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Compassionate Conservatism

Properly understood

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Another notable institution, the Salvation Army, founded by the Methodist “Christian Mission,” was an amalgam not of religion and science, but of the equally improbable combination of religion and the military. It declared itself an “army” complete with “corps” (local societies), “forts” (shelters), “soldiers” (members), and “officers” (missionaries). On the theory that spiritual salvation required a prior moral reformation, and that in turn a material reformation, it provided the poor not only with such uplifting activities as revivalist meetings, singings, and entertainment, but also material comforts​—​shelters for the homeless, homes for “fallen women,” prison-gate “brigades” to help released convicts, and food depots for the needy. By the end of the century, it took on a still more ambitious project, the founding of “colonies”​—​city, farm, and overseas colonies​—​each to be a “self-helping and self-sustaining” community. 

Toynbee Hall catered to a different constituency, not the very poor or indigent but the working classes as a whole. It is perhaps not coincidental that Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house in London, was established at the same time as the passage of the Reform Act of 1884, enfranchising most of the working classes. Toynbee Hall (named in honor of Arnold Toynbee, the economic historian and uncle of the more famous historian) was meant to bridge the gap between the “two nations” by uniting them in a common “citizenship”​—​a moral as well as political citizenship. The rich would fulfill their civic responsibilities by instructing and catering to the poor, and the poor by acquiring that education and culture which enabled them to be active and worthy citizens. The settlement houses, in working-class neighborhoods, were residences not for the poor but for those who ministered to them, university graduates mainly from Oxford who paid for their lodging and food, and lived there for several months or even years. Neighboring workers would meet there for classes, lectures, discussions, concerts, exhibits, or whatever else might be edifying and elevating, in an atmosphere that was itself edifying and elevating. (Toynbee Hall was deliberately constructed to resemble an Oxford college.) By the end of the century there were 30 such houses, over half in London. 

These were only the more conspicuous manifestations of the “abundance of compassion” testified to by Josephine Butler and the scores of philanthropists who dedicated their entire lives to charitable enterprises of one sort or another. These were not people of great fortune. Octavia Hill had to borrow money from her good friend John Ruskin for the purchase of her first three houses, and the college graduates in Toynbee Hall paid for the privilege of serving the community. In this respect late-Victorian England was the very model of a civil society. The societies and institutions were privately organized and funded, focused on specific causes, and supervised to make sure that the efforts produced the desired results. They all relied, for their moral as well as financial support, upon the other resources of civil society​—​individuals, families, friends, and religious missions of all denominations. And they all shared a common ethos. As help was given voluntarily, as a charity, not a tax, so it was received voluntarily, as a gift, not an entitlement. 


That ethos, and the civil society that sustained it, began to be challenged early in the following century by the enactment of two critical pieces of legislation, old age and unemployment insurance. It is ironic to find Beatrice Webb, now better known as a founder of English socialism, opposing those acts because they gave people money allowances unconditionally, without any return in the form of better conduct or attempt to seek or retain work. It is even more ironic to find Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, defending them on the grounds that social policy should not be grounded in moral criteria. “I do not like,” he explained, “mixing up moralities with mathematics.” Three decades later, the Beveridge Report of 1942 heralded the welfare state as the next “British revolution.” That revolution was carried out after the war with a series of acts, including the National Health Service, which transferred many of the duties and responsibilities of civil society to the welfare state.

Half a century later, when the welfare state had itself been transformed into something like an entitlement state, the Conservative David Cameron, seeking election, adopted President Bush’s motto of “compassionate conservatism.” Reaffirming that principle, he recently declared: “It’s not enough to know our ideas are right. We’ve got to explain why they are compassionate too.” Unfortunately, the British version of compassionate conservatism, intended to strengthen civil society by making it the instrument for the public expression of compassion, has the opposite effect. The programs that go under that label are more often initiated (“encouraged,” as is said), supervised, and even partly subsidized by the government. 

In this country, a new generation of conservatives, confronting similar problems, may well look to some old sages for inspiration​—​to Adam Smith, most notably, not only for his economic principles but also for the moral vision that informed them. One might even quote Smith against Churchill, reminding him that social policies (and economic policies as well) are necessarily, for good or bad, grounded in moral criteria. (On the other hand, a conservative might well agree with Churchill that those early measures of social legislation, and some later ones as well, were both warranted and effective.) One can also look to American history for the assurance that civil society is not an abstract or ideal concept but very much a reality, a vehicle for reform as well as for the preservation of tradition (the “status quo,” as is said invidiously).

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. 

Leo Strauss once wrote, in quite another context: “A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.” If only on that ground​—​“the nobility of the effort”​—​compassion should endear itself to the conservative.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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