The Education of a Compassionate Conservative
National Review editor Rich Lowry doesn't seem to care much for Texas Governor Rick Perry. In a recent essay entitled "The Rise of Uncompassionate Conservatism" Lowry admonishes Gov. Perry for "stomping all over [compassionate conservatism] with cowboy boots emblazoned with the words 'Freedom' and 'Liberty.'" Lowry, who considers Gov. Perry the "Republican noncandidate flavor of the week," aches for the luminous days when George Bush won over "the center as well as the right" with his signature insight into the wonders of compassionate conservatism.
For Lowry, Gov. Perry's "unadulterated doctrine" only appeals to the "doctrinaire" and simply proves that Perry has "been spending too much time at Federalist Society seminars." So instead of educating his readers concerning the false dichotomy between being a compassionate conservative and being, well, Rick Perry, Lowry's commentary only proves that he, like Bush, has swallowed to some extent that most ingenious of all leftist philosophical creations: that "compassion" can most effectively be sold as an organized, planned government thingy.
Indeed, the "compassion" card is the Holy Grail to a progressive Democrat. It's a philosophical ace in the hole that has allowed Democrats to rhetorically smother and intimidate Republicans for generations. It's an idea, as Ronald Reagan should have known, more formidable than the Soviet military. It's the reason a socialist like Barack Obama was swept into office in America a mere twenty years after communism was "defeated." It's the reason why Whittaker Chambers argued that for Communists, "the sense of moral superiority ... [allows them] to berate their opponents with withering self-righteousness."
The brilliant French philosopher and journalist Jean-François Revel spent his life warning Americans and Europeans of the tremendous power of the left's creative discourse on compassion and social justice. In books such as The Totalitarian Temptation, How Democracies Perish, and Last Exit to Utopia Revel collected a mountain of evidence in order to paint a very modern picture of a very old but successful, and enduring, leftist strategy:
The Left's winning strategy [is] to make [conservatives] fear the consequences of their own devotion to their philosophy, and to pressure them to abjure it altogether.
For example, had John McCain been more confident in his philosophy and less petrified by what those on the left had already assumed was the internal moral poisoning that accompanied the Republican label, he might well be sitting in the White House today helping to orchestrate an economic recovery. To take just one example, back in October of 2008, many in the candidate's inner circle -- including Sarah Palin -- were imploring McCain to publically address Obama's twenty-year connection to his virulently anti-American preacher Jeremiah Wright. McCain refused. At the time, a top Republican official close to McCain put it this way:
McCain felt it would be sensed as racially insensitive. But more important is that McCain thinks that the bringing of racial religious preaching in black churches into the campaign would potentially have grave consequences for civil society in the United States.
"I don't want to be known as a racist," said the official, "and McCain doesn't want to be known as a racist candidate."
In short, McCain's desire to both educate the public about racially divisive preachers and openly defend his own philosophy of opportunity was no match for the concern he had regarding what those on the left might "sense" about him and the danger these same leftists would pose to "civil society." Hans Christian Anderson wrote a famous story about this kind of psychological intimidation; it's called "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Indeed, Revel made the fascinating observation that democratic civilization tends to spawn a particular kind of self-deprecating mindset among many of its domestic public servants in the face of internal and external intimidation. Revel says that in the battle for ideas between determined collectivists on the left and the laissez-faire capitalists on the right it seems quite natural that the more unscrupulous and tenacious leftists will have a competitive advantage. "But it is less natural and more novel," says Revel, "that the stricken civilization should not only be deeply convinced of the rightness of its own defeat, but that it should regale its friends and foes with reasons why defending itself would be immoral and, in any event, superfluous, useless, even dangerous."
Leftist assumption of control of academia and the media was so swift and thorough during the 1970s and 80s only because many conservatives had swallowed the liberal line that such values as self-reliance, merit, individualism, and fairness were not only immoral and indefensible but quite possibly racist and borderline fascist as well. These were heady days for progressive thugs, especially in academia where conservative professors lived in terror of being outed by both students and faculty. Self-righteous and self-appointed inquisitors like then-Duke professor Stanley Fish typified leftist sanctimony during the early 1990s with statements like the following:
Individualism, fairness, merit -- these three words are continually in the mouths of our up to date, newly respectable bigots who have learned that they need not put on a white hood or bar access to the ballot box in order to secure their ends.
Conservative devotion to objective standards of measurement and justice, in other words, is simply a racist tactic designed by "newly respectable bigots" in order to deny advancement to oppressed minorities.
And while the philosophically unopposed progressives on the left have assumed a kind of imperial swagger in their derisive, anti-conservative rhetoric over the last few decades, nothing I've seen remotely captures the essence of their vanity as perfectly as President Obama's address to congressional Democrats prior to the Health Care vote last March:
[S]omething inspired you to be a Democrat instead of running as a Republican. Because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, I believe in an America in which we don't just look out for ourselves, that we don't just tell people you're on your own, that we are proud of our individualism, we are proud of our liberty, but we also have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class.
Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was the father of modern collectivism and social justice philosophy, Barack Obama seems to think that since most of us have particular desires that run counter to what he considers to be the public good, we are in need of a kind of liberation through persuasion. Simply put, if we cling to personal desires that create obstacles to communal justice then it merely proves that we are acting in ways contrary to what our more enlightened selves would desire. In his Social Contract Rousseau argues that this kind of myopia is synonymous with enslavement:
When the opinion contrary to mine prevails, that only proves that I was mistaken, and that what I had considered to be the general will was not. If my private opinion had prevailed, I would have done something other than what I wanted to do, and then I would not have been free.
Freedom, in other words, means liberating yourself from desires that run counter to the "general will." And like many modern collectivists, Rousseau insists that someone with "superior intelligence" is necessary to "teach [the public] to know what it wants." Those who refuse to obey the "general will," says Rousseau, "shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that [they] shall be forced to be free."
The disturbing truth about all of this however is that unless confident, philosophically inclined conservatives are willing to challenge the left's fabrication about morality on the plane of ideas, the Lowrys and McCains and Bushes of the world will -- give or take an occasional and slim Republican victory -- merely grease the skids for what George Orwell claimed back in 1947 would be a "trend toward centralism and planning." Our only option, said Orwell, would then be to "humanize the collectivist society" that is surely just beyond the horizon.
Back in the late 1960s Ayn Rand wrote a book -- The New Left -- in which she issued warnings to various establishment conservatives who were willingly being steamrolled by a fledgling minority of newly smug collectivists in America. Rand was one of the few to understand that America's future depended more than anything else on winning a battle of ideas:
In the absence of intellectual opposition, the rebels' notions will gradually come to be absorbed into the culture. The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by precedent, by implication, by erosion, by default, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other - until the day when they are suddenly declared to be the country's official ideology.
On the other hand, said Rand, "you would be surprised how quickly the ideologists of collectivism retreat when they encounter a confident, intellectual adversary."
Freedom and Compassion: F.A. Hayek, Eric Hoffer
Restoring confidence and enthusiasm for conservative philosophy therefore goes well beyond simply outperforming Democrats on issues of job creation and the economy. In other words, the survival of our constitutional heritage will ultimately depend upon whether conservatives can mount a confident, moral defense of their own philosophy of freedom, limited government, and self-reliance. The most effective initial strategy for mounting this kind of defense will necessarily involve a thorough examination of history's greatest anti-collectivist thinking. Some of the most compelling philosophy ever written in both the West and the East was oftentimes a product of brilliant, gutsy thinkers who were supremely confident in their beliefs and entirely unmoved by leftist claims to moral superiority.
Friedrich Hayek is one such example. A man of sparkling wisdom and penetrating vision, Hayek can serve as a kind of intellectual nuclear missile in the battle to reclaim the moral high ground from the left. Hayek's 1960 masterpiece, The Constitution of Liberty, represents the most spirited and comprehensive attempt in modern times to extend the shelf life of constitutionalism, individual liberty, rule of law, and personal responsibility in the face of growing welfare-state collectivism. Hayek, like Rand, worried that Western intellectuals were being snookered by the left into accepting the claim that individual freedom and limited government were morally inferior to socialist-style redistribution:
In the struggle for the moral support of the people of the world, the lack of firm beliefs puts the West at a great disadvantage. The mood of its intellectual leaders has long been characterized by disillusionment with its principles, disparagement of its achievements, and exclusive concern with the creation of "better worlds." This is not a mood in which we can hope to gain followers. If we are to succeed in the great struggle for ideas that is under way, we must first of all know what we believe. We must also become clear in our own minds as to what it is that we want to preserve if we are to prevent ourselves from drifting.
Hayek makes an appeal early on in the book that not only represents the book's defining telos but also serves as a stake in the heart of any and all socialist claims to a superior moral position: "We must show that liberty is not merely one particular value but that it is the source and condition of most moral values."
In short, Hayek was able to spin over four hundred well-crafted pages around one of the most important truths in modern (and ancient, as we'll see) history: collectivism actually conspires against public spirit and morality, while limited government and freedom give birth to both. In other words, Barack Obama's state-imposed "sense of neighborliness" is actually the quickest way to smother the very freedom that is required to lay the foundation for a truly sincere sense of neighborliness.
Hayek explored this theme in exquisite detail in his later 1976 book The Mirage of Social Justice. As always, Hayek clearly addresses his target:
The commitment to "social justice" has in fact become the chief outlet for moral emotion, the distinguishing attribute of the good man, and the recognized sign of the possession of a moral conscience.
Hayek understood that the high moral claims made on behalf of social justice constitute the creative tool the left uses in order to gain political power and arbitrarily reward various politically acceptable groups. This image of social justice, according to Hayek, "inevitably destroys that freedom of personal decisions on which all morals must rest."
Hayek details the way in which the "freedom of personal decisions" as opposed to social justice statism is absolutely critical for inspiring the kind of neighborliness and community spirit that forms the only suitable environment for genuine morality:
Nothing can have a more deadening effect on real participation by the citizen than if government, instead of merely providing the essential framework for spontaneous growth, becomes monolithic and takes charge of the provisions for all needs. ... It is the great merit of the spontaneous order concerned only with means that it makes possible the existence of a large number of distinct and voluntary value communities serving such values as science, the arts, sports, and the like.
Simply put, says Hayek, big government "destroys public spirit; and as a result an increasing number of men and women are turning away from public life who in the past would have devoted much effort to public purposes."
A contemporary of Hayek, the American philosopher Eric Hoffer, went a step further than Hayek in his analysis of collectivist societies and their moral champions by offering the following observation in his bestseller The True Believer:
The inordinately selfish are particularly susceptible to frustration. The more selfish a person, the more poignant his disappointments. It is the inordinately selfish, therefore, who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.
Hoffer made the fascinating observation that "the act of self-denial seems to confer upon us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others." In other words, Barack Obama's demonstrated contempt for his Republican opponents quite probably springs from his own self-righteous conviction regarding his philosophical "concern" for others -- despite his frequent and expensive self-affirming vacations and golf outings.
Like Hayek, Hoffer concluded that collectivist projects usually succeed in destroying any sense of public spirit. Those who hitch their fortunes to state-sponsored, social justice "transformation" usually are seeking to renounce the kind of personal responsibility that actually forms the basis for courteous human contact:
There is no telling what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts, and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment.
Hoffer concluded that the "pride and arrogance" that constitute the aura of the righteously selfless have historically created much more trouble in the world than the kind animosity that has its "source in selfishness."
Freedom and Compassion: Aristotle
Some twenty-three hundred years before Hayek and Hoffer, the Greek philosopher Aristotle issued similar warnings about the dangers of collectivism in his Politics. Aristotle unleashed much of his penetrating intellect on various and foolish contemporaries who had been seduced by the "attractive face" of social justice legislation. Not surprisingly Aristotle highlighted the very issue Hayek had underscored throughout his writing: the promised "sense of community" at the heart of all leftist claims to moral superiority is extinguished by the very "sense of community" legislation designed to advance a "sense of community."
In the words of the brilliant Aristotle:
This kind of legislation may appear to wear an attractive face and to demonstrate benevolence. The hearer receives it gladly, thinking that everybody will feel towards everybody else some marvelous sense of friendship -- all the more as the evils now existing under ordinary forms of government (lawsuits about contracts, convictions for perjury, and obsequious flatteries of the rich) are denounced as due to the absence of a system of common property. None of these, however is due to property not being held in common. They all arise from wickedness.
In other words, Aristotle observed that the socialists of his day championed collectivist, "common property" answers to social problems based on their purported ability to produce something like Barack Obama's "sense of neighborliness." But Aristotle also noticed that collectivist societies -- despite the promise of a "marvelous sense of friendship" -- actually unleashed a kind of underlying mutual suspicion among its citizens:
Indeed it is a fact of observation that those who own common property, and share in its management, are far more often at variance with one another than those who have property [privately] -- though those who are at variance in consequence of sharing in property look to us few in number when we compare them with the mass of those who own their property privately.
Aristotle makes the interesting observation here that has been confirmed in just about every utopian, socialist experiment ever inflicted on human beings: the level of suspicion and paranoia about who gets what and for what reason is exponentially greater than in societies where property is privately owned:
When everyone has his own sphere of interest, there will not be the same ground for quarrels; and they will make more effort, because each man will feel that he is applying himself to what is his own.
In addition, the continual fascination with socialism's "attractive face" is due in part to what "looks to us" as the more chaotic, open turmoil that typically accompanies a free society replete with private ownership of property and business. When in fact a deeper, more sinister social pathology is created by "communitarian" notions of property:
[T]he question of ownership will give a world of trouble. If they do not share equally in enjoyments and toils, those who labor much and get little will necessarily complain of those who labor little and receive or consume much. There is always a difficulty in men living together and having things in common, but especially in their having common property.
Aristotle was probably the first to also observe that common ownership of property would effectively destroy the virtue of generosity:
We may add that a very great pleasure is to be found in doing a kindness and giving some help to friends, or guests, or comrades; and such kindness and help become possible only when property is privately owned.
As Hayek observed, freedom -- not state-induced sharing -- forms the basis for "a sense of neighborliness."
Freedom and Compassion: Alexis de Tocqueville
On his travels through our country in the 1830s, the exceptional French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville argued in his timeless treasure Democracy in America that what made America fundamentally distinct from all other countries was the enormous number of what Hayek called "distinct and voluntary value communities." One of the most powerful and thought-provoking of the many insightful chapters in Tocqueville's book is one entitled "How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood." In place of Barack Obama's naïve but politically useful division of society into selfless Democrats and selfish Republicans, Tocqueville offers a penetrating analysis into how Americans would willfully channel their selfish proclivities into various public projects. This, according to Tocqueville, constitutes the essence of self-interest rightly understood:
The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous, but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits.
In other words, the proliferation of Hayek's "distinct and voluntary value communities" represents the benevolent fallout from a citizenry committed to neutralizing what Tocqueville calls the "irresistible" pull that selfishness often has in a free society. The crucial point here is that the presence of the welfare state in America was virtually nonexistent in Tocqueville's time, which is why he stresses virtues like "self-command" and "temperance" which are only developed through freely chosen, habitual practice. Tocqueville understood quite well the danger of imploring the populace to grandiose acts of self-sacrifice:
Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest: we [the French] want to save everything, and often we lose it all.
For Tocqueville, "saving everything" constituted the favorite justification for centrally planned, big-government "compassion."
Tocqueville was so smitten with America's less than spectacular, more plodding approach to morality that he issued an appeal to "the moralists of our age" to take a serious appraisal:
I am not afraid to say that the principle of self-interest rightly understood appears to me the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the men of our time, and that I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves. Towards it, therefore, the minds of the moralists of our age should turn; even should they judge it to be incomplete, it must nevertheless be adopted as necessary.
Last September, Henry Olsen, who is a vice president at one of the oldest and most respected conservative think tanks in America -- The American Enterprise Institute -- argued in a National Review essay that in addition to the 2010 midterm elections, the 2012 presidential election would represent the culmination of a "Fifty Years' War" between "conservatives and liberals for possession of America's political soul." Echoing Pascal's famous wager on God, Olsen presents American citizens with a no less monumental political wager:
We Americans must, then, finally choose. Do we want a more egalitarian, stable, communal nation, one that knows fewer lows but experiences many fewer highs, and that faces the prospect of fiscal disaster? Or do we want to renew America's promise, reapplying the principles of liberty and responsible self-government to today's problems?
In other words, even for the director of AEI's "National Research Initiative" the choice for American voters is between the left's promise of a more "communal nation" and the right's commitment to the "principles of liberty." The current situation in the highly unstable and dubiously communal welfare state of Greece should give Mr. Olsen some pause about the attractive but simplistic leftist moral dichotomy he has unconsciously imbibed.
When highly placed conservatives like Mr. Olsen unwittingly embrace the leftist moral mythology, one has to take seriously Whittaker Chambers' chilling disclosure to his wife upon abandoning the Communist Party back in 1938:
You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.
Aristotle once said that the "greatest" means of ensuring the stability and continuation of a regime's constitutional identity is quite simply "the education of citizens in the spirit of their constitution." Sadly, says Aristotle, this is also "the one which is nowadays generally neglected."
So if Gov. Rick Perry's cowboy boots are emblazoned with the words "freedom" and "liberty" then he, more than Rich Lowry, Henry Olsen, or Karl Rove probably has an insight into what makes -- as Tocqueville said -- the American constitutional system truly exceptional and enduring.
No one will be reading Lowry, Olsen, and Rove 2,500 years from now but I'll wager that the Tao Te Ching will certainly endure. Lao Tzu, who perhaps penned the most profound description of the connection between freedom and compassion, offered the following timeless advice to any and all truth-seeking politicians and intellectuals:
Banish benevolence, discard righteousness:
People will return to duty and compassion.
Then again, Lao Tzu's "unadulterated doctrine" probably doesn't appeal much to less than "doctrinaire" compassionate conservatives like Rich Lowry. What a shame for the future of conservatism.
Ed Kaitz, Ph.D. has taught philosophy and humanities at several colleges and universities in America and overseas.