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September 26, 2010

Perhaps it’s time for a little compassionate libertarianism

by Stephen Gordon

“It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.

“This is what I mean by compassionate conservatism. And on this ground we will govern our nation.

“We will give low-income Americans tax credits to buy the private health insurance they need and deserve.

“We will transform today’s housing rental program to help hundreds of thousands of low-income families find stability and dignity in a home of their own.

“And, in the next bold step of welfare reform, we will support the heroic work of homeless shelters and hospices, food pantries and crisis pregnancy centers people reclaiming their communities block-by-block and heart-by-heart.” - from George W. Bush’s 2000 Republican National Convention acceptance speech

True fiscal conservatives, especially libertarians, are among the most compassionate people I’ve ever met.  Time and time again I’ve witnessed the poorest of libertarians being the most generous with their money, especially when the giving process is personal and not directed through some government agency or large non-government organization. When a house burns down across the street, these are often the first people to show with food and clothing. When someone needs money for a medical calamity, these are the people who host the bake sale and pass the hat. They’ll assist in a traffic accident or help a stranger fix a flat in the pouring rain. Or give a homeless guy a few bucks. When you see that glass jar with a tattered photocopy of some local kid in need taped to it over by the checkout counter at your local mom-and-pop store, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Compassionate conservatism, at least of the variety schemed by Karl Rove and practiced by George W. Bush, has been a topic of constant ridicule from the left, libertarians, and the few fiscal conservatives with enough testicular fortitude to criticize Republican leaders for their hypocrisy regarding economic issues. True to his word,  Bush intervened in the health care, housing and welfare reform arenas, providing us with costly programs like Medicare Part D, the collapse of Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac, and problematic Faith-Based Initiatives, respectively.  And let’s not forget the federal expansion of the No Child Left Behind program or the federal intervention of the Terri Schiavo case. While these big-ticket items provide enough fodder to dismiss compassionate conservatism, there are countless additional examples of how Bush and his cronies managed equate the word “conservative” with a redistributionistic domestic policy or expansion of government.

A bit of fast forwarding provides the same general liberal and libertarian criticisms of compassionate conservatism today, but the populist mood has shifted and provided us with a Tea Party movement willing to, at least in part, take aim at the policies of the previous administration.  The Tea Party movement has also provided new fiscally conservative candidates, emboldened the few small-government conservatives holding public office, and forced others to wear a temporary, election year I-also-hate-deficit-spending-except-when-they-forced-me-to-vote-for-it cloak. For better or worse, the political landscape has certainly changed over the last couple of years.

President Obama’s election combined with a Democratic takeover of Congress led to an interesting phenomenon: An increase in the sales of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.   All of a sudden, non-libertarians were no longer wincing when being criticized for greediness and the Tea Parties of early 2009 sported a lot of Rand-influenced signage.  During those days, I ran into a plethora of activists who could easily illustrate how individual “greed” is actually a virtue.

By the time the April 15, 2009 Tea Parties had concluded, the initially blurry composition of the movement had focused into a coalition of libertarians and fiscal conservatives with a better defined message regarding greed and compassion. Still today, there is a clear-cut and not-necessarily-defined-by-party-lines “us” and “them” — “them” being the liberals, the big-spenders, the establishment, the liberal media, elected officials, and so on.  In other words, the big-government political elite and their enablers.

In the process of defining “them,” fiscal conservatives also began to brand who the “us” are: the victims of the big-government political elite and their enablers. Populist identity politics in the Tea Party era focuses on the rights, and the votes, of people afflicted by government policies — especially redistributionistic ones. While a few people still concentrate on the Randian self-victim angle, a great deal are now concerned about how fiscal deficits will impact their children and grandchildren, how cap-and-trade legislation places arbitrary regulations on industries, and on how socialized medicine removes personal choice from large sectors of our society.

It seems that Bush’s brand of compassionate conservatism was designed primarily to win enough liberals without repulsing too many conservatives in order to win on Election Day.  This played out to three large sectors of the voting population:  It guilted the “haves” into paying for the “needs” of others, it bribed the “needy” in exchange for votes and the word “conservative” was tacked alongside socialistic policies in order to pacify other elements within the GOP.

That formula couldn’t work today because the “haves” are becoming fewer in number and those remaining are less inclined to pay taxes for either social or corporate welfare. Despite the protestations of the Mike Huckabees and Lindsey Grahams of the world, the word “conservative” is being redefined and the current incarnation deals more with fiscal than social issues.  Providing government services to classes of people in exchange for votes will always exist, but as the system continues to collapse, people have less faith in the ability of their own sector of society to continue to be the beneficiary of government largesse.

“Compassionate libertarianism” is not some policy of economic redistribution, as others have suggested in the past. It isn’t pandering for votes, although that could be a positive consequence. It doesn’t require compromising any values, therefore it isn’t oxymoronic.

“Compassionate libertarianism” is concentrating the imagery of the libertarian message towards the victims of government benevolence. It focuses on the small company forced to shut down because of ObamaCare or other tax and regulatory burdens. It illuminates a new class of unemployed as a result of Cap-and-Trade. It highlights a working family which just cut their food budget while paying for the more expensive food of people who don’t work at all. It centers our attention on the small businesses which are laying off employees while the government continues to hire.

Other examples include those suffering from collapsing roads or utility systems because government can no longer pay the bill. People being forced to purchase insurance they don’t desire. The family farm which can’t compete with the government-subsidized mega farms. The non-bailout automobile companies competing with those obtaining government cash. Someone who dies as a result of a government-influenced denial of his or her medical care. The people being looted, as opposed to the looters and beneficiaries of the looting process.

For the first time in my life, it seems that more people sympathize with the people being looted than with the looters. Maybe this is because more people are being personally impacted by our current fiscal crisis than has happened for quite some time.  And this seems to have led to additional education about our Constitution and the history of the dawning of our republic.

Perhaps this is the time to turn our country’s sympathies toward those individuals who are working hard and doing the right thing but having their property confiscated in the variety of social and corporate welfare scams being administered in D.C.

If we are going to be compassionate, let’s at least aim it at the true victims in society — the ones actually being tyrannized by our government, as opposed to the looters who receive the spoils of this economic and political war.

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6 Comments

  1. [...] Perhaps it’s time for a little compassionate libertarianism [...]

    Pingback by Perhaps it’s time for a little compassionate libertarianism | Hammer of Truth 2010 — September 26, 2010 @ 9:47 pm
  2. Greed is not a virtue. It is naive to think that any emotion, no matter how good it may seem, is always purely good. Even love can lead to devastation. From what I know of Ayn Rand, she’s an ethical egotist, and I’ve seen enough examples of greed leading to devastation that I can’t buy that nonsense. I’m a utilitarian – greed is good when it leads to greater happiness, evil when it leads to greater suffering. Just like every other emotion.

    Your compassionate libertarianism – like the tea party – highlights some of the tyrants and their evils and ignores others. Why do you ignore the fact that Wall Street contributed a great deal to the economic collapse, and yet they were the biggest recipients of big government’s handouts? And now they have returned to profitability, credit is flowing and yet they are not hiring. They have the power to end this recession, and they choose not to. Why? Because they are greedy. How can you give the selfishness and stupidity of Wall Street a free pass, while pointing out the same failures in our government?

    Wall Street and Washington are two heads of the same hydra. Until our movements start recognizing this, there will be no progress.

    Comment by cjs — September 27, 2010 @ 7:10 am
  3. @cjs:

    greed may or may not be a virtue, especially in un-healthy doses (and depending on one’s definition of greed), but the notion that greed is virtuous as a means to the end of realizing genuine liberty is a notion i believe Ayn Rand leaves us with, at least in part, from her works of fiction, albeit highly idealized and romanticized as are Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

    the fact that a thing is dangerous in high doses and according to a certain form/definition does not rule out the possibility that a thing is good nonetheless.

    that being said, doesn’t greed in the “wall street” sense of the term lead to plenty happiness and devestation at the same time?

    @Steven Gordon:

    one of the best post to come across the wire here in a long time!

    Comment by Jon David — September 27, 2010 @ 2:07 pm
  4. cjs – When I referenced redistributionism, that includes corporate welfare as much as it does social welfare. There is nothing inconsistent here or in any other element of my public life as I don’t favor one sort of welfare program over another. I’ve never given Wall Street a pass when it comes to bailouts or special favors.

    In this document, I also criticized Bush for his role in the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiasco.

    Comment by Stephen Gordon — September 27, 2010 @ 2:45 pm
  5. Hopefully things crash more like a velvet revolution like Romania, instead of total chaos.

    And hopefully unlike Romania, the aftermath won’t just be a slightly different state/EU-controlled nation.

    Comment by Procopius — September 27, 2010 @ 3:41 pm
  6. Stephen,

    I don’t doubt that you disfavor any form of redistribution, however it seemed that your document focused on only one side.

    Comment by cjs — September 29, 2010 @ 5:11 am

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