Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Conservatism: A new obituary (part 2) -- "compassionate conservatism"

Continuing the series of excerpts from Prof. Brad Thompson's article 'The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism,' published in The Objective Standard. Today, Part Two. (You can find Part One here)

Friday's excerpt ended with the question, "What happened to the idea of limited-government conservatism? Have the conservatives been corrupted by power, or is there something in their basic philosophy that has led them to embrace big government?"

Thompson explains that the problem is not that the conservative ideals of today have been corrupted by power, the problem is the very nature of those ideals. Today's conservatives, he explains, broadly subscribe to "two putatively conflicting philosophies: a moral philosophy called 'Compassionate Conservatism' and a philosophy of governance known as 'Neo-Conservatism'." Both are paternalistic. Neither have any use for small government.

He contrasts these two with the 'Goldwater conservatism' of an earlier generation of conservatism, a political philosophy harking back to the ideals of America's Founding Fathers. 1964 American presidential candidate Barry Goldwater summed up 'Goldwater conservatism' in his book The Conscience of a Conservative -- "the political Talmud of Goldwater conservatism" -- and in a series of speeches laced with pithy paeans to liberty such as this celebrated example: "Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
The challenge of conservatism, [wrote Goldwater ], is “to demonstrate the bearing of a proven philosophy on the problems of our own time.” He defined the Founders’ “proven philosophy” in the following terms: “The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods—the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom.”8

Enabling men “to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom”—this is the proper purpose of government; this is the ideal that American conservatives have long claimed to be conserving or restoring; and this is the ideal that animated the American Founding. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently summarized in his First Inaugural address: “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” [...]

While this is the ideal that defined the American Founding—and the ideal to which Goldwater conservatives have long claimed allegiance—it is not the ideal to which today’s conservatives subscribe.

To what ideals do today’s conservatives subscribe? What are their political goals?
Let's begin looking today at the first of the conservative "ideals" of today: Compassionate Conservatism. It does not make for pretty reading.
Compassionate conservatism, rather than simply being a slick vote-getting slogan, is a political philosophy—one that George Bush genuinely embraces and that has formed the policies of his administration...

The guiding moral principle of compassionate conservatism is the idea that we, by way of our government, have a “duty” to serve the needs of the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the aged—hence “compassionate,” which means desiring to relieve the pain and suffering of others. Its advocates seek to uphold this moral principle through “free-market mechanisms”—hence “conservatism.”
If the words "flabby" and "not much of an idea" spring to mind, you're right. Thompson summarises the position of compassionate conservativism's "theorists" in this way: "compassionate conservatism fully accepts the liberal notion that we have a “duty” to help the poor—compassionate conservatives simply disagree with liberals as to how to help them." Hardly inspiring stuff, and emphatically nothing to do with either liberty or justice.
Compassionate conservatives decry the liberal welfare state for causing the “worst-off” to be “more mired in dependency, illegitimacy, drug use, school failure and crime than they were when the experiment began.” [...]

The compassionate conservative solution, however, is not for the Federal government to abolish welfare and leave it to “those with a stake in the community” to help those about whom they care. Instead, their solution, as described by Bush advisor Stephen Goldsmith, is for the Federal government to outsource the administration of welfare:

Although [compassionate conservatives] acknowledge the role of government in helping those who need assistance, they do not believe that government itself needs to deliver those services. Small, local civic associations and religious organizations have the detailed knowledge and flexibility necessary to administer the proper combination of loving compassion and rigorous discipline appropriate for each citizen.13
Such a policy serves only to redirect taxpayer dollars from government welfare agencies to private religious and civic organizations. The net effect is the same: The wealth of Americans is forcibly taken and redistributed to serve “compassionate” purposes... Compassionate conservatism substitutes, at least superficially, Christian love for liberal pity as the motive for expanding and perpetuating the welfare state.
The rise of big government under these so-called conservatives -- who are intent on exercising 'compassion' with other people's money -- is no accident. It is fully part of "compassionate conservatism's deepest philosophical roots." And at the roots of this "new politics of compassion" is not just the traditional Christian virtues, but the maunderings of a decidedly un-virtuous Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rouseau, the "Prophet of Compassion," a man whose political blatherings helped to inspire the French Revolution's Procrustean Terror and to horrify conservative mentor Edmund Burke.

It was Rousseau, says Thompson, who first "elevated a minor sentiment" -- compassion -- "into a major virtue."

Rousseau’s elevation of compassion to the center of ethical discourse launched a moral revolution in the West that has slowly percolated into the manners and mores of American life.18 Thanks to Rousseau, compassion is the moral leitmotif of American culture.

The delivery method adopted by today’s pushers of compassion is to harp day and night on those who fail and suffer; the goal is to induce in Americans en masse an arrested, perceptual-level mentality, a mentality that processes all moral and political matters emotionally and then acts accordingly. Americans are inundated on a daily basis—whether via the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, Fox News, or the New York Times—with maudlin scenes and stories of human misery. They are encouraged to put their failures on display and to exercise compassion at every turn.

Ours is the Age of Compassion.

Rousseau’s ghost now oversees a nation of social workers. The moral ideal to which our culture aspires is the moist eyes of the wet nurse. To lack compassion in this new world is to be morally deprived if not morally depraved. The Oprahization of American culture has made compassion the standard by which we judge whether men are good or bad, and so Americans today feel compelled to constantly display their sensitivity and to show that their “heart is in the right place.”

The so-called “love” advocated by the proponents of compassion is not directed toward human virtue but toward human vice. It is not for their achievements that the weak are admired but for their failures. On the one hand, this is an utter inversion of morality; on the other hand, it is the annihilation of morality.

To treat compassion as a virtue promotes a kind of moral relativism—a non-judgmental, no-fault morality that takes people just as they are. “Don’t judge people,” its proponents say, “just accept their plight and help them.” Fundamentally speaking, this is an attempt to negate the law of causality—to sever consequences from their causes. Forget about what caused a jobless person to be jobless; just give him a job. Forget about why a person has saved nothing for retirement; just give him some money. Forget about why a person failed to insure his Gulf-coast dwelling; just give him an apartment or a house. Personal responsibility or lack thereof (the cause) is irrelevant to the compassionate.

A moral code that upholds compassion as a virtue is the antipode of a morality of justice...
That one of the prophets of Socialism is at the root of today's "compassionate conservatism" is not irony, but a recognition that the heart of conservatism has always been blancmange and a craven "me-tooism."

If you find it odd that Government has expanded more under conservatives than it has under liberals, that at times they simply seem to echo each other, then perhaps it is because you've yet to realise that the morality underpinning conservatism and liberalism differs very little. Today's conservatives differ from liberals only in the methods by which "compassion" is to be exercised, and the extent to which religion plays a part in underpinning their "moral sentiments" and delivering their means of showing their "compassion." As Thompson notes:
[T]oday we have a new politics of compassion that comes in both liberal and conservative forms. In the world of Rousseau and Clinton and Bush, suffering and need represent man’s essential metaphysical condition, and those who suffer less should be sacrificed for the sake of those who suffer more. The redistribution of wealth is, therefore, a central tenet of the politics of compassion.
Forced charity. Compassion with a gun. Strip away the flabby rhetoric and both liberalism and conservatism are at root the same old 'Robin Hood' fairy tale of banditry and plunder, of tax and spend, of theft and largesse. Where a generation ago conservatives were full of "extremism in the defence of liberty," today in its place we have the figure of a social worker with a gun.

Tomorrow, we'll look at how the "theory" of compassionate conservatism translates into policy and practice. Do come back now, y' hear.

LINK: The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism - C.Bradley Thompson, The Objective Standard
Conservatism: A new obituary (part 1) - the "Republican Revolution" - Not PC
Cartoons by Cox and Forkum

RELATED: Politics-US, Politics, Objectivism, History-Modern, History-Twentieth Century


  1. It's interesting that John McCain is now bemoaning the lack of "small government conservatism" in Washington. Of course McCain is the last Republican on earth one would trust to be a "small government conservative", but it is interesting that his presidential ambitions are forcing him to use that sort of rhetoric. If he continues to frame the debate in this way, it might allow a real small government conservative to make a run.

  2. Not sure if thats entirely true.
    McCain did take over Goldwaters seat and has always considered himself a small government conservative (even if thats untrue).


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