What Compassionate Conservatism Is—And Is Not

Monday, October 30, 2000


his political year features the “compassionate conservatism” espoused by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Some question whether it is a political slogan or a philosophy. I would submit that it is a coherent, principled philosophy that organizes and explains a superior approach to domestic policy. As a political philosophy, compassionate conservatism serves as a true bridge from the era of big government as a way to solve social problems to a new era in which we will have a full and healthy trust in the people of this nation to govern themselves.

Fundamentally, compassionate conservatism is a form of political conservatism. In other words, compassionate conservatives believe that government should have a limited role in people’s lives and that competition in the marketplace is the most effective means of producing social and economic progress. Consequently, compassionate conservatives believe in low taxes, limited government regulation, and the vast power of the free enterprise system.

Like traditional conservatism, compassionate conservatism assumes that the marketplace is the best way to deliver value. But compassionate conservatives also recognize that the prosperity created by the marketplace has left many Americans behind and that government has a responsibility to reach out to those who are at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. According to the principles of compassionate conservatism, government has a responsibility, not to redistribute the wealth of citizens but to provide the underprivileged with skills and opportunities to create their own wealth.

Compassionate conservatives do not believe in big government programs that simply throw money at people, that discourage personal choice and responsibility, or that result in keeping people forever out of the mainstream of American life.

Indeed, compassionate conservatives believe that prosperity must have a moral purpose, that its economic fruits must be available to as many citizens as possible. To accomplish their goals, however, compassionate conservatives do not believe in a paternalistic form of governance in which decisions that affect all people—no matter what their personal beliefs, values, and outlooks—are made at the top by professional bureaucrats. Compassionate conservatives do not believe in big government programs that simply throw money at people, that discourage personal choice and responsibility, or that result in keeping people forever out of the mainstream of American life.

Consequently, compassionate conservatives believe that the best way to help people is to provide them with opportunities to maximize their own capabilities to gain a real stake in the continuing economic and social health of the nation.

Let’s look then at three tenets of compassionate conservatism: first, that it is optimistic and confident about how all individuals can do better; second, its belief that the best way to help people is through the marketplace; and third, that prosperity must have a purpose—that is, that more than just the marketplace is necessary for America to be a successful country.

Empowerment, Not Entitlement

Through its hopeful, optimistic belief in people’s ability to overcome adversity, compassionate conservatism offers a stark contrast to the fundamentally pessimistic view of the liberal establishment that people can never really overcome their problems. For the most part, Democratic liberalism, instead of creating opportunities for people to enter the mainstream, has sought to “buy out” the less fortunate by creating a system of government that actually disempowers those most in need by giving them less control over their own lives. And by promoting the redistribution of income rather than the creation of new wealth and new opportunities for investment, liberals have consigned people in need to the sidelines, where they remain dependent for their survival on the largesse of the state and the distant decisions of bureaucrats.

Compassionate conservatism offers a stark contrast to the fundamentally pessimistic view of the liberal establishment that people can never really overcome their problems.

Compassionate conservatism, on the other hand, believes in giving people the tools to help them overcome their adversity and join the economic mainstream. It does that through a combination of tax cuts—a policy that rests on the assumption that if people have more control over their own wealth, they will invest it in what they and their families need—and the creation of incentives to encourage such investment.

If we truly want a higher percentage of Americans to own part of this country and the hope that goes with it, compassionate conservatives say, then we should be encouraging the creation of wealth. For most people, wealth can most often be created in two key areas—retirement accounts and home ownership. In both those areas, the principles of compassionate conservatism lead to specific policy choices that show respect for both the marketplace and individuals.

The current debate over Social Security is a litmus test for compassionate conservatism. The suggestion that individuals should be allowed to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in equities is not only an issue that concerns the solvency of the Social Security fund but a fundamental matter of how we look at America and its people. Compassionate conservatives believe that by giving citizens the opportunity to own and control equities through their Social Security accounts, we can encourage people to invest in the country and to build wealth for the future—to bring into the mainstream people who may not otherwise have that opportunity. To pass up that opportunity for inclusion—or to add another bureaucratic government program to create such accounts, as some have proposed—is simply bad policy.

The same is true in the area of housing. Instead of giving people without much money the means to build personal wealth through home ownership, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has too often over the past three decades poured more money onto the problem, giving people a roof over their heads but no real stake in the future.

In the 35 years since the Title I education program was established, not a single dollar from the program has gone to a poor child or to that child’s parents. Instead, it has all gone to various state and local bureaucracies to continue a system that clearly isn’t working.

Compassionate conservatives recognize that those without economic means need assistance, but they believe that the way to do that is to create the conditions that allow more individuals to become homeowners. Rather than providing public housing, government can offer low-cost home loans or help people with down payments or even encourage the creation of independent development accounts so that citizens who don’t have a lot of money receive tax incentives to encourage them to save and invest.

The Power of the Marketplace

Compassionate conservatism acknowledges the need to help those that prosperity has left behind but insists that the best way to deliver the help is by giving poor individuals the means to secure their help through the marketplace. Along with providing citizens the opportunity to build wealth comes the obligation for government to provide people with a wide variety of choices as to how they can best put government assistance to use. Big-government, one-size-fits-all solutions demean struggling individuals by treating them merely as members of aggrieved identity groups, passively awaiting government subsidies and restitution for crippling wounds inflicted by what is perceived to be an inherently unjust society.

Compassionate conservatism rejects the Washingtoncentric view that the way to help people is through the same rigid, bureaucratic programs or narrowly targeted tax incentives that, in the past, permitted very little true self-governance. That brand of liberalism, for all its talk of empathy and compassion, imposes its own values and decides what options will work best for individuals and their families.

According to compassionate conservatives, competition in the marketplace is the surest way to produce value. When governments gain a monopoly in a way that renders performance irrelevant in the provision of services, the results invariably tend to be bureaucratic, wasteful, and inefficient.

This can be seen most clearly in the public education system. Having been accorded monopoly status over the years, the public school system in this nation is deeply troubled, with many students not learning even basic reading and math skills by the time they graduate from high school. Although many factors contribute to this troubling state of affairs, one key truth remains: there is inadequate information about performance and insufficient parental choice—and, thus, inadequate impetus for improved quality.

In this country, a debate has been raging concerning the role of the federal government in education. Compassionate conservatives would argue that there is a role, which is primarily to make sure that students who are poor or disabled receive the resources they need but in a way that demands accountability and performance. Over the past 35 years, billions of dollars have been poured into Title I, which was created specifically to help poor children. Yet in that time, not a single Title I dollar has gone to a poor child or to that child’s parents. Instead, it has all gone to various state and local bureaucracies to continue a system that clearly isn’t working.

Although compassionate conservatives believe in the need to continue to provide funds for children who qualify under the Title I program, they reject the notion that such funds must continue to be wasted in the ineffective and bureaucratic public school system.

The first step, then, is to bring accountability to school districts through rigorous testing in both math and reading of every child in grades 3 through 8. The testing should be done at the state and local levels to ensure local control, and the scores should be posted on the Internet—by classroom and school—for every parent to see. If schools don’t show measurable increases in performance for Title I children, then the parents should have control over those dollars and be allowed to make the decisions about the education of their children. In other words, such funds could be used to put poor parents on equal footing with more affluent parents in having a choice of where to send their children to school.

The same is true in the area of health care. Nobody disputes the fact that there are millions of uninsured individuals today in this country who need health care, and compassionate conservatives agree that government has a responsibility to provide funds to such individuals. But rather than create a new national health care system, compassionate conservatives believe that the best way to discharge that responsibility is to provide refundable tax credits that individuals can use to purchase policies in the insurance market. In that way both the marketplace and the individual are given the respect they are due, and customer competition is used to create innovations and efficiencies in the provision of services.

The same argument applies to Medicare and prescription drugs. Currently, Medicare provides few choices to seniors. It is a program with 130,000 pages of regulations that assumes that government has a right to—indeed, that it must—tell seniors what services they are allowed to receive and when. A better way to truly help seniors with pharmaceuticals, compassionate conservatives believe, would be to subsidize those who are in need, reform Medicare, and give individuals choices of a variety of insurance options.

Prosperity with a Purpose

Compassionate conservatism recognizes that we’re not going to become a virtuous and robust community of neighborhoods in this country just by relying on the forces of the marketplace. Instead, prosperity needs to have a purpose as well.

Compassionate conservatives are keenly aware that individuals thrive when they are rooted in a strong value system that is imparted through the family, church, or some other institution of civil society. Indeed, compassionate conservatives believe that the great needs of this country are cultural and spiritual. They believe that our nation’s great weaknesses—crime, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births–arise out of weaknesses in our culture. That culture must be rebuilt, not from the top down but from the bottom up. To compassionate conservatives, families matter, religion matters, and the self-respect gained from the ability to control one’s own life matters. And compassion involves recognizing that such values lie at the heart of what it means to be human.

Consequently, compassionate conservatives support the use of neighborhood and faith-based groups to provide essential services and to bring value to those individuals who need assistance, whether it be in finding a job, treating an addiction, dealing with mental health problems, or otherwise trying to get their lives in order. Unfortunately, the big-government systems of the Great Society supplanted the local, faith-based groups that often were highly effective in transforming individuals’ lives, and America’s value-generating civic institutions were derided as oppressive, parochial backwaters of bigotry and ignorance.

Compassionate conservatives want to correct that misconception. Although they acknowledge the role of government in helping those who need assistance, they do not believe that government itself needs to deliver those services. Small, local civic associations and religious organizations have the detailed knowledge and flexibility necessary to administer the proper combination of loving compassion and rigorous discipline appropriate for each citizen.

To be sure, compassionate conservatives recognize the need to observe the strict separation of church and state, and no public money should be devoted to advancing any particular religion. But to deny that the American people hold religious beliefs, or that faith-based organizations can truly make a difference in people’s lives, is foolish. If the Salvation Army or Catholic Relief Services or Jewish Social Services or Muslim antidrug drives can provide social services to people in need, and dollars are available, then those organizations should be allowed to bid on the right to provide those services. Even better, government can, through the tax code, encourage charitable giving, which altogether removes the problems associated with government participation.

Such a system would allow people to receive the assistance they need in a voluntary way, meaning that no one would be forced through the front door of a faith-based organization. Secular options would also be available for those who prefer them. But including faith-based groups in a cooperative effort to find solutions to society’s problems would allow those organizations to do what they’ve been proven to be good at: transforming individuals by teaching them the skills and providing them with the confidence and self-respect they need to succeed in the world at large.

Compassionate conservatives believe that most people, most of the time, have the capacity to run their own lives and affairs for themselves (i.e., to be self-governing citizens, not passive clients of government or helpless victims of external social forces). Their compassion is defined by their belief that, where citizens presently lack the means or the capacity for self-governance, they must indeed be helped. Insofar as possible, that means allowing citizens to select for themselves how they wish to be helped, to demonstrate faith that people can indeed run their own affairs.

Compassionate conservatism, then, refocuses government to respect both individuals and the market, providing opportunities that allow individuals to achieve their highest potential, which in and of itself is compassionate. In the words of Governor Bush:

It is conservative to cut taxes, and compassionate to give people more money to spend. It is conservative to insist upon local control of schools and high standards and results; it is compassionate to make sure every child learns to read and no one is left behind. It is conservative to reform the welfare system by insisting on work; it’s compassionate to free people from dependency on government. It is conservative to reform the juvenile justice code to insist on consequences for bad behavior; it is compassionate to recognize that discipline and love go hand in hand.

Compassionate conservatives strongly believe that if we respect both individuals and the marketplace, we can achieve great things. Only by fully empowering people to select freely among various options do we treat Americans as proud, dignified, self-governing citizens, able to make disciplined and responsible decisions about their own lives and those of their families and children. If we give individuals the education and other tools they need for success, allow them to control their own dollars, and help them enter the mainstream of American life through facilitating the ownership of stocks and homes, then we will succeed in producing a country that is even more prosperous, more civilized, and more prepared for the future.