Roughly 30 years ago, maverick liberals in government and academia started asking some uncomfortable questions about their own creed: Why weren’t liberal programs working the way they were supposed to? Was government activism undermining individual virtue? Why did social policy so often have unintended consequences, creating new problems instead of eradicating old ones?
Those liberal challengers of liberal assumptions became known as neo-conservatives. Precisely because they broke ranks, they were the most important actors in the conservative intellectual revolution that led to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
Now, some maverick conservatives are asking uncomfortable questions of their own: Does it really make sense to blame government for every single social problem? Might not government have some role in, say, rebuilding the inner city? Will cutting government benefits to the poor lead to their prosperity, or might new problems be created for which conservatives had better have answers?
That kind of talk makes many conservatives nervous. These are dangerous questions for an ideology that prospered by blaming most public ills on meddlesome Washington bureaucrats opposed to less government and lower taxes. Now, the Compassionate Conservatives (hereafter, the ComCons) are suggesting the old boilerplate isn’t enough. More importantly, they are focusing attention on conservative insights that had almost been lost—that the institutions of family and neighborhood are fragile and need support; that free markets do not automatically create good values; that human beings need nudging to do the right thing.
Make no mistake: The ComCons, especially those in the Renewal Alliance in Congress and in groups such as the American Compass, really are conservatives. You won’t see Sens. Dan Coats and John Ashcroft or Rep. Jim Talent linking arms with such liberal avatars as Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. David Bonior.
The ComCons have a list of ideas that would make a New Dealer proud. They would make it easier for the poor to buy a home and for welfare recipients to save money without losing aid. More controversial are their education proposals, which call for experiments with single-sex public schools and private school vouchers. Their most expensive proposal ($44.8 billion over five years) is a tax credit of up to $500 for anyone donating directly to a program serving the poor.
Those of us on other political shores have our own problems with the compassionate right. (That, at least, ought to give them some credibility with skeptics.) At times, these conservatives have an entirely un-conservative confidence that if government got out of the way, human beings (and churches, synagogues and mosques) would rush to help the needy. But historically, the most powerful of all conservative insights is original sin—the view that humans are flawed and do not automatically do the right thing. We established government social benefits because we know we are not always as generous as we should be.
It also is a mistake to assert, as many ComCons do, that we must choose between direct government efforts to help the poor and voluntary efforts. Historically, the federal government has been pushed into doing more for the poor by precisely the voluntary groups these conservatives praise.
But the ComCons have a big thing going for them: They are acknowledging that however much they like the idea of cutting government or taxes, that alone won’t solve social problems. During conservatism’s heyday in the 1980s, many of the indicators that conservatives care most about—such as divorce rates and the number of single-parent families—went up, not down.
Many ComCons acknowledge that even the cutbacks they like have costs. “We should not ignore the potential for suffering in our cities when government retreats,” says Coats. He goes further. “There is not—and could never be—a government plan to rebuild civil society. But there must be ways to actively take the side of people and institutions who are rebuilding their own communities and who often feel isolated and poorly equipped.”
That may sound enough like LBJ’s Community Action Program to make conservatives cringe. But after a long period when few politicians would utter a word about poor people, it’s good to hear these guys say it aloud.
And the ComCons are surely right that you cannot separate social policy from the behavior the policy encourages. You don’t have to be a conservative to know values come not from government, but from families and churches and neighborhoods. You don’t have to be a conservative to know crime and the rise of single-parent households has devastated the inner city.
If you take them seriously, the ComCons are challenging us all: If we like to talk about compassion so much, why don’t we do something with our own time and money?
It is easy to parody this group of conservatives. They sometimes seem to think that you can solve any social problem by throwing a church at it. They talk so much about personal pathologies that you can forget that most poor people have perfectly good values. Even the most organized, most churched and most moral communities can’t make it on shrinking tax bases (and enterprise zones can only do so much). And beware of policies that end with the words “tax credit.” Tax incentives have been the way of doing bargain-basement social policy for at least 35 years.
The ComCons are playing on intellectually fashionable ground in stressing the revival of “civil society.” This kind of talk seems like cheap grace. It allows liberals to say how much they love family and neighborhood, and conservatives to say how much they love the poor—without paying any political or philosophical price.
But the civil society idea is popular for a good reason: No one, from any point of view, can figure out how to give poor people a chance to solve their problems unless local institutions are strengthened and the forces of neighborhood disintegration are reversed. So the ComCons deserve a little gratitude. They, at least, are willing to say the words “Common Good.” And there are worse things than being labeled “compassionate.”