Commentary Magazine


Contentions

More on Why We Should Give a Damn

Andy McCarthy  feels like my response to a column he wrote was a personal attack on him. That wasn’t the intent, and I’m happy to leave it to readers to judge whether my critique of McCarthy, whose past work I have often admired, was an “airy stream of consciousness,” “presumptuous,” “foolish,” and “holier-than-thou demagoguery” — or whether Andy’s response was overly defensive. Whatever the case, McCarthy’s response includes an effort to lay out a philosophy of government that is, I think, worth examining.

According to Andy, “Our government does not exist to care; it exists to promote the freedom and security of our body politic. The actions of our public officials are not supposed to be a reflection of how those officials, guided by their private religious and ethical principles, care about their fellow human beings the world over.”

“Love and mercy … are not functions of government,” he writes. It is the “progressive project to aggrandize government by humanizing it.” He mocks the idea that “it is government that decides which faraway impoverished peoples win the collective’s largesse and its favor.” And so when it comes to the people of Afghanistan — and, presumably, the people of every other impoverished land in the world — “as a political community acting through its government, we needn’t give a damn.”

What does this mean in concrete terms?

By McCarthy’s logic, a global AIDS and malaria initiative that saves more than a million people in the span of three years is a violation of the proper role of government. So, I suppose, was the military’s response to the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and earthquake, in which we sent ships, planes, and relief supplies to the region. Millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance qualifies as “love and mercy” and therefore “are not functions of government.” Neither are efforts to promote religious freedom or curtail human trafficking abroad. And for the sake of the argument let’s assume the United States could, at relatively low cost, prevent genocide on a mass scale. Presumably it wouldn’t matter; our motto, after all, is, “We needn’t give a damn.” The state’s job, according to McCarthy, is to do the “people’s business,” not to “sympathize.” It’s not the business of public officials to “care about their fellow human beings the world over.” Their job is to fulfill “government’s limited, necessary functions” — which, as McCarthy envisions them, are limited indeed, far more limited than those mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution.

But if government can act intelligently and prudentially to save millions of innocent human lives, why shouldn’t it? Because government is precluded from giving a damn for people not simply in Afghanistan but anywhere? McCarthy’s view, as articulated in his column, is that it is illegitimate for government to act in a way that advances a great moral and humanitarian end — not because such a thing is impossible but because if government does so the act becomes by definition illegitimate.

This is not conservative skepticism of government; it is libertarian contempt for it. There is nothing wrong with the political community, acting through its elected leaders, giving a damn — and when possible, advancing justice and enlarging morality, to use the language of Burke.

There’s one other thing worth drawing attention to: McCarthy’s insistence that religious and ethical principles are “private” and therefore have should have no role in shaping the actions of lawmakers. This is a sentiment you find much more common among progressives and liberals than conservatives. And fortunately this view didn’t prevail among (to name just one person) William Wilberforce, the great British politician and abolitionist who famously said, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

At the core of the Christian and Jewish traditions is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. These are not only a private concern but also a public one. Those traditions assert government has a role in caring for the weak and the vulnerable. This doesn’t tell us, of course, whether and how government ought to act in particular instances, for reasons I have mentioned before. But to embrace a view of government that McCarthy has put forth would be, I think, harmful to conservatism and problematic on every level.