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Reclaiming Compassionate Conservatism

Toynbee Hall, a self-sustaining London community spearheaded by the Salvation Army, in 1902. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Defeat, like death, concentrates the mind wonderfully. It also liberates the mind. People venture to think the unthinkable, or at least, the impermissible. A new generation of conservatives may be moved to reconsider some ideas that have fallen into disuse or even disrepute. Compassion is one such idea. 

Shortly after the election, Paul Ryan, addressing the Kemp Foundation, took the measure of the situation in which conservatives now find themselves. In the course of his remarks, he uttered the word “compassion” or “compassionate” five times, by my count​ -- in a favorable sense. This is all the more striking because American conservatives have not always been comfortable with that word, regarding it as a vapid sentimentalism that has no place in politics, let alone economics. President Bush’s adoption, in his first term, of a policy of “compassionate conservatism” confirmed them in that suspicion, for that policy soon degenerated into what conservatives themselves derided as a “politics of compassion,” which consisted of yet another round of programs conceived and financed by the government and farmed out to “faith-based” (a euphemism for “religious”) institutions. This was all too reminiscent of the “great society” (again, “society” a euphemism for “state”) inaugurated by President Johnson, which set in motion the vast expansion of the welfare state. (That term too has fallen into disuse, the present entitlements going well beyond the “welfare” designed for the relief of the poor.)

Ryan did not mention the term “compassionate conservatism,” for good reason. Anticipating the objection that might be made to the idea of compassion, he reminds us that we should measure compassion not by how much we spend but by how many people we help, and certainly not by how much government spends or how many programs it creates. Moreover, his own endorsement of it is reassuring. It is precisely because of his impeccable conservative credentials that we may dare revive the word, and with it a new conservatism, a remoralized conservatism, one might say. Conservatives have always maintained that conservative ideas -- of government, the economy, society, the family​ -- ​are based on sound moral principles. But the case has been made almost as an afterthought. Ryan proposes to bring it to the forefront. “We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” Ryan tells us. “But sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.” Compassion​ -- ​the word and the idea​ -- ​may help give shape and substance to that vision.

It may also be helpful to put that word and idea in historical perspective, to recall its lineage and something of its history​ -- ​most pertinently in modern times. “To compassionate, i.e., to join with in passion,” the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote early in the 18th century, “ ... to commiserate, i.e., to join with in misery. ... This in one order of life is right and good; nothing more harmonious; and to be without this, or not to feel this, is unnatural, horrid, immane [inhuman].” Half a century later Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, distinguished between sympathy and compassion, sympathy being the “fellow-feeling” of all men for each other, compassion the “fellow-feeling” for the “sorrow” of others. “Sympathy” and “compassion,” “moral sense” and “moral sentiments,” “social affections” and “social virtues”​ -- ​these are the terms that dominated social and philosophical discourse and gave a unique character to the British Enlightenment.

This is also the moral philosophy that distinguishes Smith’s political economy from the prevailing mercantilist doctrine. The Wealth of Nations moralizes the economy even as it liberalizes and liberates it from the government and the state. So, too, the people are moralized. The working classes, including the very poor, are said to share a common human nature with their employers and social superiors. They are driven by the same instinct, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”; they have the same motive, to “better themselves”; and they enjoy the same benefits of a thriving economy, a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” Indeed, the difference between “a philosopher and a common street porter,” Smith declares, comes “not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.”

The rhetoric of The Wealth of Nations is even more overtly moral. Smith was a professor of moral philosophy before he became a political economist, so that the rhetoric of morality came naturally to him. Conservatives of a libertarian bent are discomfited by his frequent denunciations​ -- not in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where one might expect them, but in The Wealth of Nations​ -- of merchants and manufacturers who espouse “the vile maxim, ‘all for themselves, and nothing for other people,’ ” and who are prone to “impertinent jealousy,” “mean rapacity,” “malignant expedients,” “sneaking arts,” “interesting sophistry,” and “interested falsehood.”

The compassion that Smith found in human nature exhibited itself not only in individual acts of charity but in a proliferation of “societies” (Tocqueville was to call them “associations”) to alleviate every kind of affliction and misfortune. Contemplating those societies​ -- ​for abandoned infants, abused children, fallen women, maimed seamen, the deaf, dumb, blind, crippled, and insane​ -- the reformer Hannah More characterized her period (not entirely in praise) as the “Age of Benevolence.” The early Victorians, inspired by the Evangelicals, added the slave trade and child labor to that list. Later still, Josephine Butler, championing the cause of prostitutes, described “the awful abundance of compassion which makes me fierce.” Beatrice Webb summed up the “time-spirit” of these late Victorians as the “Religion of Humanity”​ -- ​a term coined by the Positivists, for whom humanitarianism (or “fellow-feeling,” as Smith would have said) was a surrogate for religion itself. This new religion, she explained, for Positivists and reformers like herself, had a double aspect, uniting religion and science in the service of humanity.

It was in this spirit that yet another society, the Charity Organisation Society, was formed in 1869. Its purpose was to rationalize (“scientize,” so to speak) the “abundance of compassion” exhibited in the philanthropic societies​ -- ​700 in London alone. In three years there were three dozen district committees, and by the end of the decade the COS was the premier charitable organization in London and a model for others in England and America. Charles Loch, its longtime secretary, commented on the apparent paradox in the title, “charity” being “free, fervent, impulsive,” and “organization” implying “order, method, ... self-restraint.” The COS sought to make charity more effective by eliminating duplication and encouraging new methods for the identification and supervision of the recipients of charity. Like the other societies, it was a private enterprise, founded, funded, directed, and staffed without any government contribution or involvement (without even the tax-code incentive that modern philanthropies enjoy). And like them, it was intended to help individuals and families to help themselves. “Charity,” Loch declared, “is a social regenerator. We have to use Charity to create the power of self-help.”

The “self” in “self-help” applied as much to the family as to the individual. It was for the sake of the family that other philanthropists addressed themselves to the problem of housing. Bad housing, they claimed, was even more detrimental to the poor than unemployment, because the home was the heart and hearth of the family, and the family was crucial to the development of character. Earlier in the century another Lord Shaftesbury founded the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, which had as one of its main functions the building and renovating of houses for the poor. Other societies followed suit, constructing “model dwellings” where tenants were required to pay a modest rent. Octavia Hill, one of the founding members of the COS, took this as her main cause, buying houses which she renovated and managed, with a staff of “rent-collectors” cum social workers. Like a latter-day psychoanalyst justifying the hourly fee as a token of the patient’s earnestness, she regarded the prompt payment of rent as an earnest of the tenant’s good faith and good conduct. Notably hardheaded in this respect, she was also sensitive to the spiritual and aesthetic needs of her tenants. Criticizing the municipally-built model dwellings for not being sufficiently “model,” she paid as much attention to the landscaping as to the interiors of her houses. “The poor of London,” she reminded reformers, “need joy and beauty in their lives.”

Another notable institution, the Salvation Army, founded by the Methodist “Christian Mission,” was an amalgam not of religion and science, but of the equally improbable combination of religion and the military. It declared itself an “army” complete with “corps” (local societies), “forts” (shelters), “soldiers” (members), and “officers” (missionaries). On the theory that spiritual salvation required a prior moral reformation, and that in turn a material reformation, it provided the poor not only with such uplifting activities as revivalist meetings, singings, and entertainment, but also material comforts​ -- ​shelters for the homeless, homes for “fallen women,” prison-gate “brigades” to help released convicts, and food depots for the needy. By the end of the century, it took on a still more ambitious project, the founding of “colonies”​ -- ​city, farm, and overseas colonies​ -- ​each to be a “self-helping and self-sustaining” community. Toynbee Hall catered to a different constituency, not the very poor or indigent but the working classes as a whole. It is perhaps not coincidental that Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house in London, was established at the same time as the passage of the Reform Act of 1884, enfranchising most of the working classes. Toynbee Hall (named in honor of Arnold Toynbee, the economic historian and uncle of the more famous historian) was meant to bridge the gap between the “two nations” by uniting them in a common “citizenship”​ -- ​a moral as well as political citizenship. The rich would fulfill their civic responsibilities by instructing and catering to the poor, and the poor by acquiring that education and culture which enabled them to be active and worthy citizens. The settlement houses, in working-class neighborhoods, were residences not for the poor but for those who ministered to them, university graduates mainly from Oxford who paid for their lodging and food, and lived there for several months or even years. Neighboring workers would meet there for classes, lectures, discussions, concerts, exhibits, or whatever else might be edifying and elevating, in an atmosphere that was itself edifying and elevating. (Toynbee Hall was deliberately constructed to resemble an Oxford college.) By the end of the century there were thirty such houses, over half in London. 

These were only the more conspicuous manifestations of the “abundance of compassion” testified to by Josephine Butler and the scores of philanthropists who dedicated their entire lives to charitable enterprises of one sort or another. These were not people of great fortune. Octavia Hill had to borrow money from her good friend John Ruskin for the purchase of her first three houses, and the college graduates in Toynbee Hall paid for the privilege of serving the community. In this respect late-Victorian England was the very model of a civil society. The societies and institutions were privately organized and funded, focused on specific causes, and supervised to make sure that the efforts produced the desired results. They all relied, for their moral as well as financial support, upon the other resources of civil society​ -- ​individuals, families, friends, and religious missions of all denominations. And they all shared a common ethos. As help was given voluntarily, as a charity, not a tax, so it was received voluntarily, as a gift, not an entitlement. 

That ethos, and the civil society that sustained it, began to be challenged early in the following century by the enactment of two critical pieces of legislation, old age and unemployment insurance. It is ironic to find Beatrice Webb, now better known as a founder of English socialism, opposing those acts because they gave people money allowances unconditionally, without any return in the form of better conduct or attempt to seek or retain work. It is even more ironic to find Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, defending them on the grounds that social policy should not be grounded in moral criteria. “I do not like,” he explained, “mixing up moralities with mathematics.” Three decades later, the Beveridge Report of 1942 heralded the welfare state as the next “British revolution.” That revolution was carried out after the war with a series of acts, including the National Health Service, which transferred many of the duties and responsibilities of civil society to the welfare state.

Half a century later, when the welfare state had itself been transformed into something like an entitlement state, the Conservative David Cameron, seeking election, adopted President Bush’s motto of “compassionate conservatism.” Reaffirming that principle, he recently declared: “It’s not enough to know our ideas are right. We’ve got to explain why they are compassionate too.” Unfortunately, the British version of compassionate conservatism, intended to strengthen civil society by making it the instrument for the public expression of compassion, has the opposite effect. The programs that go under that label are more often initiated (“encouraged,” as is said), supervised, and even partly subsidized by the government. 

In this country, a new generation of conservatives, confronting similar problems, may well look to some old sages for inspiration​ -- ​to Adam Smith, most notably, not only for his economic principles but also for the moral vision that informed them. One might even quote Smith against Churchill, reminding him that social policies (and economic policies as well) are necessarily, for good or bad, grounded in moral criteria. (On the other hand, a conservative might well agree with Churchill that those early measures of social legislation, and some later ones as well, were both warranted and effective.) One can also look to American history for the assurance that civil society is not an abstract or ideal concept but very much a reality, a vehicle for reform as well as for the preservation of tradition (the “status quo,” as is said invidiously).

Above all, what conservatives can do, and what Ryan and others are now trying to do, is to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it. Properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), compassion is a preeminently conservative virtue. It dignifies the individual (the donor of charity as well as the recipient); it thrives in a free and sound economy where the individual can “better himself”; it nurtures a spirit of independence rather than fostering the dependency that is too often the result of misguided entitlements; and it finds expression and fulfillment in civil society more often than in government. This is not to deny the validity or utility of safety nets and entitlements in principle, only to define and limit them in practice. Nor is it to deny any role to government, only, again, to define that role more precisely and to limit it more severely. 

Leo Strauss once wrote, in quite another context: “A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.” If only on that ground​ -- “the nobility of the effort”​ -- ​compassion should endear itself to the conservative.