Is Conservatism Uncompassionate ?

By | June 1, 2012

Conservatism is widely seen as cruel, heartless, and uncompassionate. Some believe that if conservative policies were purely put into practice, it would lead to massive chaos, skyrocketing unemployment, and people literally starving in the streets. But on the contrary, those places in the world where there is abject poverty, wanton oppression and people starving in the streets are those without limited government, the rule of law, or a semblance of free market capitalism. [1] In America, we have managed to develop a productive and prosperous society, where people tend not to be severely impoverished, for the time being. There is thus no need to amend the descriptor “conservatism” in the American context: conservatism is compassionate.

Many who oppose conservatism conflate its protections for the individual with an “outdated” point of view where individuals are left to fend for themselves. They blast the “myth” of rugged individualism, even as government spending at all levels prior to the twentieth century was less than seven percent.

So however did people survive? Even more perplexingly for today’s radical, how did the country become a first-tier industrial power without a vast empire and a network of colonies to exploit?

The answer is that no one was being exploited by virtue of merely working. People pursued their profit motives in a system where producing things useful to society was rewarded according to the value one put into into the economy. This was all the animation for the economy that was needed and it led to the unbounded productivity, creativity, and genius of the human spirit. It also led to one of the lowest real poverty rates in the world, while the system lasted.

But today’s left seems to presuppose that if it were not for government’s coercive hand, men and women would not organize themselves to solve common problems particular to their shared experiences. People would not labor, produce, trade, or organize. They would all stand around with their jaws slack, hands drooped to the ground, awaiting a bureaucrat’s order. This, of course, is absurd.

Due to this stubbornly entrenched misconception, however, radicals routinely charge conservatives with opposing all government because conservatives oppose some of its policies. As Frederic Bastiat once put it, “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” [2]

Following the modern left’s reasoning, albeit in much more intellectually dishonest terms than the socialists of Bastiat’s day, some have taken to equating American conservatism to anarchy, simply by some conservatives’ opposition to particular government programs.

But it is painfully obvious the U.S. Constitution empowers the federal government to carry out legitimate functions as well as it restricts its operations. The record of mankind, not to mention the Twentieth Century, proves the Founders’ legal limitations on government to have been a prudent foresight. But it is only prudent in so far as we, and successive generations, follow their reasoning.

With this in mind, the left doesn’t seem to have any judgment regarding what loosens the binds of Leviathan government, while the more radical in mindset desire to free the beast – for the good of the people, of course. [3] One is at pains here to quote Alexis de Tocqueville,who wrote: “We can state with conviction, therefore, that a man’s support for absolute government is in direct proportion to the contempt he feels for his country.” [4]

The lack of local information available to the central government extends to individuals and their needs and preferences. The affairs of three hundred million individuals are exceedingly complex, and yet a handful of narcissistic Washington elites fancy themselves mind readers to manage them, or perhaps even sorcerers!

All resources that government mobilizes originate at some point in society. The real issue turns on who decides to do what. Do individuals in society profit themselves through their own labor, expended at their own discretion? Or do they labor at the behest and direction of government officials, who decide how to reward them (or others not even laboring), while at the same time the government maintains a legal monopoly on violent coercion?

That is a level of trust in the eternal kindliness of public officials that boggles the mind.

It is not a far leap in imagination to see that the road we have embarked upon in America leads to the humdrum state of human affairs where a cadre of political elites controls the fates of millions through wealth redistribution dispensed at their own arbitrary discretion. The wellspring of motion towards this miserable existence is misapprehension of the role of government as well as misplaced apprehension of free market capitalism; and that is to say, a lack of confidence in one’s own powers. It is from this psychologically deep-rooted source that springs forth the hysterical lashing out against those who would dare suggest the great bulk of mankind is capable of providing for themselves without the sword of government pointed at their throats.

The answer to the question, “What is security?” decides for the most part all of one’s political views.

One daresay argues, therefore, that the political left is mainly comprised of people who are well-intentioned but extremely naive and ignorant regarding what constitutes long-term security for a people. The ruse of politicians bribing people with their own money while incurring massive and unsustainable debts, only won at the expense of future opportunities, never ends well.

Not only the vast historical record but contemporary events in glorious Europe demonstrate this point thoroughly. But for emotional reasons, as well as blindness due to the foolhardy notion of perpetual progress towards socialist emancipation, many refuse to learn from what is demonstrably all around them.

It is mundane but necessary to point out that all manner of “social security,” seemingly provided for by politicians, comes at the cost of other employable resources [5], and at the deficit of supporting those with virtually no productive function — and most pointedly, politicians and bureaucrats. In addition, we have somewhat productive members of society working for public sector unions exploiting taxpayers for (at least) twice what their labor is worth in a market of willing buyers. This is fairness?

But let the screaming commence: So, would conservatives prefer to let children go uneducated? That hungry people starve? That laborers go without work?

No, conservatives want people to work and produce by putting into the economic system what they take out. This is the provably best way to ensure that people do have their individual needs and wants met. People will work rather than languish in the streets, provided the opportunity [6]. Instead of allowing this natural mechanism in man to operate, the left seeks to undo the laws of Nature by doling out payments out of thin air, or legislating government programs to “create jobs.”

But again, it would be quite the prestidigitation for government to create something the people didn’t know they needed or wanted.

Seeking to replace a system of voluntary exchange with a government-run system that supposedly frees man from natural constraints, even sheltering him from the constraints of economic reality itself, is simply put, a con job.

With that in mind, let us look at the result of generations of the left’s economic policies, which reinforce its social re-engineering schemes. We have half the country not paying taxes. A huge bloated bureaucracy that consumes resources, including food, without adding anything meaningful or substantial to the economy. We have a government that restrains and distorts the economy with such counter-productive and wasteful regulations as oil drilling moratoriums and effective prohibitions against building refineries and power plants.

This is in addition to the high taxes that drive out corporations, the engines of the modern economy. There is the subsidization of such a wasteful product as ethanol, which has actually led to the starving of millions abroad. A weak dollar policy, which makes it harder for poor people to buy food, gas, and other necessary items. A myriad of environmental regulations, such as those against DDT, which led to millions dying of malaria, and a resurgence of bedbugs in NYC (don’t laugh, fleas caused the bubonic plague, which wiped out more than a third of Europe). And so on.

Yet we have to look beyond history and ask the deeper question: Why are leftist policies self-defeating?

Man has his own built-in “regulations”: A conscience and a hungry stomach. The actual natural environment and objective reality are the limitations on what man can or cannot do, and therefore, there are consequences for behavior.

Thus, positive consequences follow good behavior, and negative consequences follow bad behavior. If the government messes with this system of regulation by subsidizing bad behavior and penalizing good behavior, then it undermines the crux of successful human action, thereby eroding the foundations of economic and social order. [7]

The proper implementation of conservative policies, namely free market capitalism and Constitutional government, would lead to the great majority of people freed from oppression and dire poverty.

So is conservatism uncompassionate? Let us move past this argumentum ad misericordium and rationally seek ways together to avoid certain disaster, increase shared prosperity, and ensure the future security of ourselves and out children. After all, that is the compassionate thing to do.

[1] As widely disparate states as Somalia and North Korea lack Constitutionally limited governments and free market capitalism. Obviously, there are natural restraints on how prosperous a people can become. Trade is the best way to remedy natural disparities, ceteris paribus. One is at pains to point out that trade is not coercion.

[2] Read Frederic Bastiat’s The Law for more great quotes from this brilliant polemicist.

[3] The reference is to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a trope for a powerful government that protects the people from themselves.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a seminal text for conservatives concerned with the legacy of the country and its future direction.

[5] See Bastiat’s critical That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.

[6] For more on this approach to Human Action, see Ludwig von Mises’ text cited.

[7] Relevant here is Bastiat’s phrase, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” As can be found in Bastiat’s essay Government.

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