy that provides jobs (and the dignity and prosperity that go with employment) and maintain a strong safety net for those who cannot take care of themselves. Alas, that is not the language you hear from most conservatives.

It is heartening to see Ryan embrace this perspective because, among the most capable leaders of a party and movement, he is well situated to unify a movement at war with itself and in need of experienced leaders who nevertheless have remained rooted in life outside Washington. He possesses qualities essential to leadership — impeccable character, an analytic mind and useful experience. But he, like the movement and party pining for leadership, must evince sunny optimism and a largeness of spirit, broaden and expand his appeal, learn to connect on a visceral level, and make conservatism compassionate once again. 

As Himmelfarb reminds us the father of market economics, Adam Smith, was at heart a moralist. 

The rhetoric of The Wealth of Nations is even more overtly moral. Smith was a professor of moral philosophy before he became a political economist, so that the rhetoric of morality came naturally to him. . . . The compassion that Smith found in human nature exhibited itself not only in individual acts of charity but in a proliferation of “societies” (Tocqueville was to call them “associations”) to alleviate every kind of affliction and misfortune. 

Modern conservatism should adopt the counsel of Brooks, Ryan and Himmelfarb (sounds like a law firm, huh?) or become a 20th-century relic.