Advancing a Free Society

Compassionate Conservatism, An Idea in Tension

Monday, April 25, 2011

In our previous segment we discussed the political backdrop of George W. Bush’s project of "compassionate conservatism" and promised that in this installment we would explore the intellectual one. The intellectual sources of the notion, just like the political ones, were complex and varied. Two among them stand out, however, because Bush himself has testified to their primacy for him. These were the very different writings of Myron Magnet, on the one hand, and Marvin Olasky, on the other. These represented the two poles of "compassionate conservatism," and between them they reveal the tensions that would continue to haunt the project.

Myron Magnet and the Cruel Compassion of the Welfare State

The first of these books that shaped Bush’s thinking emerged from a wholly secularist milieu. It was Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare (1993), which Bush would tell the Wall Street Journal was the most important book he had ever read, after the Bible.

Magnet, a professor of English at Columbia, had moved from studying Charles Dickens’s portrayal of poverty to writing essays in Fortune and City Journal. Dream had arisen from these essays. A powerful critique of the welfare state, it updated arguments made by so-called "neoconservatives" ever since the mid-1960’s. Magnet didn’t question the sincerity of liberal compassion. He insisted, however, that its crowning achievement, the full-blown welfare state of Lyndon Johnson’s "Great Society," had both failed and corrupted the very poor whom it aimed to help.

Continue reading Clifford Orwin at our sister site Defining Ideas