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Steven Teles on Compassionate Conservatism:

Political scientist Steven Teles has an interesting article in National Affairs on the history and possible future of "compassionate conservatism, which he defines as an effort to change the image of onservatism by linking it to "concern for the poor and minorities." Teles is one of the leading academic experts on conservatism. He is the author of the excellent book The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, which I reviewed here, and which was also discussed in a series of VC posts. His analysis of compassionate conservatism is also well-worth reading for anyone interested in the subject. Steve correctly argues that compassionate conservatism has deep roots in various types of right of center thought, but that it has never really succeeded in breaking through politically.

I do have one reservation about his analysis. Unfortunately, Steve conflates two very different political agendas that both sometimes sail under the "compassionate conservative" flag. One is the idea of emphasizing elements of the traditional free market agenda that are particularly likely to benefit the poor and racial minorities - most notably school choice, enterprise zones, protection for property rights, and the like. This was the thought behind Jack Kemp's and the Heritage Foundation's advocacy of what they called the "empowerment agenda," which Steve mentions in the article. It is also at the heart of the strategy pursued by the libertarian Institute for Justice, which focuses on the ways in which eminent domain and restrictive licensing laws tend to harm the poor. Following Edward Glaeser, we can refer to this project as "small-government egalitarianism."

A very different type of compassionate conservatism was that pursued by the Bush Administration and its supporters: advocating big government economic and social programs similar to those traditionally supported by liberals, but with a conservative overlay. Examples include the No Child Left Behind Act (a massive expansion of federal education spending coupled with a few "accountability" measures favored by conservatives), the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill (a massive expansion of federal health care spending, coupled with a small market-based program), and the Administration's ultimately disastrous efforts to use the federal government to, in Bush's words, "use the mighty muscle of the federal government" increase homeownership rates. More generally, Bush presided over a massive expansion of government spending and regulation; some of this was pure political opportunism, but much of it was also rationalized by the theory of compassionate conservatism. For lack of a better term, we can call this agenda "big government conservatism."

Small-government egalitarianism and big government conservatism have very different strengths and weaknesses. Although Steve suggests that conservative intellectuals have grown disenchanted with compassionate conservatism as a whole, most still support the ideas associated with the small-government egalitarian agenda. Small-government egalitarianism has much deeper roots on the intellectual right than big government conservatism, which few serious conservative thinkers find appealing, except as a political strategy. The political weakness of the small-government egalitarian agenda arises from the fact that it goes against the demands of powerful interest groups and doesn't spark much enthusiasm among the nonpoor, nonminority voters who form the base of the Republican Party. For these reasons, Republican politicians have (with rare exceptions such as Kemp), usually done little more than pay lip service to it.

The problem with big government conservatism, by contrast, is that its policies don't seem to be any better than the liberal ones they to a large extent mimic. Many conservative politicians (and a few intellectuals) went along with it nonetheless because it seemed politically advantageous to do so. It is still possible that this approach will be a winning political formula for the Republican Party. So far, however, it has fallen well short of delivering the political bonanza that Bush and Karl Rove expected. Some conservatives also hoped that big government conservative policies would forestall the enactment of even bigger expansions of government by liberal Democrats. That expectation, too, has been disappointed. Certainly, the passage of the NCLBA and the prescription drug benefit did nothing to diminish either liberal Democrats' or the general public's enthusiasm for further expansions of government in education and health care. Moreover, the close association between the big government version of compassionate conservatism and the discredited Bush Administration will make it difficult to revive conservative support for this set of policies - at least in the near future.

Steve suggests that advocates of compassionate conservatism must turn away from an exclusive focus on party politics if they are to succeed:

The most likely pathway back to influence for compassionate conservatism, however, may not run through party politics at all. Rather than attempt to use the Republican party as a battering ram to reform the welfare state, compassionate conservatism might return to its more ideologically ambiguous roots, seeking to advance itself through strange bedfellows rather than party-line coalitions. Compassionate conservatives could rebuild their linkages with reformist Democrats, changing policy slowly by reshaping the conventional wisdom in both parties. The future of compassionate conservatism may, like progressivism before it, depend on attracting "respectable people" across the political spectrum through a slow process of experimenting, organization-building, and seeking out allies. History suggests that this will be a more durable strategy for compassionate conservatism than capturing the Republican party, which has at best been its fair-weather friend.

There is, I think, some truth to this. Parts of the small-government egalitarian agenda could appeal to liberals and centrist, as witness the widespread liberal and moderate opposition to economic development takings. However, it will be difficult going at a time when most liberal opinion leaders are intent on an agenda of expanding the size and scope of government. Moreover, the widespread perception that the current economic crisis was caused by free markets has turned most liberals away from the flirtations with limiting government that some were open to in the Clinton era. It will be some time before they are willing to reconsider.

Big government conservatism, by contrast, is most likely to be revived if the Republicans once again come to see it as politically advantageous. It has little appeal to most right of center intellectuals (most of whom became right of center in the first in large part because they are suspicious of big government, at least in economic policy), and its appeal to liberal intellectuals may be even smaller. And if a big government conservative revival does happen, it probably won't use the "compassionate conservative" label that has been tarred by association with Bush.

Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
Why, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA, GOP whip) showed us the meaning of compassionate conservatism just the other day.

Patricia Churchill relayed a story about a close family member who recently lost a high paying job and her health insurance. Churchill told Cantor that her relative was dying of stomach tumors and needs an operation as soon as possible. Cantor responded by suggesting that Churchill's relative should seek "existing government programs" [patient still too wealthy for Medicaid] or find charity [will be dead before she gets off the long (Canada-style?!) waiting list].
Decrease the surplus population!
9.23.2009 5:28pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
I have always said that Bush was a conservative in the LBJ tradition.
9.23.2009 5:31pm
Oh Puhlease:
Lazarus -- If this person is that sick, by the time any comprehensive health bill was passed, actually took effect, got up and running, and gave her health care, it would likely be too late anyway. Advice about what is around now is prudent.
9.23.2009 5:41pm
Cornet of Horse:
The future of small-government egalitarianism is very much on the Left, where it should be. Jefferson-Jackson. Indeed, until they get there (most likely when the Boomer disease passes), they'll continue to struggle.

The small in that sense doesn't refer to leaving laws to enforce themselves, however, but to dialing back the world policeman and the takeover/bailout business, so I don't think "blaming the financial crisis on the free market" is quite the roadblock you imagine, as I don't believe that is quite the formulation that most appropriately captures people's feelings.

There's a sense the store was unminded, whether out of incompetence, ideology, corruption, or too-much-on-the-plateness is still up in the air.
9.23.2009 5:41pm
Nunzio:
Andrew Lazarus:

Can't the woman afford the premiums through Cobra?
9.23.2009 5:42pm
one of many:


I'm a little puzzled Lazarus,

under COBRA if the job loss was recent then she should still be covered. IF she needs surgery now and for some reason didn't get COBRA or the job loss was not recent and COBRA coverage has expired, there are plenty of hospitals &surgeons which will operate now and worry about whether charities &medicaid will cover the bill later, and if not then she can still get the surgery and pay for it herself (hospitals and surgeons can set up a repayment plan). The only reason for her to die due to not having the surgery if is she refuses to have the surgery until someone else agrees to pay for it.
9.23.2009 5:46pm
Mark N. (www):
I'm not quite convinced by this:
Small-government egalitarianism has much deeper roots on the intellectual right than big government conservatism, which few serious conservative thinkers find appealing, except as a political strategy.

But isn't small-government egalitarianism a quite recent phenomenon on the intellectual right? As a conservative political movement, it seems most strongly rooted in thinkers of the mid 20th century. Earlier than that, a free-market egalitarian agenda was most often found on the intellectual left, e.g. in the Enlightenment liberals, Jefferson, etc.

Big-government conservatism, meanwhile, has quite old and deep roots on the right, especially in its religious-conservative and royalist-conservative forms. Some of Bush's proposals could be seen as a version of Christian Democracy, for example.
9.23.2009 5:59pm
Cornet of Horse:
Mark N.,

I'm predicting things will return to that form once the Boomers and their, ahem, unique views and experiences pass. As you note, the Bush administration represented some on the initial feints in that direction.
9.23.2009 6:15pm
one of many:
Yes Mark,


the roots of conservationism are yesterday's liberalism. It's almost part of the definition of the terms, unless a liberal idea is never adopted, it will eventually become a conservative idea. hard to avoid that. but that is not particularly relevant to discussing left/right liberal/conservative in the US, both sides of which come from the intellectual left of the 18th century.
9.23.2009 6:30pm
alkali (mail):
... most liberal opinion leaders are intent on an agenda of expanding the size and scope of government.

This characterization puts me in mind of the recent back and forth between Orin Kerr and Randy Barnett and others here re: what it means to say something "is" (or isn't) constitutional. This particular characterization would appear to embed at least one contention along the lines of the following:

1. The self-described express goal of liberal opinion leaders is to expand the size and scope of government in general

2. The actual secret goal of liberal opinion leaders is to expand the size and scope of government, whatever their professed goals might be (i.e., they may say they are interested in health care, but their secret desire is to expand government in general, and that they may focus on health care is just opportunism)

3. Whatever the professed or actual policy goals of liberal opinion leaders might be, those goals should primarily be understood and considered as expansions of the size and scope of government (and to the extent that liberal opinion leaders don't realize this, they are suffering from a form of false consciousness)

Contentions (1) and (2) seem to me to be just wrong as matters of fact, even though some opponents of liberals assert them to be true. (I assume some of that is just politics, but at least some people really seem to believe they are true.) Contention (3) seems at least arguable but would require some defense.
9.23.2009 6:56pm
ChrisTS (mail):
not particularly relevant to discussing left/right liberal/conservative in the US, both sides of which come from the intellectual left of the 18th century.

I don't read Mark's comment as being incompatible with this historical truth. Perhaps the issue is the use of 'left' and 'right'?
9.23.2009 7:31pm
Perseus (mail):
In defining these means, compassionate conservatives looked to Catholic social teaching for guidance, and sought to combine subsidiarity (the principle that power should be held by institutions as close to the individual as is feasible) with a version of solidarity (the idea that a society must be measured by how it treats its weakest and neediest members).

There seems to be a fundamental tension between compassionate conservatism as a governing philosophy for the national government and the principle of subsidiarity or federalism. Compassionate conservative policies adopted at the state government level are far less likely to suffer from the problems associated with big government than when those policies are attempted at the national government level as George W. Bush tried to do.
9.23.2009 8:16pm
Cornet of Horse:
ChrisTS,

"I don't read Mark's comment as being incompatible with this historical truth. Perhaps the issue is the use of 'left' and 'right'?"

The problem is that there are many lost tribes of liberalism who perceive themselves now to be on the "Right", having fled there for shelter against the Progressive Left. What I'm saying is that some day the Progressive Left itself will get around to asking just how Progressive large concentrations of power in fact are, and will at that point be drawn (back) to a limited government egalitarianism.

Or they won't and some other Republic will overtake us.
9.23.2009 10:46pm
one of many:

I don't read Mark's comment as being incompatible with this historical truth. Perhaps the issue is the use of 'left' and 'right'?


The problem is that historically both the left and the right in US were formed in opposition to the religious-conservative/monarchial-conservative politics that Europe had. Historically in the US liberal and conservative were defined by which set of enlightenment liberals were favored, the left(liberals) leaned more to Voltaire while the right(conservatives) favored Hobbes. Throwing in the Christian Democrats like Mark does, confuses the issue because the Christian Democrats have a lineage which bypasses the enlightenment liberal tradition, coming out the Aquinas tradition.
9.23.2009 11:06pm
Cornet of Horse:
one of many,

True, but I would argue that the Christian Dem tradition reared it's ugly head stateside under the guise of the Social Gospellers and has been slowing gaining adherents as it has inched to the right ever since.

Once our current crop of evangelicals turn on to it (leading Progressives to finally question it), it will only be a matter of time, and those evangelicals already consider themselves to be on the "right", unlike the Social Gospellers.
9.23.2009 11:23pm
Mark N. (www):
one of many: I agree the 18th-century American political elites were essentially all liberals. But I don't think modern American conservatism derives solely from that; religious-populist sorts of conservatism have been long present as well. It's hardly as if Jerry Falwell appeared on the right from nowhere; he's merely the latest incarnation of a deeply rooted sort of conservative politics, which predates the United States and was never actually abolished here.
9.24.2009 12:05am
Cornet of Horse:
Mark N.,

"he's merely the latest incarnation of a deeply rooted sort of conservative politics, which predates the United States and was never actually abolished here."

Yeah, but the tradition out of which he springs was on the opposite side of the old altar-and-throne right during those predates. Despite some delusions of grandeur, it's nowhere near the throne now nor has it ever really been here, however much its thrown its considerable weight around. There are those who would cite Carter or W., but the President can't govern by himself, and the governing class has never been much for enthusiasm, nor vice versa.

A possible downside of a Progressive embrace of limited-government egalitarianism (liberaltarianism) would be opening up the possibility of that changing.
9.24.2009 12:45am
one of many:
But religious-populism has a history of being aligned with both the conservative and the liberal. More often in US history it has been liberal, but to consider it as part of the US left/liberal tradition (or right/conservative) is to ignore that it starts from a different point. On a scale of 1 to 10,with 1 being the US extreme left and 10 being the US extreme right, religious-populism is an orange. The Social Gospellers were allied with the progressives and their primary emphasis was the liberal (US) emphasis on society as opposed to the conservative (US) emphasis on individualism.
9.24.2009 1:44am
Mark N. (www):

the liberal (US) emphasis on society as opposed to the conservative (US) emphasis on individualism

Even that doesn't seem particularly unproblematic to me. In the founding generation, the more individualist figures, like Jefferson and Paine, were generally left of the less individualist ones, like Hamilton. And conservatives have fairly consistently sided with the right of the state to suppress individual action and expression if it would be harmful to the morality of society, as with sodomy laws and obscenity laws.
9.24.2009 4:03am
benji:
Should just redefine left-right along something more like a collectivist-individualist spectrum. Don't care which is which, it'd just make more sense than the silly spectrum we all learned in school that makes zero sense. (Totalitarians and Anarchists both in the middle? Authoritarians on both ends?)
9.24.2009 4:57am
one of many:

Should just redefine left-right along something more like a collectivist-individualist spectrum. Don't care which is which, it'd just make more sense than the silly spectrum we all learned in school that makes zero sense. (Totalitarians and Anarchists both in the middle? Authoritarians on both ends?)
No, because it is unfair to call the US left collectivists, their tradition is rooted in the rights of the individual which is what distinguishes the enlightenment liberals. A collectivist feels that the collective (group) is more important than the individual and collective welfare is more important than individual welfare, the enlightenment liberals rejected this view. The difference between the Rousseau and Hobbes strands of enlightenment liberalism lies in how they view the interaction between society and the individual, the Rousseau (US liberal) view is that society exists to improve the lot of individuals while the Hobbes (US Conservative) view is that society exists to restrain individuals from harming each other. This does mean that collectivists like the Social Gosphellers who wanted to use society to improve people tend to feel more at home with the US left as they have a similar emphasis on society (careful word choice all for naught) while collectivists who want to use society to control people are more at home with the US right - but neither of those has yet taken over the US left or the US right which are grounded in classical liberalism.
9.24.2009 9:54am
one of many:
"feel more at home with" and "at home with" in the terminal sentence are poor choices on my part without distinguishing between the US left and US liberals and the US right and US conservatives. "can ally with" US liberals (conservatives) to find a home in the US left(right) is better.
9.24.2009 10:44am

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