So it’s a matter of finding ways to express truth accurately.
Some of what we conservatives need to do is understand how the other side thinks, because we probably both want freedom, prosperity and civilization, but for some reason the words don’t translate into their minds. They say we’re racist, bigoted, hard-hearted, violent—and a host of other epithets that we know are not true. What do they get out of telling those lies about us? Or believing those mischaracterizations?
Except for maybe some clinically mentally ill, people tend to do what they think will make them happy. They want to feel good. So let’s go with the assumption that those who choose more government intervention do it out of interest in living better lives.
William Voegeli wrote the Hillsdale College Imprimis piece for October: “The Case against Liberal Compassion.” He gives an excellent, and probably accurate, description of the opposition mindset. He starts by pointing out, as we all know, the War on Poverty has failed. Government social programs are an utter failure. And yet the big-government set keeps asking for more of that failure.
I think he’s asking some very good questions:
All along, while the welfare state was growing constantly, liberals were insisting constantly it wasn’t big enough or growing fast enough. So I wondered, five years ago, whether there is a Platonic ideal when it comes to the size of the welfare state—whether there is a point at which the welfare state has all the money, programs, personnel, and political support it needs, thereby rendering any further additions pointless. The answer, I concluded, is that there is no answer—the welfare state is a permanent work-in-progress, and its liberal advocates believe that however many resources it has, it always needs a great deal more.
That’s a starting point for understanding. But the next question is, since there can never be enough, and programs actually fail, and waste money, why is that OK? He doesn’t assume it’s because liberals are bad people. He says,
Readers could have concluded that liberals are never satisfied because they get up every morning thinking, “What can I do today to make government a little bigger, and the patch of ground where people live their lives completely unaffected by government power and benevolence a little smaller?” …
If we make that effort—an effort to understand committed liberals as they understand themselves—then we have to understand them as people who, by their own account, get up every morning asking, “What can I do today so that there’s a little less suffering in the world?”
He quotes President Obama as saying, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not enough—I want your kids to do well also.”
If the president wants to be believed, he ought not use the IRS and NSA to target anyone who has a non-liberal/progressive/socialist approach to bettering the interrelated causes of freedom, prosperity, and civilization. To us conservative targets, he seems a lot more tyrannical than kind. But back to Voegeli’s explanations.
Compassion, he says, is used as a political weapon against anyone who disagrees, because that works:
Arguments and rhetoric that work—that impress voters and intimidate opponents—are used again and again. Those that prove ineffective are discarded. If conservatives had ever come up with a devastating, or even effective rebuttal to the accusation that they are heartless and mean-spirited: a) anyone could recite it by now; and, b) more importantly, liberals would have long ago stopped using rhetoric about liberal kindness versus conservative cruelty, for fear that the political risks of such language far outweighed any potential benefits.
But here’s the important thing: using the compassion claim as a political weapon—to gain power—is the end; actually accomplishing compassionate ends do not matter. In fact, getting to that end would eliminate the powerful political weapon, and that isn’t even desirable. That’s a pretty damning accusation, so we’d better look at the rest of Voegeli’s reasoning. He uses the recent Obamacare website debacle as an example. He quotes liberal columnist, and then makes his observation:
A sympathetic columnist, E. J. Dionne, wrote of the website’s crash-and-burn debut “There’s a lesson here that liberals apparently need to learn over and over: Good intentions without proper administration can undermine even the most noble of goals.” That such an elementary lesson is one liberals need to learn over and over suggests a fundamental defect in liberalism, however—something worse than careless or inept implementation of liberal policies.
That defect, I came to think, can be explained as follows: The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish….It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
So we are, possibly, at an impasse. Liberals want to be compassionate, and conservatives see that their efforts are fruitless, as well as dangerous to our freedoms. Liberals think we should just keep pushing toward the goal—living out a definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over, more and more, and expecting different results. Conservatives think we we’ve tried the bad policies long enough to prove to everyone that they don’t work. It’s a $3 Trillion going concern. We’re spending $10,000 per American per year, much of it on people are not, by any stretch, impoverished, insecure, or suffering.
Liberals think conservatives are evil for not continuing the failing “compassionate” policies. But there’s the error. Conservatives want to actually relieve suffering, not just relieve their own conscience by expressing compassion pointlessly.
Voegeli quotes Rousseau on compassion, and then explains:
As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”
We can see the problem. The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better.
Sometimes altruism actually causes harm to the target of sympathy. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes failure to help is part of the equation: “This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent.”
He quotes political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain as saying, “Pity is about how deeply I can feel. And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”
So, what we have with all these compassionate liberals, then, is a large segment of the population addicted to the self-satisfaction of “caring,” not to help, but to feel better about themselves. Simply put,
Because compassion gives me a self-regarding reason to care about your suffering, it’s more important for me to do something than to accomplish something. Once I’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to “address” your problem, my work is done, and I can feel the rush of my own pious reaction. There’s no need to stick around for the complex, frustrating, mundane work of making sure the program that made me feel better, just by being established and praised, has actually alleviated your suffering.
I think Voegeli is right in his assessment of the liberal mind. He is also accurate about the insanity of squandering more and more money on programs essentially designed to fail.
What we as conservatives need to do, then, is not simply deny the accusation that we’re hard-hearted. We need to clarify the truth of the situation. We need to connect the dots between government welfare and increased pain. We need to make it clear that, any time an American tax dollar is spent on something extra-Constitutional, it has the unintended consequence of causing harm in place of alleviating suffering.
There are times when charitable giving is appropriate—but never through government coercion. It’s not even possible for government to coerce charitable giving; its not logically, by definition, possible. We want to actually alleviate suffering. We will do it by following the principles of freedom, prosperity, and civilization. That’s what works.
Let's speak the truth clearly. Government “giving” hurts people, and mostly hurts the very people designated to be helped. So if you’re in favor of government welfare, you’re in favor of hurting the most vulnerable among us. If you want to think of yourself as kind, you need to change your ways.