Politics & Policy

Goodbye to All That

Is this the end of "compassionate conservatism"?

Here’s my silver-lining hope this hurricane season: George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism gets wiped out like a taco hut in the path of a Cat. 5 storm.

Outside of people inside the administration, I’ve never met anyone who really likes the president’s “compassionate conservatism.” To the extent conservatives praise it at all, they celebrate the fact that compassionate conservatism got Bush elected. This is no small or insignificant feat, note the realists. Without victory, nothing else is possible. “It’s the lady that brought us to the dance,” they explain.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually respect much of the substance of compassionate conservatism. Now that a “neoconservative” has been idiotically redefined to mean a warmonger who never buys retail, we forget that much of neoconservatism was really an argument about domestic policy.

The basic neoconservative criticism of the welfare state was that it had most of its incentives lined up incorrectly. Young women were told that government would essentially pay them to have more babies out of wedlock. Criminals were led to believe it was someone else’s fault they robbed liquor stores. Students weren’t–and still aren’t–compelled to excel at school.

The neocons didn’t oppose the welfare state per se. They opposed a welfare state that made society worse. (Irving Kristol even argued for a “conservative welfare state.”) Hence Social Security never bothered them much, because delaying subsidies until one’s golden years is unlikely to create the sorts of perverse incentives that might lead to roving gangs of octogenarian car thieves.

The compassionate conservatism of such intellectuals as Marvin Olasky and Myron Magnet was really just a fleshing-out of these neoconservative observations (though, in Olasky’s case, with a bit more religion thrown in). They emphasized that not only is it bad public policy to encourage destructive behavior, but it’s uncompassionate to the very people government is trying to help.

Welfare-state liberals insisted they “cared” more because they favored higher spending on schools. The compassionate conservatives responded with “care all you like, but the schools stink.” The best summation of the entire enterprise was Bush’s mantra about “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

So, if I agree with all that, what’s the problem? First, as a political slogan, compassionate conservatism was always a low blow. Almost by definition, people who claim to be compassionate conservatives are suggesting that other kinds of conservatives aren’t. Conservatism, rightly understood, never needed the adjective.

The second problem is that compassionate conservatism necessarily demands government activism. If normal conservatives are either too cheap or too uncaring to spend billions of dollars of other peoples’ money on dubious social improvements, then compassionate conservatives must feel and do otherwise. In 2003, President Bush proclaimed, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Bush is certainly living up to that sentiment in the wake of Katrina. He’s determined to prove he cares about black people, and “hurt” people, by spending more than the other guys.

But Katrina demonstrates to a certain extent how both compassionate conservatism and welfare-state liberalism alike are uncompassionate. Inheriting from the neocons a basic philosophical comfort with the concept of the welfare state, compassionate conservatism–which also goes by “big government conservatism”–sees no pressing need to pare government down to its core functions. Traditional conservatism, on the other hand, considers a lean government essential to the task of fulfilling its core responsibilities.

A great many liberals in recent weeks have argued that conservative hostility to big government suggests we don’t support agencies like FEMA or fire and rescue services. This is nonsense. Every conservative I know wants firemen to put out fires. We don’t, however, want firemen asking us how our marriage is going or lecturing us about how to be more “sensitive.” A fireman can’t put out the fires at my house if he’s at your house giving you a big hug.

Ultimately, this is the core problem with all ideologies that try to make government an extension of the family. Welfare-state liberalism wants the government to act like your mommy. Compassionate conservatives want the state to be your daddy. The problem: Government cannot love you, nor should it try.

Love empowers us to do some things government must never have the power to do and other things the government can almost never do well. Parents are real social engineers. I can arbitrarily force my child to eat, play and dress as I see fit–all in the hope this will make her a better person. I can punish her for making choices that are perfectly legal and reward her for making giant strides that look tiny or invisible to those in government, and which are none of their business anyway.

To its credit, compassionate conservatism understands this better than liberalism, which is why Bush wants to release “the armies of compassion” on the poor. Religious-based organizations are better equipped to offer tough love. But all that might as well be theology at this point. The real compassionate conservatism is the one from Bush’s campaign speeches. It’s all about proving that conservatives “care”–no matter how much it costs.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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