A Smarter “Compassionate Conservatism?”

Compassionate Conservatism. Those two words are enough to make most conservatives cringe in disgust, curse, and maybe even spit. For good reason. At one point in time, the term was one that most conservatives could get behind, and was marked by a desire to reform safety-net programs. As Ed Morrissey explains:

Matt [Lewis] uses the term “compassionate conservatism,” which at one time meant an embrace of Aquinas’ philosophy with conservative policies — in other words, a better and more responsible approach to the safety net. Welfare reform was one of the successes of this approach, which instead of eliminating an important safeguard for the truly needy, made it work properly so that resources went to those who needed them most and ensured that funding came from present revenues rather than massively borrowing against future economic prosperity. When George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative,” he promised further reform of federal programs to ensure their solvency and at least some focus on reducing or eliminating corruption in other programs.

Unfortunately, what seemed a worthwhile movement, ended in a mess. Call it the echo chamber, the lure of spending and easy money, or the desire for power, Ed continues:

Instead, the one-party rule of 2002 to 2006 did nearly nothing for either effort. Under the rubric of “compassionate conservatism,” entitlement programs grew, and one was added (Medicare Part D), with little attention to the unsound fiscal models on which they rested. Republicans seemed more interested in courting lobbyists and inflating spending than reform and fiscal responsibility. The term “compassionate conservative” became synonymous with Big Government, and voters grew to regard Republicans as no different than Democrats on spending issues. It’s this context that drove the Tea Party to demand a more libertarian/Randian policy viewpoint, and which has more or less made the term “compassionate conservatism” an epithet on the right.

The end result was a backlash against any kind of social spending by conservatives and a drift towards a more Randian (Ayn, not Paul) approach towards economics with the rise of the Tea Party. With this shift came a renewed, almost laser-like focus on government spending by the right. However, this emphasis on economics may have lost sight of an important variable in electoral politics. Arthur Brooks provides the details:

In his best-selling 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.

This is not to say that the solution is to return to the big-spending ways that marked the Bush administration (although it does seem pretty tame by Obama standards of spending). As a small government proponent, I don’t want the government spending any more than absolutely necessary. Rather, the focus should be on demonstrating how conservative, free market principles make everyone’s life better, especially those on the lower end of the economic scale. Brooks continues:

Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.

The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.

[T]he answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

In other words, not a shift in policy from limited government spending and regulation towards the big social spending ways of the Bush era, but rather a recasting of true conservative policy away from philosophical arguments over the nature of big goverment and the morality of spending and debt to a more practical argument of how these policies will help those most in need of help. Even social conservative positions can be recast in a more pragmatic way:

Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien “bourgeois” morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.

By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.

Again, not a movement away from traditional values, but rather a recasting away from philosophical moral arguments into a more pragmatic argument of how these values will hael those most in need of help. Ed states his case for the more pragtmatic application of conservatism:

The greatest virtue of conservatism — especially economic conservatism — is that it accounted for the reality of human nature and designed systems that worked complementary to it that respect individual genius, rather than in opposition while assuming a Utopian vision delivered by elites to the ignorant masses. We need to embrace that approach again, stop talking philosophy, and start providing solutions.

Not only do we need to be providing solutions, but also telling stories about the merits of conservatives principles as they apply to providing aid for those in need of help, or are looking to better their lives. This is one reason why conservatives from immigrant families can be so compelling. For instance, a Marco Rubio whose parents came from Cuba to build a better life, worked hard and at multiple jobs so that their children could have a better life (and we all know how that turned out). Such a narrative taps into the American Dream, which is something that all Americans can understand and to which they aspire, or at least, used to. It’s just up to us to show them how conservative principles (limited government and free markets) can restore that dream.

There will probably be a good bit of disagreement along the way, but in the end, as Peter Wehner states, “Now precisely how solidarity with the poor works itself out in public policy is a complicated matter involving prudential judgments. But that a society should care about the poor really is not.”