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Compassionate Conservatism

Properly understood

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The rhetoric of The Wealth of Nations is even more overtly moral. Smith was a professor of moral philosophy before he became a political economist, so that the rhetoric of morality came naturally to him. Conservatives of a libertarian bent are discomfited by his frequent denunciations​—​not in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where one might expect them, but in The Wealth of Nations​—​of merchants and manufacturers who espouse “the vile maxim, ‘all for themselves, and nothing for other people,’ ” and who are prone to “impertinent jealousy,” “mean rapacity,” “malignant expedients,” “sneaking arts,” “interesting sophistry,” and “interested falsehood.”


The compassion that Smith found in human nature exhibited itself not only in individual acts of charity but in a proliferation of “societies” (Tocqueville was to call them “associations”) to alleviate every kind of affliction and misfortune. Contemplating those societies​—​for abandoned infants, abused children, fallen women, maimed seamen, the deaf, dumb, blind, crippled, and insane​—​the reformer Hannah More characterized her period (not entirely in praise) as the “Age of Benevolence.” The early Victorians, inspired by the Evangelicals, added the slave trade and child labor to that list. Later still, Josephine Butler, championing the cause of prostitutes, described “the awful abundance of compassion which makes me fierce.” Beatrice Webb summed up the “time-spirit” of these late Victorians as the “Religion of Humanity”​—​a term coined by the Positivists, for whom humanitarianism (or “fellow-feeling,” as Smith would have said) was a surrogate for religion itself. This new religion, she explained, for Positivists and reformers like herself, had a double aspect, uniting religion and science in the service of humanity.

It was in this spirit that yet another society, the Charity Organisation Society, was formed in 1869. Its purpose was to rationalize (“scientize,” so to speak) the “abundance of compassion” exhibited in the philanthropic societies​—​700 in London alone. In three years there were three dozen district committees, and by the end of the decade the COS was the premier charitable organization in London and a model for others in England and America. Charles Loch, its longtime secretary, commented on the apparent paradox in the title, “charity” being “free, fervent, impulsive,” and “organization” implying “order, method, .  .  . self-restraint.” The COS sought to make charity more effective by eliminating duplication and encouraging new methods for the identification and supervision of the recipients of charity. Like the other societies, it was a private enterprise, founded, funded, directed, and staffed without any government contribution or involvement (without even the tax-code incentive that modern philanthropies enjoy). And like them, it was intended to help individuals and families to help themselves. “Charity,” Loch declared, “is a social regenerator. We have to use Charity to create the power of self-help.”

The “self” in “self-help” applied as much to the family as to the individual. It was for the sake of the family that other philanthropists addressed themselves to the problem of housing. Bad housing, they claimed, was even more detrimental to the poor than unemployment, because the home was the heart and hearth of the family, and the family was crucial to the development of character. Earlier in the century another Lord Shaftesbury founded the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, which had as one of its main functions the building and renovating of houses for the poor. Other societies followed suit, constructing “model dwellings” where tenants were required to pay a modest rent. Octavia Hill, one of the founding members of the COS, took this as her main cause, buying houses which she renovated and managed, with a staff of “rent-collectors” cum social workers. Like a latter-day psychoanalyst justifying the hourly fee as a token of the patient’s earnestness, she regarded the prompt payment of rent as an earnest of the tenant’s good faith and good conduct. Notably hardheaded in this respect, she was also sensitive to the spiritual and aesthetic needs of her tenants. Criticizing the municipally built model dwellings for not being sufficiently “model,” she paid as much attention to the landscaping as to the interiors of her houses. “The poor of London,” she reminded reformers, “need joy and beauty in their lives.”

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