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Compassionate Conservatism Is Still A Thing

Maybe, as it turns out, liberty is actually a more compassionate solution for more people than compassionate conservatism? We might as well give it a try.


There was a bit of debate over the past few days about the level to which reform movements on the right resemble a mere reworking of “compassionate conservatism”, sparked by this Peter Beinart piece. Ross Douthat responded here. Reihan Salam here. Ramesh Ponnuru, with the most definitive “no”, here.

I think Beinart’s piece may not be an accurate assessment of what’s motivating those on the right. But compassionate conservatism such as it is – a marketing gimmick which deploys altruism in defense of big government solutions – is very much alive, even if it has ditched the terminology along the way. It is particularly alive at the level where it matters from a policy perspective: among the nation’s Republican governors.

John Kasich and Mike Pence and Chris Christie are all expanding Medicaid under Obamacare by deploying the same familiar terms of caring about the downtrodden and having a heart for the poor – citing the need to follow the path of Jesus and Reagan as their motivation for taxing others to pay for entitlements. Describing a permanent expansion of an entitlement for childless able-bodied adults as a hand up not a hand out (it is the definition of a hand out, given the disincentive for working and reduces skin in the game) and ignoring the tax consequences is classic compassionate conservatism.  And of course politicians in both parties are still doing big government anti-liberty things, insisting on the need for a nanny state to protect people from themselves in the arenas of drug legalization and 20 ounce sodas.

Now in context, this talk of compassionate conservatism rebranding is aimed at the efforts of the reform conservatives, who are eager to avoid the critique that this is just a bunch of Bush veterans attempting to rebrand their past policy agenda in terms which can survive in the new climate of the right. To the extent that their ideas are attempting to make compassionate conservatism actually conservative, their work has merit – to the extent that their ideas are relocation grants and wage subsidies and Keynesian transportation projects, not so much (“Everybody always starts with Michael Strain!”). To a large extent, the more skeptical reformers are of government action, the more their ideas resist this accusation.

That hand out distinction could be useful, actually. As John Podhoretz noted in his masterful 2008 review of Michael Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism, the most troubling aspect of this defense of compassion was its historically revisionist depiction of the heartlessness of welfare reform: “Throughout this book, Gerson argues for the primacy of the highest moral ideals in the conception and implementation of government policies. But it is precisely the gap between the lofty principles expressed in speeches and the often compromised policies enacted by officialdom that has helped create public skepticism about the efficacy of government action to cure social ills.” Thus I don’t think it’s fair to describe Paul Ryan’s agenda, which largely accept the lessons of those reforms, in these terms.

Kevin Williamson has more on what this mindset leads to in the extreme – in California, where compassion-driven policies have resulted in exactly the opposite effect than what was intended.

“Progressivism is a luxury good for college-educated white people. It is the Hermes sneaker of political tendencies. California is not an especially wealthy state — its median income is right between Wyoming’s and Nebraska’s — but it is a state in which one needs to be pretty well off to live decently. The value of the median home in San Francisco is more than ten times the median income; in San Jose, it’s nine and a half times the median income; in Houston, it’s only four times the median income. California is a great place to be a technology executive or a screenwriter, but it’s a rotten place to be a truck driver. California-style progressivism is oriented toward serving the needs of rich people in San Jose, not those of middle-class people in Riverside County or poor people in the agrarian villages. If you’re a well-off lawyer in the gilded suburbs of Los Angeles, you have a great selection of poor, brown gardeners and housekeepers to lessen life’s burdens, which is great for you but stinks for them… Progressivism is very little more than the managerial class pursuing its own class interests under cover of altruism.”

That’s why what reformers are advancing requires the acceptance of the anti-cronyism, anti-corporatist element of the agenda as essential, not just window dressing. In a sense, it’s a demonstration of good faith: that they are willing to take on established interests in a way which could prove painful, just as we’ve seen politicians on the left do in the past. The more one is willing to take sides against such interests, the more you can be trusted as someone who isn’t just trying to rebrand the Bush domestic policies.

But the real problem in even having this debate is that compassionate conservatism is such a nebulous campaign-context term, not a governing philosophy, which is why it can be mashed into whatever politicians like Kasich and Pence want it to be. It’s not a bad thing to be personally compassionate after all, it’s a bad thing to think that compassion requires you to engage in expansions of government and curtailing of liberty. What really should replace compassionate conservatism is a softer argument for federalism as localism – cooperative, communitarian, about neighborhood and home grown policies, not the verbiage of technocratic top-down solutionists. Maybe, as it turns out, liberty is actually a more compassionate solution for more people? We might as well give it a try.