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The quandary of compassionate conservatism

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 28, 2003

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 compassion.

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 who?" 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.

George W. BushThe 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 Enter Stage Right.

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  • Compassionate conservatism or conned conservatism? by Steve Martinovich (July 1999)
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  • Conservatism in drag? by Patrick Ruffini (May 1999)
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