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Liberalism -- be nice to others ---- or else

A. Barton Hinkle

By A. Barton Hinkle

Published October 9, 2014

Liberalism -- be nice to others ---- or else
"Liberalism," said Garrison Keillor in 2004, "is the politics of kindness." The statement summed up the sentiment of countless other liberals, from Mario Cuomo to President Barack Obama (kindness is "what binds us together").

Statements like these are meant to distinguish liberalism from non-liberalism, which is — according to liberals such Paul Krugman — "infected by an almost pathological mean-spiritedness." Unlike conservatives and libertarians, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has written, "progressives care about others as well as themselves."

Krugman and Lakoff fail the ideological Turing test, which gauges whether someone criticizing another political perspective understands it well enough to represent it accurately. If you can't even summarize your opponent's viewpoint correctly, then when you argue against it you are actually arguing against something else: a straw man. Conservatives and libertarians certainly want to see others flourish and lead happy, productive lives. They simply think liberals have sketched a flawed path to that goal.

In a new book due out next month, William Voegeli strives to trace that path and thereby better understand the liberal philosophy of compassion. But Voegeli, the senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, strives to understand it in order to critique it — which is evident from his tongue-in-cheek title: "The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion."

Progressives have a problem, he argues in the early pages. Civic institutions having been divorced from religion a couple of centuries ago, liberals find it difficult to offer a good account of why an individual virtue should become a nationally governing principle. Secular liberalism, he says, "proclaims the brotherhood of man while rejecting the fatherhood of God." Consequently, liberals extol compassion as an end in itself, a trump card that defeats all other arguments without needing any supporting arguments of its own.

But this raises as many questions as it answers. For example: Liberal policies designed to help some people will often harm others. Yet "practitioners of the politics of kindness lose little sleep over those whose suffering is the collateral damage of liberal policies, such as whites denied educational or career opportunities because of affirmative action programs." A tax levied to help the poor grows burdensome on those who pay it, and so on. Compassion, then, necessarily becomes selective rather than universal. But selective compassion carries a lot less moral weight than the universal kind.

The political philosophy of kindness is highly selective in another sense as well: It is focused almost entirely on rendering aid to the American poor and lower middle classes — which are, in the global context, still extraordinarily well-off. Voegeli notes that in the Congo, 77 million people endure life with a per capita GDP of just $400 per year. Yet American liberalism pays almost no attention to their suffering, preferring instead to focus almost exclusively on further improving the lot of Americans who already have clean clothes, decent housing, running water, abundant food, and luxuries like microwaves and cellphones that the Congolese can only dream of. Why?

We also should ponder (though Voegeli doesn't) why so many liberals seem so eager to impose compassion through coercion. The welfare state relies on confiscatory taxation, which is backed up by the threat of violence. No matter how much private good you do, American liberals insist you first do good as they define it, and do it their way — or else.

Voegeli also asks at length why progressives who profess to care deeply about the welfare of others often seem so indifferent to whether welfare programs actually work as intended. If the goal is to help the suffering, then liberals should be more outraged than anyone else when a government program that spends billions on that objective fails to deliver. Instead, it is conservatives and libertarians who raise the alarms. This, Voegeli says, reveals liberal self-regard: Those who preach about compassion do so "less because they care about helping than because they care about caring." They preach compassion not to render aid so much as to feel virtuous.

Progressives probably would retort that the conservatives and libertarians are crying crocodile tears: They raise alarms about the failure of Program X not because they want Program X to succeed, but because they want it to go away altogether. So any liberal who raises concerns about Program X's efficacy is not helping the cause of compassion, but undermining it by giving ammunition to its enemies.

To this conservatives and libertarians might respond that, if (say) local charities could deliver certain services more effectively and at a lower cost, then nongovernmental, hence noncoercive, institutions should do more of the work of social kindness. Even simple cash transfers, such as a negative income tax, might be better since (as Voegeli writes) when government "gives people money, people receive the money it gives them. But when it gives them Head Starts or Model Cities," the frequent failure of programs to work as intended means "they often wind up with something less than a head start or a model city."

The liberal rebuttal to that might echo the words of The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, whom Voegeli quotes: Charity itself "is not economic justice"; rather, "the absence of economic justice ... makes charity necessary."

This, however, suggests that charity — or kindness, or compassion, or some similar synonym — is not really the bedrock upon which liberal political philosophy stands after all. Compassion in this case is simply a bandage, while the true bedrock of American liberalism is justice. But justice, as everyone knows, can often seem the furthest thing from kind.

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A. Barton Hinkle is Deputy Editor of the Editorial Pages at Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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