The Agenda

Compassion and Respect

Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru both addressed the notion that the recent conservative enthusiasm for reforming government in the name of facilitating upward mobility is best understood as the return of compassionate conservatism. Ponnuru argues that while today’s GOP reformers are interested in bettering the lot of the poor, their chief argument within the conservative coalition is that the party has devoted too little attention to the well-being of middle-income families, and in particular to their financial fragility and the extent to which they find themselves burdened by the rising cost of medical care and higher education, among other things. Douthat offers further thoughts on why this appeal to middle-class economic interests is likely to prove more potent in intraparty battles, and why the right be in a somewhat more advantageous position after two terms of Barack Obama than it was after two terms of Bill Clinton. 

Because I agree with Douthat and Ponnuru, I’ll add only that “compassion” has always struck me as the wrong framing device for understanding how we should think about the welfare state. In “A Reciprocal Welfare Program,” Amy Wax lays out the logic of what she calls “conditional reciprocity”:

Most people accept collective responsibility for the poor but adhere to a moralistic distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of public aid. They view entitlement to group resources as conditional on each person’s reasonable effort, consistent with ability, to support himself and his family. It was speculated that the widespread antipathy to “freeloaders” – that is, persons who depend unnecessarily on others – expresses attitudes that evolved over centuries to stabilize cooperative arrangements for mutual support that enhanced group survival. The popular expectation of a reasonable effort towards self-help defines the principle of conditional reciprocity. This principle continues to enjoy widespread assent in many societies.

Bringing the American welfare state in line with this reciprocity principle would require a number of changes, including making employment-conditional earnings subsidies more generous than they are at present. But were we to succeed in doing so, I don’t think we’d be moving towards a society that is more “compassionate” as such. Rather, we’d be moving to a society in which assistance to those who make a reasonable effort towards self-help is treated more as a sign of respect than of charity or pity. Consider the following passage from David Graeber’s Debt, which a friend was kind enough to share with me recently:

[I]t’s notoriously difficult—often downright impossible—to shift relations based on an assumption of communistic sharing to relations of equal exchange. We observe this all the time with friends: if someone is seen as taking advantage of your generosity, it’s often much easier to break off relations entirely than to demand that they somehow pay you back. One extreme example is the Maori story about a notorious glutton who used to irritate fishermen up and down the coast near where he lived by constantly asking for the best portions of their catch. Since to refuse a direct request for food was effectively impossible, they would dutifully turn it over; until one day, people decided enough was enough and killed him.

Modern America’s sensibilities are thankfully far removed from those illustrated in this grisly tale. By moving away from the reciprocity principle, however, we risk engendering resentment towards the most vulnerable, and to those who are too socially isolated to meaningfully participate in the world of work. Last year, Tino Sanandaji reflected on the fact that Sweden had surpassed the United States in hours worked per working-age adult. While only half of immigrants of non-western origin work, a notably high 85 percent of Swedes work and pay taxes, a rate far above the 70 percent European average. It is not a coincidence, I would suggest, that far fewer Swedes want to increase immigration levels than Canadians, where the gap in labor force participation between immigrants and the native-born is the lowest among the affluent market democracies of the OECD. It seems at least possible that a similar dynamic might apply to low-income aid recipients generally: if the wider public believes that aid flows to those who make a reasonable effort towards self-help, including those for whom a reasonable effort is quite minimal in light of the medical and other challenges they face, voters might be more inclined to back more generous employment-conditional earnings subsidies and other measures designed to better the lives of the poor. 

Another view, which I associate with the socialist egalitarian philosopher G.A. Cohen, is that it is the moral intuition behind the expectation for reciprocity that is suspect. For Cohen, what we should strive for is to stamp out the distrust of those who don’t carry their weight that Wax invokes, and to build an ethic of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It’s not clear to me that a society that succeeded in living up to Cohen’s ideal would survive, let alone flourish. But there is plenty of room for disagreement.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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