An entry by Matt
Evans at Stuart Buck’s excellent Buck Stops Here blog pointed me toward an
interesting article by Michael Knox Beran in the Summer 2003 issue of City Journal
contrasting conservative compassion with liberal pity. My own view
is that liberalism is motivated less by pity – although I do recognize that
as a component – than by a presumption that everyone else lacks sufficient
Too many liberals believe in government income redistribution because they
don’t believe that people will be sufficiently generous with voluntary private
charitable contributions. They believe in the welfare state because
they don’t believe in the adequacy of civil society. They favor strict
economic regulations because they presume that capitalists will necessarily
behave unethically. They support affirmative action because they presume
that the American majority is intrinsically racist and engages in such systematic
discrimination as to make fair competition based upon merit completely untenable.
They embrace social and cultural radicalism because they presume that traditional
values are rooted in ignorance and hatred.
Compassionate conservatism has the potential to transform the debate against
liberals because it actively works to refute each of these myths. Or
perhaps more precisely, it works to affirm certain truths: the significance
of private charity, civil society, a thriving capitalist economy within the
context of its larger meta-market, human equality based on the natural law
recognized in the Declaration of Independence and a proper understanding
of the value of our moral traditions. Liberals observe certain flaws
in human nature that make them distrust the spontaneous order; compassionate
conservatives recognize that these same flaws are present in political authorities
and can just as easily doom government solutions to problems.
But this reformulation of the right also comes with some pitfalls.
When the first George Bush spoke of a kinder, gentler nation, Nancy Reagan
was said to understandably interpret it as a dig at her husband, prompting
her to ask, “Kinder and gentler than whom?” Many conservatives had
misgivings about George W. Bush’s apparent need to apply a “compassionate”
modifier to conservatism. They feared that this meant a watered-down
conservatism that was stripped of its tough-mindedness by the sloppy compassion-worship
that has hobbled the most decent and well-meaning liberals.
The best things President Bush has done while he has been in office demonstrate
the potential such a compassionate refutation of the liberal message can
have. But his shortcomings point to two major problems with this new
recasting of conservatism that could make the right inadequate to deal with
many of our nation’s approaching challenges if left uncorrected.
First, compassionate conservatism threatens not only to concede the debate
over the size and scope of the federal government to liberals, but also to
fail entirely to prevent the slow transformation of the U.S. economy into
a full-blown European-style welfare state. Many conservatives today
entertain the illusion that we can continue to move toward such a comprehensive
welfare state, with such gradual slides toward socialized medicine as the
new Medicare prescription drug benefit among other concessions, and still
have a country with low marginal tax rates, a rapidly growing free-market
economy, strong families, strong communities and a resurgent civil society.
The reasons to doubt this is possible are overwhelming. No European
country has managed to proceed in both directions simultaneously; there is
no logical reason to assume that we can too. So if you are willing
to pursue total surrender on limited government, whether you care to admit
it or not you will be effectively pursuing total surrender on much of the
rest of the conservative agenda. The right’s kind of society cannot
be indefinitely sustained alongside the left’s kind of government.
Second, this new conservatism eschews debate on any particularly divisive
social issue. Some of these issues, like immigration, divide even conservatives.
Others, like bilingual education, multiculturalism and racial preferences,
for the most part do not. Compassionate conservatives are not social
liberals. They will work to support marriage promotion initiatives
among public assistance recipients or aspects of the pro-life agenda, like
the partial-birth abortion ban or non-abortion related fetal homicide laws,
where the wider culture already mainly agrees with them. But so far
those who have claimed the compassionate conservative label have been generally
unwilling to tread where they might face resistance or even reluctance from
the wider culture, such as some gentle persuasion on the broader abortion
issue or even the same-sex marriage debate.
There are perfectly understandable reasons for this. Social conservatives
have had an awful tendency to speak to the culture in terms it does not understand
and to press their issues in a language couched in fear and anger rather
than love. Their compassionate brethren have sought to avoid that kind
of tone. But in the process of doing so, they must be careful not to
change the tone to complete silence.
These concerns are the main reason why I write columns critical of President
Bush on certain issues. It is not really so much because I want him
to agree with me 100 percent; it is a matter of preserving the conservative
part of compassionate conservatism. A Republican Party that is merely
compassionate might win some election victories and will thus probably prevail
in some legislative battles, but such a conservative movement cannot achieve
some of the most important victories for the preservation of the republic.
With few exceptions, such as on tax cuts and certain judicial and other nominations,
President Bush has been loathe to show the tough-mindedness in the face of
criticism on domestic issues that he has on foreign policy. Given the
nature of the challenge the country will be facing in the coming years, that
needs to change. Conservatives must always be compassionate.
But for the sake of the things we wish to conserve, we must not internalize
the left’s view that this means abandoning conservatism.
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.