Competitive Enterprise Institute | 1899 L ST NW Floor 12, Washington, DC 20036 | Phone: 202-331-1010 | Fax: 202-331-0640
Compassionate conservatism, the first major slogan of the Y2K election, has proven a controversial theme for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Proponents see it as a long overdue effort to soften the harshness of the traditional conservative/libertarian rhetoric, to "feminize" politics, to bridge the "gender gap." (Elizabeth Dole's campaign has certainly benefited from that perception.) Yet, many conservatives have denigrated the theme fearing that it constitutes an apologetic acceptance of the liberal caricature of reformers as an alliance of intolerant Calvinists and uncaring Randians. Heritage's Tod Lindberg suggests that the theme might well signal an abandonment of conservative principles altogether. Mario Cuomo among others on the left have endorsed that view seeing compassionate conservatism as a tardy recognition by Republican pragmatists that there is little support for limited government. He suggests that Democratic contender Al Gore welcome their belated endorsement of a "kinder and gentler" (and, of course, bigger) government. But others on the left demur; Mickey Kaus sees compassionate conservatism as nothing more than the old elitist concept of noblesse oblige -- the Republican establishment's willingness to share some crumbs from their opulent table with the peasants. Libertarian critics such as Ed Crane focus on the inherent conflicts of this policy -- are compassionate conservatives seeking to re-validate and re-invigoratd the voluntary association world applauded by Tocqueville or to find new arguments to perpetuate the discredited progressive policies of the last century? He notes Gov. Bush's recent speech in Indianapolis calling for a significantly expanded federal role in a broad array of areas -- maternity group homes, for example. Certainly, as used to date, the phrase raises far more questions than it answers.Properly defined, however, a compassionate conservative theme could be an important development for the conservative/libertarian reform coalition. The phrase need not entail any abandonment or watering down of limited government principles. After all, no one doubts that there are important societal tasks that cannot readily be addressed by markets alone. A civil society, however, need not relegate such duties to government (certainly not the federal government) or to a hierarchic elite. Recall Tocqueville, "recognition that America's voluntary associations allowed our society to address the compassionate "soft" issues without surrendering power and freedom to the state: "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this manner, they found hospitals, prisons, and schools." He noted that in France, such "compassionate" activities would be the responsibility of the state; in England they would be the responsibility of the royalty; while in America, they would be provided by an association. Thoughtfully handled, the compassionate conservative theme would constitute a rediscovery and relegitimization of the creative voluntarism celebrated by Tocqueville -- a society that would address the concerns of all citizens, regardless of gender. Tocqueville saw voluntary action (along with the dominant role of local government in the political sphere) as softening the harsh edges of American individualism, while fending off the benevolent embrace of the nanny regulatory state. Certainly, this concept allows conservatives and libertarians to maintain their principles, while still evincing a sincere concern for the least fortunate among us. And this approach is vastly superior to political intervention. Yet, whether the government agencies and programs of Tocqueville's concept of compassionate conservatism will prevail is unclear. Throughout the 20th century, America's voluntary sector has been ignored and neglected; moreover, it has been systematically weakened by continual efforts to supplant it with government programs. The goal has been to replace voluntary associations with compulsory volunteerism. That experiment is now failing. Government welfare has proven neither conservative nor compassionate. Progressivism undermined the whole spirit of voluntarism. Private schools, private charities and welfare agencies, housing societies, even (in later years) environmental and conservation groups were all viewed as straws in the wind, futile efforts to address problems that could only be solved by political means. The primacy of political means became the dominant theme of the progressive movement. while it might be acceptable to help a starving man, it would be far more moral to lobby for a food stamp program. The practical failure of this idea, can only lead us to conclude that government is hardly the answer. But while the "Leave Us Alone" reform coalition has done much to redeem the American Dream, it has failed to address the egalitarian fairness issues, often arguing against policies aimed at helping children, the sick, the elderly, the environment, workplace and food safety solely on the grounds that they would cost too much, would encourage corruption, would raise taxes, or would restrict choice. Liberty, efficiency and economic growth are important but these values are less salient in a world where the Evil Empire has been vanquished and prosperity is unprecedented. In effect, Republicans have ceded the egalitarian issues to the liberals and since these issues are now salient, liberal values dominate the cultural battlefield and too often the political world. Rethinking our communication strategy is essential. Political communications occur in a world of rational ignorance (people don't spend much time learning about things they can't do much about-- welfare reform, for example). That world is important -- the cultural views of the American people determine what is permissible, what is not -- but those attitudes are shaped by values not facts, less on the details, more on the framing. In that world, people will care little about what we know, unless they know we care. We must reach beyond those who espouse the "Leave Us Alone" worldview. Tragically, conservatives and libertarians alike have 1argely been speaking to themselves in recent years. But both groups do believe that a freer, richer world provides the best hope for a caring world, so why shouldn't they communicate that message? Compassionate conservatism provides a very useful framework for doing so. None of this should be surprising. Conservative/libertarian policies have largely triumphed in the older value areas. Few any longer believe that liberty conflicts with order or efficiency -- that the "Best and the Brightest" would better manage our affairs. Central planners are now thankfully on the endangered professions list. Moreover, many are now well aware that expanded government entails risks as well as benefits -- a view that illustrates not a growing cynicism toward our basic institutions (the fears of the neo-cons notwithstanding) but rather a return to the healthy skepticism of the Founders. Only in the "fairness" area is there any considerable support for political intervention -- and there the challenge is real and significant. Capitalism, our collectivist opponents at home and abroad warn us, is great at protecting freedom for us and certainly creates great wealth again for us but it creates unnecessary risks, degrades the planet and leaves behind the elderly, the sick, the poor and the young. We care about freedom and wealth -- they care about the sick, the planet, our children! This liberal dominance of this moral highground can and must be challenged. The compassionate conservatism theme offers a means of re-opening this battle and challenging anew the statists for the egalitarian moral highground. Given that the fairness issues are the only remaining area where any large number of Americans still view government with any favor, there can be no more important battle. How all this might best be done can be illustrated by the progress of welfare reform over the last few decades. Initially, conservative and libertarian criticisms focused on the corruption of these programs (welfare queens and urban patronage), the dependency and paternalism inherent in such programs, and their inherent inefficiencies. To many, such findings discredited the welfare state. Egalitarians, however, were not persuaded by showings of inefficiency, restricted choice or corruption. They argued that if government offers the only hope of addressing the compassionate agenda, then even bad programs must be supported. Welfare reform became feasible only when the work of Charles Murray and Marvin Olasky demonstrated that government was more the problem than the solution, that government was stifling the creative forces that offered the only hope of compassionately addressing poverty concerns. That rediscovery of the voluntary sector(and the freeing of state and local governments to experiment -- the welfare waiver program) made true reform possible -- and bi-partisan. Compassionate conservatism offers a way to organize these arguments and thus a way out of the Leviathan Maze that is the legacy of the Progressive Utopian Dreams of the last century. Opposition to such changes will be fierce. Modern liberalism is fighting rear-guard action to preserve its privileges and is willing to dissemble and subvert any idea to that end. And it has proven amazingly protean in its ability to assimilate the language of reform to defend the status quo, to sabotage substantive reform efforts. Areas where this strategy is being pursued include school choice, welfare reform, and private conservation. Constant vigilance is essential to ensure that Compassionate Conservatism does not become a new bottle for the old progressive nostrums. But that subversion need not occur -- and the 2000 presidential campaign will be an important battleground in that struggle. Governor Bush must read cautiously -- he should reflect on the pitfalls that beset his father in this area. His Indianapolis speech was eloquent in its endorsement of private action -- but it was naiive in its view that government could help without interference. The history of the last few decades where "public" has become a term of art to politicize our schools, our market places and streets, our very social clubs -- all argue that the Bush plan would weaken the very institutions it so glowingly applauds. Still, it is early in the campaign and a correction in course would be easy. But the compassionate conservative theme is too important to be left to a campaign slogan of one or two candidates; the other challengers including Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle should embrace the term and clarify its content to ensure that it is properly understood. Issues of safety, health and the environment are the only areas where statism is still strong; compassionate conservatism gives us a useful tool to overrun this last bastion and a way of communicating to the American people what we're about. The term may still sound wimpy -- but it offers a major hope of restoring the American Dream and that hope should motivate all of us to consider the topic carefully.