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Compassionate Conservatism

Properly understood

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Defeat, like death, concentrates the mind wonderfully. It also liberates the mind. People venture to think the unthinkable, or at least, the impermissible. A new generation of conservatives may be moved to reconsider some ideas that have fallen into disuse or even disrepute. Compassion is one such idea. 

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Shortly after the election, Paul Ryan, addressing the Kemp Foundation, took the measure of the situation in which conservatives now find themselves. In the course of his remarks, he uttered the word “compassion” or “compassionate” five times, by my count​—​in a favorable sense. This is all the more striking because American conservatives have not always been comfortable with that word, regarding it as a vapid sentimentalism that has no place in politics, let alone economics. President Bush’s adoption, in his first term, of a policy of “compassionate conservatism” confirmed them in that suspicion, for that policy soon degenerated into what conservatives themselves derided as a “politics of compassion,” which consisted of yet another round of programs conceived and financed by the government and farmed out to “faith-based” (a euphemism for “religious”) institutions. This was all too reminiscent of the “great society” (again, “society” a euphemism for “state”) inaugurated by President Johnson, which set in motion the vast expansion of the welfare state. (That term too has fallen into disuse, the present entitlements going well beyond the “welfare” designed for the relief of the poor.)

Ryan did not mention the term “compassionate conservatism,” for good reason. Anticipating the objection that might be made to the idea of compassion, he reminds us that we should measure compassion not by how much we spend but by how many people we help, and certainly not by how much government spends or how many programs it creates. Moreover, his own endorsement of it is reassuring. It is precisely because of his impeccable conservative credentials that we may dare revive the word, and with it a new conservatism, a remoralized conservatism, one might say. Conservatives have always maintained that conservative ideas​—​of government, the economy, society, the family​—​are based on sound moral principles. But the case has been made almost as an afterthought. Ryan proposes to bring it to the forefront. “We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” Ryan tells us. “But sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.” Compassion​—​the word and the idea​—​may help give shape and substance to that vision.

It may also be helpful to put that word and idea in historical perspective, to recall its lineage and something of its history​—​most pertinently in modern times. “To compassionate, i.e., to join with in passion,” the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote early in the 18th century, “ .  .  . to commiserate, i.e., to join with in misery. .  .  . This in one order of life is right and good; nothing more harmonious; and to be without this, or not to feel this, is unnatural, horrid, immane [inhuman].” Half a century later Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, distinguished between sympathy and compassion, sympathy being the “fellow-feeling” of all men for each other, compassion the “fellow-feeling” for the “sorrow” of others. “Sympathy” and “compassion,” “moral sense” and “moral sentiments,” “social affections” and “social virtues”​—​these are the terms that dominated social and philosophical discourse and gave a unique character to the British Enlightenment.

This is also the moral philosophy that distinguishes Smith’s political economy from the prevailing mercantilist doctrine. The Wealth of Nations moralizes the economy even as it liberalizes and liberates it from the government and the state. So, too, the people are moralized. The working classes, including the very poor, are said to share a common human nature with their employers and social superiors. They are driven by the same instinct, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”; they have the same motive, to “better themselves”; and they enjoy the same benefits of a thriving economy, a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” Indeed, the difference between “a philosopher and a common street porter,” Smith declares, comes “not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.”

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