How to be a 'bleeding heart conservative'

A Baltimore firefighter attacks a fire at a convenience store and residence during clashes after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland in the early morning hours of April 28, 2015.
Eric Thayer | Reuters
A Baltimore firefighter attacks a fire at a convenience store and residence during clashes after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland in the early morning hours of April 28, 2015.

I wrote earlier this week how cities like Baltimore need a good dose of Jack Kemp-style urban renewal to help reverse decades of government malpractice. But other than invoking the name and philosophy of one of our dear and departed leaders, how else can caring and pragmatic people respond to the riots in Baltimore and stories like it? Most of the battle is changing the way we think. So here is an essential guide to being a "bleeding heart conservative."

It starts with the old joke: "If the black box is indestructible, why don't they just make the whole airplane out of whatever they use to make the black box?" Don't worry science nerds, I know it's not possible to do that based on the laws of physics. More's the pity. But the laws of economics are much more durable when it comes to what works for the free market and the wealth of the people living in a certain neighborhood, city, or country. And we've known for almost 30 years that the Kemp-style empowerment zone policies that relax, reduce, and sometimes flat out erase many taxes and regulations have worked to revive some of the most blighted neighborhoods in America. Remember, empowerment zone programs don't remove all regulations and taxes, they just strip away everything but the most essential workplace rules. So the question is: if we know removing these government barriers works to spur the economy and improve lives even in the roughest areas, why don't we just remove them everywhere?

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This question isn't just a challenge to big government liberals, it's also a new way for conservatives to think about "government aid" or "bailouts." For example, is it still a government bailout if all the government is doing is reversing and easing the pain of the damage it's done to a business or industry over the years?

Let's take the 2008-2009 auto industry bailouts that so many conservatives, including me, continue to question today. I wonder if conservative opposition to that $80 billion rescue package, ($9 billion of which the taxpayers never got back), would have been so stiff if either President Obama or President George W. Bush had presented some data showing how federal taxes, government-imposed union rules, environmental regulations, etc. had taken a heck of a lot more than $90 billion out of GM and Chrysler's profits over just the previous 20 years. Trust me, that kind of data isn't hard to find.

Now let's look at blighted inner city areas like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. How much have government taxes and rules encouraged private industry employers to pack up and leave over the years? How much has the government's failure to provide decent public education in big parts of these cities left even those employers willing to stay without enough qualified people to hire? In short, government has been at war with too much of the private sector for decades, making what we often call "bailouts" more like reparations. Whatever we call them, a better way to avoid bailouts in the future is to stop doing the things that make them necessary in the present. That's a message most Americans can understand and accept.

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Most conservatives still probably just want to block aid to cities and companies alike to avoid promoting a bad precedent. But there will probably never be enough truly conservative political clout to do that. So some government financial aid to fix the damaged areas in places like Baltimore and Ferguson is necessary, and conservatives shouldn't block it. We can call for better management of that money, but only with specific recommendations. Long term, the better idea is to employ a wide-ranging strategy of setting up more and more empowerment zones in more and more cities all at once. Let thousands, and potentially millions, of Americans who don't ever even consider voting Republican see first-hand how conservatives and private sector leaders really do want to invest in them and their communities. Spread that to the public school families by pushing more charter schools to rescue them from the hopeless government-controlled education system in their areas. Conservative ideas to rescue the poor and poor neighborhoods haven't failed, there just haven't been enough of those ideas actually implemented to provide enough obvious evidence and political traction.

Remember what Jack Kemp implored us to do: "don't fear the voters!" If then-candidate Ronald Reagan could go to the South Bronx in 1980 and endure a few hecklers to eventually make his point about urban renewal, then maybe there's a conservative willing to do things like that today. Conservatives can't make our case to the American public unless we make it to all of the public, and face-to-face like Kemp and Reagan did. This is a unique moment of opportunity for conservatives who care while Hillary Clinton hides behind dark glasses at fast food restaurants that aren't pre-filled with supporters. Even President Obama hasn't dared to go out on the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson. The Democrats aren't just afraid of the voters, they're afraid of their own voters. And that means it's time for a bleeding heart conservative or two to endure some heckling and hostility and rescue those voters from 60 years of one-party rule.

Hey, a bleeding heart needn't be a heart without ambition.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.