The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion
By William Voegeli
Broadside Books, 273 pages
“Compassion is not weakness,” Herbert Humphrey once argued, “and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.” True enough, but here are some other things compassion is not, or at least should not be: a sole basis for policy, a cudgel for browbeating political opponents, or the unique province of the left.
Progressive politicians and their fan base in the media routinely claim moral high ground by casting themselves as allies of the downtrodden and depicting their conservative counterparts as heartless punishers of the wretched. In Pity Party, the Claremont Institute’s William Voegeli advances a compelling explanation of why and how liberals misunderstand and misapply compassion, of how the grounding of political decisions in empathy poses serious theoretical and practical challenges that have consistently led the country astray, and of how conservatives can nonetheless harness and wield the power of compassion rightly understood.
Voegeli’s analysis begins with etymology. The word compassion has two distinct but intertwined meanings: the literal experience of “suffering together with one another” as equals, and a more general feeling or emotion “shown toward a person in distress by one who is free from it.” Liberals, Voegeli argues, too often embrace the second meaning at the expense of the first. In other words, they alleviate their own discomfort by purporting to heal others in need. The satisfaction enjoyed by compassionate liberals is not that of the righteous, but of the self-righteous. Providing compassion is the surest way for liberals to establish themselves as superior to the recipients of their good deeds.
But if the liberal’s misappropriation of empathy were merely a vanity-maintenance tool, things wouldn’t be so bad. The larger problem is that this misappropriation leads to policies that harm the very people liberals purport to help. Voegeli traces the path liberal compassion travels takes toward bad policy. In a chapter colorfully titled “How Liberal Compassion Leads to Bullshit,” he covers everything from preschool programs to gun control to climate change to diversity. In each area, progressives, “preferring to feel good than to do good,” promote “ineffectual gestures on the one hand and political, administrative, and technological nonstarters on the other.”
Take ObamaCare, the quintessential example of liberal “compassionism.” That trillion-dollar legislative jigsaw puzzle emanated from the fact that some 50 million Americans ostensibly lacked health insurance. (In reality, Voegeli demonstrates, the chronically and involuntarily uninsured are closer in number to 10 million, but who’s counting?) The left baked a “comprehensive” health-reform cake by skillfully mixing syrupy stories of cancer patients dying for want of coverage with supposedly solid quantitative predictions that ObamaCare would “bend the cost curve down.” But while the health law has surely helped some of the uninsured, it has harmed many of the insured. And that’s before Americans see the full results of the law’s implementation. In the meantime, ObamaCare’s ballooning cost has effectively crowded out other federal spending priorities.
Even so, Voegeli contends, the “success” of ObamaCare only whetted the liberal appetite for further “comprehensive” reform. With Barack Obama’s unwieldy and unpredictable health-care initiative still roiling the policy sea, progressives jumped back into the empathy waters and called for immediate immigration reform—to help migrants escape “the shadows.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
In the United States, political empathy sells. So how can conservatives counter the compassion-drenched strategy that has richly rewarded the left ever since the advent of the Great Society? Voegeli frankly acknowledges that the arguments for the free market as an engine of compassion face overwhelming skepticism. The “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, for example, was mostly received with sneers and snickers. For one thing, the liberal caricature of conservative cruelty is deeply ingrained in our politics. For another, “the basic tension inherent in fashioning a political agenda for the purpose of catalyzing a social transformation” makes the formulation of conservative compassion-heavy policies a kind of fool’s errand. Most on the right understand that in the majority of cases only a benevolent and well-functioning civil society can meaningfully relieve the suffering of the indigent.
Still, Voegeli highlights some tactics conservatives might want to embrace during battle. He recommends pushing policies that are “conducive to efficiency as well as to effectiveness,” and that “speak to liberalism’s failures” and “enable economic and social capital to fortify one another.” For example, he approves of the “negative income tax” proposed by free-market luminaries such as Milton Friedman and Charles Murray. This would guarantee a government subsidy for those earning less than a certain amount, thereby eradicating dozens of ineffectual welfare programs. He also likes William F. Buckley, Jr.’s federalism-friendly notion of interstate cash transfers, in which only states whose median incomes fall below the national average would receive federal welfare, while more prosperous states would fund their own poverty-relief programs via state taxes. Voegeli asserts that, with a little perseverance, center-right policymakers can bring these bold ideas to fruition.
At times, The Pity Party resembles a grab bag of Voegeli’s pet peeves. He delights in quoting outlandish fringe leftists who have no discernible impact on the policies of mainstream liberalism. He also unfairly chides progressives for focusing their energies on domestic policy—i.e., doling out benefits to American citizens—when worldwide suffering is so much more acute. If liberals were truly compassionate, he asserts, their empathy would not end so conspicuously at the borders of the United States. Liberal pundits, however, would rightly claim that they care deeply about global poverty and favor open borders, but that for practical reasons they choose to concentrate resources where they’re most effective.
Still, Voegeli does a great service in explaining compassionism run wild. The left’s grand display of deep human feeling is ultimately a means of avoiding the task of good governance. In the end, as he shrewdly observes, “even if we agree with Hubert Humphrey that the moral test of government is how well it takes care of the young, old, and needy, prosperity is the practical test we must meet prior to engaging the moral challenge.” Compassion untethered from reality and uninformed by basic economic principles is not compassionate at all.