When I read Gerson’s piece yesterday, the phrase “bleeding heart conservatism” popped unbidden to the spot where “compassionate conservatism” used to be. Catholic social doctrine was, perhaps, useful in the industrial age, as the Church competed with Marx for the hearts and minds of working class Catholics.
In recent years the place I have seen it used most constructively, within the Conservative policy universe, is among the professional and academic “pro-marriage/family” thinkers. The argument has occasionally been made that, if you pay men a “family wage,” then their wives won’t have to park young children in day care and work, largely to pay for taxes and daycare. This is even more of an issue as a majority of women work, and the cost of living takes into account the likely income of two wage earners per family — making staying home with babies de facto more expensive.
Whatever problems it might solve, (and making it possible for non-wealthy mothers of young children to stay home is a good thing), that idea is going nowhere, for good reason. Most Americans, and all free market conservatives, lean toward a view of compensation that depends on value, as determined by the market. Pegging wages to “need” is what the other team did. We have traditionally looked to the tax code to create incentives to bolster social policy objectives — for better or worse, and with better and worse results. (Not such good results on family policy this last 30 years.)
At the risk of sounding mean — and getting a lot of snarky e-mails from readers — I think Gerson writes this stuff because it’s what he knows. “Catholic social thought” is his idea of theoretical cover for a lot of warm and fuzzy ideas that all nice people embrace. I can only imagine the emails he’d get at the Washington Post if took a firmer small government stand on social welfare issues.
As for Gerson’s insistence that this kind of social policy is also found in Jewish Law — well, yes and no. Yes there are a lot of laws to help feed the poor and take care of the needy, a good thing, we all undoubtedly agree. But — how much and when is for the giver to decide; the rules apply only within the tribe; and there is no state or communal enforcement mechanism. (There is an annual review by God, of course….) Charity is a central virtue in Jewish thinking. It is a social and cultural and religious obligation. But it is still understood as charity, not as taxes.
One last thing, re:Andrew’s point about this strain of thought growing — I don’t think that this thinking, or Mike Huckabee is going anywhere serious inside the GOP. I thought the 2006 elections were about the fact that big spending/compassionate conservatism (oxymoron that it is), had failed politically. Rudy Giuliani loudly touts the fact that he got 600,000 people off the welfare roles in NYC, and into jobs. Even Hillary pretends she was for welfare reform. That’s a better definition of compassion, and one that seems to resonate with GOP primary voters, no matter what the Huckabee spike suggests. I hope.