This primary season has encouraged some serious soul searching about what it means to be a conservative. The discussion is important, not just as the party selects a nominee, but as we at long last move beyond the Bush era of “compassionate conservatism.”
An important part of this discussion began when then-candidate Fred Thompson was asked if, as a Christian and a conservative, he supported President Bush’s global AIDS initiative. Thompson responded: “Christ didn’t tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it.” President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, excoriated the candidate in a Washington Post oped, “Callous Conservatives.” Gerson argued that Thompson’s response revealed a “lack of moral seriousness” and failure to understand the strategic value of humanitarian efforts.
The particulars of the AIDS global initiative are less important than the broader principle at stake. It’s true that targeted development and aid can be important foreign-policy tools. In certain circumstances, a federal investment can make sense. But Gerson wasn’t simply criticizing an underestimation of such initiatives’ foreign-policy benefits; he suggested that it’s a moral failing to question if government’s duties extend “to the treatment of sick people in extreme poverty.”
Yet this is a very important question. Is it government’s duty to care for all those in need? Most politicians accept Gerson’s view of “moral seriousness” and use promises of government action to showcase their compassion. Is this really compassion and charity?
It takes no sacrifice on the part of a politician to use taxpayer money to alleviate some group’s particular misery. In fact, these gestures tend to be the easiest politically, providing a visible photo-op and easy applause from the media.
Yet there was a time when both parties respected the limited role and responsibilities of government. Democrat Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1887 that would have sent federal relief to drought-stricken farmers in Texas. He didn’t want to encourage “the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government” and believed that individual Americans could best help Texan farmers through private acts of charity. (They did, sending several multiples of the aid proposed in Congress.)
Cleveland understood that government efforts — even, and perhaps especially, those motivated by compassion — tend to have unintended consequences that render them ineffective. Decades of foreign aid to African countries served to prop up failing governments and undermine private development, exasperating the misery it was supposed to relieve. The “compassionate” War on Poverty within the U.S. had a similar effect, devastating the very communities it was intended to uplift.