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Compassionate Conservatism Revisited

5:57 PM, Jan 7, 2013 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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At the Washington Post, Jen Rubin writes of a renewed interest in compassionate conservatism, citing Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, Republican Paul Ryan, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, writing in THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Here's Rubin:

Three people do not a mass movement make. But when the three are the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, the renowned scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), it is enough or should be enough of a trend to make conservatives perk up. Each in their own way is making the case that conservatism has become too aseptic, too abstract and too divorced from the real lives of real people....

Conservatives recoiled at the term compassionate conservatism because they were offended that regular ole conservatism was being labeled uncompassionate. But that is a failure of their own making, an accountant style of conservatism that speaks as if free markets and not people are the objects of affection. Free markets are a vehicle, not an end in itself to the emancipation of individuals and to their self-expression. 

Now comes along Himmelfarb (actually she has been turning out brilliant scholarship for decades) to wrap it up in a bow and present it to a movement surely in need of some scene setting: “Above all, what conservatives can do, and what Ryan and others are now trying to do, is to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it. Properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), compassion is a preeminently conservative virtue. It dignifies the individual (the donor of charity as well as the recipient); it thrives in a free and sound economy where the individual can “better himself”; it nurtures a spirit of independence rather than fostering the dependency that is too often the result of misguided entitlements; and it finds expression and fulfillment in civil society more often than in government. This is not to deny the validity or utility of safety nets and entitlements in principle, only to define and limit them in practice. Nor is it to deny any role to government, only, again, to define that role more precisely and to limit it more severely."

After all, conservatism is a political theory, or more properly, a disposition, not pure economics or quantum mechanics. Unless grounded substantively and rhetorically in the needs and aspirations of real people it becomes sterile and irrelevant. Why do conservatives want to reform entitlements? Not merely to balance the books or return to “limited government” but to preserve opportunity for ourselves and our children, allow a thriving economy that provides jobs (and the dignity and prosperity that go with employment) and maintain a strong safety net for those who cannot take care of themselves.

And here's a snippet of Himmelfarb's essay in the latest issue of TWS:

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, inThe 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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