Another Type of Compassionate Conservatism

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, Another Type of Compassionate Conservatism, Truth on the Market (September 24, 2007),

While traveling this weekend, I got a chance to begin Alan Greenspan’s new book, The Age of Turbulence. It’s a pretty fun read, blissfully light on Fedspeak.

(Apparently, Greenspan’s gift in that department was hereditary. Early in the book, he notes that his father had written a book on the New Deal entitled “Recovery Ahead!” The elder Greenspan’s inscription read: “To my son, Alan: May this my initial effort with constant thought of you branch out into an endless chain of similar efforts so that at your maturity you may look back and endeavor to interpret the reasoning behind these logical forecasts and begin a like work of your own. Your dad.”)

In the gazillions of reviews that have appeared so far, one passage from the book has been mentioned time and again. (The WSJ even sent out a news release highlighting it.) Referring to last November’s congressional elections, the oft-quoted passage asserts: “The Republicans in Congress lost their way. They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose.”

Republicans these days have become big spenders and meddlers. I fear this may be an inevitable result of so-called “compassionate conservatism” — which has turned out to be a conservatism that doesn’t like to say no. Our Compassionate Conservative In Chief, for example, went nearly six years without picking up the veto pen. By contrast, Jerry Ford, who laid the groundwork for the regulatory reform movement, vetoed more than sixty bills in less than three years, signaling to Congress that pork and excessive intervention wouldn’t be tolerated.

Apparently, it’s not compassionately conservative to let farmers struggle and eventually have to change what they’re doing (i.e., to reallocate resources to a better use) when low-priced agricultural imports show up. So we got a $250 billion handout in the May 2002 farm bill, and utterly nonsensical ethanol mandates loom on the horizon.

And it’s not compassionately conservative to permit domestic steelworkers to suffer because of imports, so we got steel tariffs to go with our ag handouts. (The tariffs were subsequently lifted when the WTO cried foul.)

And it’s not compassionately conservative to the teachers and administrators at consistently bad public schools if we give parents of students the freedom to spend their federal education dollars on private schools. So we dropped vouchers from No Child Left Behind (but kept all the federal mandates).

I could go on for quite a while here, but you get the point.

The good news is that there’s another form of conservatism out there. While it might look a little gruff on first glance, it’s based on respect for individuals and is, I believe, ultimately compassionate.

Now I don’t fancy myself a conservative. I’m a classical liberal (or, as Stephen Bainbridge might say, a “small l libertarian“). But if I were to embrace conservatism, this is the type I’d choose. Greenspan paints a nice picture of it in describing his old boss, Ronald Reagan:

What attracted me to Reagan was the clarity of his conservatism. There was another line he often used on the stump: “Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.” A man who talks on such terms is clear on what he believes. Very rarely in those days would you find conservatives who didn’t fudge on social issues. But Reagan’s kind of conservatism was to say that tough love is good for the individual and good for society. That proposition starts with a judgment about human nature. If it’s accurate, then it implies much less government support for the downtrodden. Yet mainstream Republicans were conflicted about thinking or talking in such terms, because they seemed contrary to Judeo-Christian values. Not Reagan. Like Milton Friedman and other early libertarians, he never gave the impression he was trying to be on both sides of the issue. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in dire straights; nor would you find any less personal willingness than among liberals personally to assist the downtrodden. But that wasn’t government’s role, according to Reagan. Tough love, in the long run, is love.