Uncompassionate liberalism

By Roger Banks
web posted February 19, 2001

Democrats in Congress agree with President Bush that some level of tax cut is appropriate, but the prospect of reduced revenue is already cramping their spending style. Congressman Charles Rangle (D-NY), recently appeared on "Face the Nation" to fret about how government would "take care of" medical insurance and prescriptions for every citizen. Meanwhile, the familiar murmuring about the conservative agenda goes on.

The desire to cut spending on government programs, liberals insist, flows from a lack of compassion. Ironically, however, it is the failure to curb the entitlement regime that stands to harden the American heart, and perpetuate the increasingly uncharitable society such programs have helped create.

Advocates of curtailing entitlements have traditionally focused attention on the burdens they impose: burdens on individual freedom, on the economy, and on beneficiaries themselves. Despite the unassailable logic, and perhaps because of it, these arguments seem only to contribute to the stereotype of conservatives as uncompassionate. Even the argument that entitlements visit harm on those they are designed to help, while demonstrably true, has not helped conservatives shed their reputation for being penurious and mean.

President Bush, of course, has come into office heralding the era of the "compassionate conservative," a term liberals would like to dismiss as a simplistic catch-phrase. In fact, the term is proving to be the tip of a great iceberg, a profound belief system, supplying what's been missing all along from conservative apologetics: a compassionate justification, or the beginnings of one.

During the South Carolina primaries, Bush responded to a voter's question with the words, "Government cannot force people to love one another." Although we might wish this truth to be self-evident -- that love cannot be legislated -- before the rise of Bush the younger, it had been all but overlooked by enthusiasts of smaller government. In his inauguration address, the new President returned to the same message, explaining that when the "spirit of citizenship is missing, no government program can replace it." Again, love cannot be legislated; or, as Portia tells Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, "the quality of mercy is not strained."

From the foregoing principles, another inexorably follows, which Bush has so far left unstated. Specifically, while the spirit of generosity cannot be replaced by government programs, it can be displaced by government programs. Attempting to constrain "compassion" though government, in fact, may have a chilling effect on personal acts of kindness. The out-of-control entitlement system, in which the state attempts to guarantee the material well-being of everyone, propagates a collective sense that private generosity is increasingly unnecessary, and increasingly without purpose or meaning.

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton last year neglected an act of basic kindness in a way that vividly illustrates this paradox of the entitlement mentality. The unhappy incident occurred when she failed to leave a tip for the waitress who served her breakfast during a campaign stop in upstate New York. Mrs. Clinton had just finished a speech advocating more federal programs for rural communities. The waitress she stiffed was a single mother residing in the rural town of Albion, relying on the kindness of tipping patrons to support herself and her children. Mrs. Clinton's thoughtlessness showed, in a rather striking way, that a natural, habitual kindness may be absent from a mind that ardently hails government as the solution for every personal hardship.

The point is driven home by a 1992 video (aired by Fox News on Dec. 7, 1999) showing Mrs. Clinton turning down a homeless man who asked her for change. As she turned her back on the indigent and crossed the street, perhaps she was thinking that monetary help from her would be superfluous, given the many government programs in place to "service the needs" of such people. The attitude is not uncommon, but fails to apprehend the blessing conferred by an act of personal generosity, not only on the one in need, but on the helping person's own heart.

Indeed, personal, voluntary sacrifice, made on behalf of someone in need is, like Shakespeare's quality of mercy, "twice blest." It blesses the one who receives, and, not of lesser significance, the one who gives. Government entitlements, and the impassive spirits they arouse, remove a good part of both of these blessings. The so-called "faith-based" initiatives need not contravene these principles, if understood as a process whereby charitable intentions are weaned from taxpayer funds.

In his inauguration speech, President Bush asked Americans to be "citizens . . . not spectators." He called for personal kindness, of the sort illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan: "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." The entitlement regime, in contrast, works to obviate individual good will. It drives charitable impulses into a cold bureaucracy, dampens citizenship, encourages a life profoundly centered on self. It engenders indifference, and stands to make us spectators to the plight of others, as seen in the former first lady's neglect.

Time-honored arguments against big government provide an excellent sword for hewing down government excesses. But President Bush has forged a new paradigm, a shield to guard against the liberal barrage - the charges of "un-compassion," which, like fiery darts, aim at the heart of all who would resist the expanding power of the oppressor. Thus equipped, the effort may press forward, to win back a nation founded by the pioneers of limited government, who risked everything to secure the blessings of liberty.

Roger Banks is a writer and free-lance lawyer in Washington, D.C. His book reviews appear in the "After Hours" section of the Legal Times, a journal of law and politics in Washington. He has appeared as a guest on nationally syndicated television and radio shows. His editorial writings have appeared in the Washington Times, the Washington Post, the Legal Times, the Connecticut Law Tribunal, the Journal of Commerce and a number of on-line publications, including ESR. He may be contacted at rogerbanks@earthlink.net

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