The Corner

Gerson, W., & Me

I’m sorry to arrive late at my own hanging, but as a traveling man I was almost the last person in Moscow to hear about Michael Gerson’s slashing reply to my NR piece on President Bush’s political identity and the related topic of “compassionate conservatism.”

Happily, my absence didn’t matter in the slightest since Jonah did a superb job of defending me and refuting Gerson on the main points. I can say of Jonah what Clem Attlee said of “Johnny Turk” when advocating Turkish entry into NATO: “I’d rather have him on our side than against us.”

Otherwise, Jonah didn’t leave me much to say. For the record, however, I don’t at all object to Gerson’s left hooks. I hit him; he hit me; that’s even stevens. And though it isn’t love, it makes the world go round.

Also for the record, I don’t regard my own article as a “Christmas jeer” (in Gerson’s words) at the departing president. It was an attempt to place him at the appropriate point on the spectrum of political ideologies. It cleared him of the charges, successively, of being a liberal, a right-wing radical, a conservative, and a populist (admittedly at the cost of convicting him on the charge of being a mixture of all four). And it explained this by arguing that the presidency was better understood as the expression of Bush’s shifting moral impulses (some liberal, some conservative, some right, some wrong) than as the expression of a coherent (a.k.a. rigid) partisan ideology.

In some quarters that would count as an absurdly gallant defense of the president.

To Gerson, however, this seems a savage attack. Not surprisingly, either. His own doctrine of “compassionate conservatism,” which is the nearest thing to an ideology shaping the president’s decisions, is marked by this same impulsiveness. As Jonah and I both pointed out, compassionate conservatism suffers from the lack of anchors that might restrain it from drifting in the direction of every warm-hearted expenditure. It ignores the invisible victims of its warm-hearted impulses. And it invites fiscal profligacy.

After some ritual huffing and puffing, Gerson’s response to this critique was to fire off a blunderbuss. He identified anything he disliked as “conservatism” (including the “isolationism” supported by most Americans including socialist leader Norman Thomas) and any federal action he liked as “compassionate conservatism.” I thought at first that he was playing the old game of choosing the extremes carefully so that his favored option would emerge in the middle. But no — Gerson chose one of the extremes. As Jonah established, Gerson treats any systematic attempt to restrain government power as an evil because somewhere somehow it might obstruct some federal attempt to do good.

Such a view implies that any conservative whose main concern is to restrict government power must be morally inferior to the compassionate conservative. So he asks loftily which compassionate programs (AIDS in Africa, the drugs entitlement, etc.) these grubby “O’Sullivan conservatives” would oppose.

But this moral (really, moralistic) superiority can be easily turned against Gerson. At any one time there are innumerable evils in the world, millions of people “hurting.” So I can reasonably ask in reply: Why are you not intervening to halt the genocide in Darfur? Or to liberate the political prisoners in Cuba? Or to direct more aid to improve the drinking water in poor Third World countries? Are you cruel, Sir? Hard-hearted? A devotee of Miss Rand’s doctrine of selfishness perhaps?

He would doubtless respond that neither he nor the president can do everything. But that’s the point. What Burke said of individuals is also true of governments: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without.” If governments lack the internal restraint of a libertarian philosophy, they will indulge their appetites — including the appetite for moral self-congratulation — without limit until some external restraint such as the value of the currency or the level of interest rates finally obstructs them.

That gloomy truth is in no way affected by directing government help through mediating institutions. Gerson argues somewhat confusingly that his stress on such institutions is an innovation within conservatism and yet something that transforms his federal compassion into a distinctly conservative thing. I won’t go into all the obscurities here — Jonah? — but neither half of his seesaw argument works. As Burke’s phrase “little platoons” tells us, conservatism has long stressed the vital necessity of mediating institutions in social policy broadly defined. Yet their value will be reduced and even destroyed if they become absorbed into the state machinery of largesse with all its regulations — especially if, as may now happen, that machinery starts to run out of cash.

Well, that’s enough compassion. In view of all the above points, however, I think we need a word other than compassion for what Gerson is advocating. May I suggest the neologism: “Compassioneering.”


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