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Buying People Stuff Doesn’t Mean You Care, VA Edition


Every political scandal—in fact, every political news story—winds up reported and interpreted in terms of presidential reputation. How could it be otherwise? There are daily tracking polls on the president’s approval/disapproval ratings, and websites that graph the results like fever charts.

Inevitably, then, the story about Veterans Health Administration hospitals that do not render medical care promptly, or report their delays honestly, has become a story about whether the Obama administration has the determination and ability to discharge its executive responsibilities.

Up to a point, this frame makes sense. When Americans elected Obama in 2008 they knew how little administrative experience he was bringing to the Oval Office. After eight years in the Illinois legislature, Obama spent most of his four years as a U.S. senator running for president.

We should, though, consider whether something more fundamental than Obama’s personal strengths and weaknesses explains his administration’s shortcomings. According to Peter Schuck’s new book, Why Government Fails So Often, And How It Can Do Better, American government’s domestic policy failures “are not just random, occasional, or partisan; they are large, recurrent, and systemic.”

One might discount this assessment if the author were a Heritage Foundation researcher. As an emeritus professor of law at Yale, however, now teaching public policy at Berkeley, Schuck writes as a “militant moderate” who wants activist government to succeed, not fail.

All the more telling, then, that he considers government programs that meet such basic criteria as cost-effectiveness, or targeting assistance to the neediest, to be exceptions rather than the rule. And it’s equally telling that the “how it can do better” part of Schuck’s analysis emphasizes common sense, stick-to-the-knitting improvements—making it easier to fire or discipline government employees, for example, or requiring government to demonstrate that the benefits of its undertakings outweigh the costs—rather than dramatic transformations of the public sector.

Obama himself said much the same thing in The Audacity of Hope before he became president. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that antitax, antigovernment, antiunion sentiments grow anytime people find themselves standing in line at a government office with only one window open and three or four workers chatting among themselves in full view.” Unfortunately, “Progressives in particular seem confused on this point, which is why we so often get our clocks cleaned in elections.”

But why the confusion? Supposedly, where there’s a will there’s a way. How—82 years after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—could American liberals still be summoning the will and finding the way to make activist government fail less often and do better?

Part of the answer comes from elsewhere in Audacity, where Obama states that empathy “is at the heart of my moral code.” As a result, “I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those who are struggling in this society.” Or, as he said in a speech last year, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs.”

That America would be a better country if it were a more compassionate one—indeed, that greater compassion is a necessary and sufficient condition for social improvement—is widely regarded as a self-evident truth. It is a view, however, that fails to reckon with compassion’s snares and delusions.

We can discern trouble in the word itself. “Compassion” derives from the Latin for “suffering together,” which is not to say “identically.” Your hunger or sickness is yours, not mine, but the awareness of your suffering does upset me. The philosopher most responsible for the modern understanding of compassion, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow … it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer.”

Addressing your suffering not only alleviates my distress at the thought of it, but helps me forge a better opinion of myself. We should empathize, Obama wrote in Audacity, because, “If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.” By extension, through helping activities we enhance ourselves.

My feelings, my self-regard—me, me, me. Compassion turns out to be far less disinterested than the brochure led us to expect. If it is in order not to suffer that I don’t want others to suffer, there’s the danger that a compassionate response to others’ suffering will make empathizers feel better but not necessarily help empathizees fare better. As philosophy professor David Schmidtz contends, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”

Outsourcing our compassionate responses to government agencies only deepens the problem. Many point to instances of suffering and declare, “The government must do something.”

But combined local, state, and federal expenditures have exceeded $5 trillion each year since 2009, one third of this large, prosperous nation’s economic output. Clearly, the government is already doing many things. We, especially the struggling in our society, need it to accomplish things, however, and the feel-good part of compassion can render the distinction between attempting and achieving invisible or unimportant to us.

Compassion can make us several things, most of them good, but can also make us complacent, willing to accept gestures as deeds and intentions as a substitute for results. The solution is not to care less, or even more, but to care better. We need, that is, to shrewdly assess government’s capacities and limitations, and candidly acknowledge–in order to resist—the temptation to ignore or excuse the failures of social programs that make us feel better just because they exist.

William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is author of the forthcoming The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.