The Corner

The Problem with Compassionate Conservatism

The rise — at least temporarily — of Rick Santorum has given rise to speculation of late, most notably by David Brooks, that it might facilitate a rethinking on the right about how America addresses some of the hard-to-deny social pathologies that characterize much of American society. Chiming in to this debate is Michael Gerson. He argues that Santorum’s approach to such matters reflects an alternative religiously influenced conservative tradition (“compassionate conservatism”) to what Gerson regards as the libertarian knee-jerk anti-government position.

There is, however, something dissatisfying about all this. On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.

At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role. The capacity, for example, of even well-intentioned government interventions and apparently benign public-private partnerships to help facilitate dysfunctional families as well as suck the life out of the rich mosaic of free associations and autonomous institutions often conceptually cobbled together under the rubric of civil society has been exhaustively documented. Moreover, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the sheer number of laws and regulations that now govern our lives represents a genuine threat to rule of law, inasmuch as the sheer profusion of laws increases the potential for arbitrary decisions by courts and governments, including by those who don’t want to act arbitrarily.

All these problems suggest that some conservatives need to pay much more attention to the precise limits of government in free societies when it comes to social policy. As it happens, the limits of government are also the number one topic in contemporary economic debates as the United States struggles to avoid being drawn into the social-democratic quagmire which today we call Europe.

No doubt it won’t be possible to resolve all the differences between compassionate conservatives and libertarians on the subject of the limits of state power. Their starting points for intellectual reflection are usually different. But such a discussion might provide some basis for a broader and deeper “non-left” critique of the modern Left’s slavish attachment to big government and the not-so-noble underlying motivations behind all the feelings-talk and empathy-babble for endlessly expanding its reach.

— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his 2012 forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.

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