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The Stopping Point

September 5, 2000

Michael Kinsley, writing in the Washington Post, ridicules George W. Bush’s claim to represent “compassionate conservatism,” which Kinsley suggests is an “oxymoron” — a contradiction in terms for rhetorical effect, like wise fool or legal murder.

Well, is Bush being oxymoronic (or moronic)? Speaking from long experience and observation, I’d say there is little correlation between a man’s compassion and his political philosophy. They are independent variables. I’ve known lots of conservatives whose hearts are full of the milk of human kindness, and I’ve known liberals whose chief trait is a feline malice. Of course there are also nasty conservatives and sweet liberals; I’ve known them too.

What is rare is a liberal who doesn’t think his liberalism is in itself sufficient proof that his heart is in the right place, even when he’s supporting late-term abortion: the liberal position is by definition the “compassionate” position.

[Breaker quote: How 
much coercion is 'enough'?]Sometimes ideas that have no logical relation to each other become associated in people’s minds for accidental reasons of history. Because of our Civil War, most Americans probably think secession and slavery have some intrinsic connection. They don’t. Some people who favored the Confederate cause (such as the English historian Lord Acton, if memory serves) thought slavery was an evil. Some Southerners who believed in slavery opposed secession. A few decades earlier, some Northern abolitionists wanted their states to secede rather than remain in an unholy Union with slave states. You can have one — slavery or secession — without the other. Why not?

In the same way, liberalism and compassion have become illogically associated. It’s natural for liberals to encourage this confusion, and Bush himself may be confirming it by suggesting that there is some sort of tension, if not opposition, between conservatism and compassion. But reason says otherwise.

Government is organized force. Every law is a limitation on liberty. Those who favor the expansion and centralization of the powers of government — liberals, in short — are advocating an increase in the proportion between compulsory action and free action in society.

Why is that more “compassionate” than favoring more freedom and less compulsion? One might think that a really compassionate man would want people to be as free as possible and therefore to minimize the role of government in our lives. It seems fraudulent, and even cruel, to demand less freedom while accusing those who want more freedom of being hard-hearted.

It would be different if liberals would honestly define their dreams. At what point would they agree that government had reached its ideal size and scope, beyond which it would become tyranny? They never say. No matter how much the state expands, they want it to have still more power. There is no stopping point. Even if the federal government were twice as enormous as it is now, they would find more things for it to do, new areas of life where it should dominate and coerce us. If they always got their way, there would be no freedom left.

In fairness I should add that some conservatives are the same way about military power, which they choose to call defense, no matter how wildly it exceeds our real defensive needs. They want the U.S. armed forces to spread across the globe, and they never think there can be too much. No country has ever had such hegemony as ours now has; but they keep warning that we are too weak to contain hypothetical dangers. If such people aren’t satisfied by now, they’ll never be content.

If not a utopia or an ideal, you should have at least a reasonable model or optimum, at which you can say “enough.” A few years ago Bill Clinton proclaimed the end of “the era of big government”; but, true to form, he has since resumed trying to expand the scope of government — that is, coercion by law. Every benefit to one citizen (or to “our children,” as Clinton so compassionately prefers to put it) must be paid for by another, and he has to be forced to pay. By refusing to countenance tax cuts, Clinton says he thinks we haven’t yet passed the stopping point.

Being liberal means never having to acknowledge limits. You just have to keep saying your motives are higher than your opponents’.

Joseph Sobran

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