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In Defense of Compassionate Conservatism

The term “compassionate conservatism” is still invoked by some on the right. But for many commentators, compassionate conservatism has become a synonym for Big Government. In fact, it is distinct from — and in important respects the opposite of – the collectivist/statist impulse.

The idea was based on the writings of Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger, who argued in their 1977 book To Empower People that “mediating structures” such as family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary and civil associations are crucial institutions that needed to be fortified. One of the more elegant summaries of compassionate conservatism can be found in George Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft, where Will wrote:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism — family , church, voluntary associations, town governments — with collective concerns have come to seem peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives. Far from being a rationale for statism, the political orientation … involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens. In the best and most mature polities, what government does is encourage society to do things through its organic working. Government can do this by enhancing, in many ways, the vigor of those intermediary institutions which shape, support and inspire individuals, drawing persons out of the orbits of individualism and into social relationships. One way that government strengthens such institutions is by not usurping their functions. But that is not the only way. Government can plan positive inducements to vigor.

What Will wrote tracks quite closely with what George W. Bush said in his first presidential campaign speech on July 22, 1999. How well this concept works in practice is a legitimate issue to debate. But to use government to strengthen mediating structures is quite a different approach than taking over their duties.

With that said, let’s turn to the broader topic of the relationship between compassion and government. Compassion, it’s said by some, is a private virtue, not a public one, and for government to pursue compassion simply ends up creating mischief. That has certainly occurred in some instances. (The old paradigm of the welfare state, Neuhaus and Berger wrote, is to locate a social problem; define it as a government responsibility; and set up a government program designed to solve it.) But to say that for government to concern itself with compassion is per se inappropriate is itself problematic.

If by compassion we mean to feel distress at the suffering of others and having a desire to alleviate it, then government – within limits, with wisdom – can play a constructive role. We see that with relief efforts after earthquakes and hurricanes. We saw it with the Global AIDS initiative (a study at the University of British Columbia found that the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years). And few conservatives I know are in principle opposed to unemployment insurance (the debate is over how long it should be given) or welfare payments to those who, through no fault of their own, are nearly destitute. These views are based on a certain view of justice, which is rooted in a Jewish and Christian view of human dignity and the common good. But a proper conservative (and American) understanding of promoting the general welfare includes helping the poor and the powerless. Public institutions should help the most vulnerable members of the human community. The question is, always, one of prudence and efficacy.

I’ve long thought it was a mistake to cede the ground of compassion and concern for the poor to liberalism. One of the reasons some of us became conservatives in the first place was in part because we believed liberalism had failed on precisely these grounds; that conservatism had something important to say when it came to caring for the weak and disadvantaged in society. That is a public as well as a private concern. That is why the wisest voices on the right believed welfare reform should be framed not as an attack on the poor or as a matter on which government should have no say and no role, but rather as a way to help them on the path toward self-sufficiency and dignity. Welfare reform succeeded because government policy took into account human nature. It rested on the proper presuppositions.

I understand that times change and new political moments give rise to different emphases. Today, for perfectly understandable reasons, there is enormous focus among conservative on re-limiting government, one I fully support. But that effort should not lead people to argue against compassion in the realm of public policy. To insist the state should be indifferent to the suffering of the poor is not a conservative virtue. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, and earthly power doth show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.

How to make that work in the real world is enormously complicated. But here’s something we can say with some confidence: It isn’t a violation of the conservative creed for the state, within all the right parameters, to attempt to season justice with mercy.