Compassion

It is well established that a primary disagreement between the American political right and left is the role of government. There are, of course fringes on right and left, the fringe right desirous of an absence of government control (anarchy) – the fringe left, total government control (totalitarianism). While they represent the extremes in individual freedom, neither are models for an open society in a representative republic.

I would like to explore those differences in an ideological level but rather than have the political machine describe the differences, I would ask for perspective from individuals. Read this and please share your view in the comments.

It seems to me that there are several counterweights that are used in this American tug-o-war to pull the flag past the center point, resulting in the tilt of our society to one side of the political continuum or the other. The preamble to the Constitution contains one particular statement that I think is illustrative of this divide.

The Preamble states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The statement of which I speak is this: “promote the general Welfare”.

Being prone to see the Constitution as a constraining document, I interpret this statement as “protecting the conditions by which citizens can flourish to the best of their individual abilities”. In opposition to this, it occurs to me that the left interprets this requirement of the Constitution not as a constraining caveat but actually an expansionist perspective – and “promote the general welfare” becomes a mandate to “provide for the general welfare”, that it is the duty and responsibility of government to legislate “equality”. It appears that there is the idea on the left, rooted in Plato, Hobbes, Engels and Marx that to create “equality”, that society must be controlled – planned as it were – in order to make sure that there is not differentiation in status, financial standing or influence. That seems to be their definition of “equality”.

By definition, this mandated “equality” requires one of two things: in a democratic republic, it requires coerced taxation and redistribution, in a totalitarian society; it requires oppression, suppression of individual freedom. Before the readers on the left go apoplectic, coercion can well be legal – one of the denotative meanings of the word is to compel to an act or a choice. Anytime you are in a position to choose a particular action to avoid non-compliance with one or more laws – that is, in effect, coercion. The nature of the creation of employers being legally mandated to withhold federal taxes from your paycheck by the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943 is coercive by definition – you are compelled by law to contribute your money without any control over how it will be used…but it is legal.

Even though we live in a societal spider web of laws and regulations, we do not live in a totalitarian society (yet), so the political left’s favored  weapons of choice are coercion and redistribution of private property, namely money through our so called “progressive” tax system.

One of the most common attacks used from the left is that the right hates poor and minorities, in their minds; this is due to a supposed lack of compassion of the right. This “compassion gambit” seems to be based on a belief of the left that a free society does not care about the less fortunate and will not care for them in an equitable manner. They use demonizing images like tossing granny out in the streets, cutting Social Security so that retirees have to eat cat food and leaving those without health insurance in the street gutters to die.

There are so many other issues that for this writing, I would like to focus on this meme, the lack of compassion.

From where does compassion originate? It is a word that is casually tossed about in both rhetorical and debate settings but like anything else, a concept that is meaningless without definition. The dictionary definition of compassion is a:

…sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

What is required to have a “sympathetic consciousness”? Is it enough to read about famine in Ethiopia, know about homeless shelters or to see panhandlers on local streets? Is it enough to have a general awareness of poverty or unemployment or is that too superficial to truly be called sympathetic? Many times in contemporary society when presented with a negative situation involving an acquaintance, a tangential friend (a friend of a friend, so to speak) or even someone who is enough degrees of separation from us that we only know “of” them via another person,  we say “I’m sorry” or “that’s a shame”. We do so as a matter of societal protocol when we really know or feel nothing more than a transitory obligation to express an acknowledgement of a particular difficult situation or condition – a “throw away” comment with all the meaning of “Have a nice day.”

I fail to see how behavior like this can be defined as “sympathetic”. It is too rote, too procedural, and too mechanical. It isn’t real sympathy; it is simply consciousness (awareness), so it would seem that true sympathy depends on some sort of personal connection, one stronger than just a consciousness of the situation.

The second component of the compassion equation is a desire to alleviate the distress. Note that it says that it is a “desire”, not actual resolution of the distress. It is no surprise that most of Americans would say that given a choice, they would prefer that no person ever face a debilitating or desperate situation but to truly alleviate it, there must be some action, some force applied to change the current situation or the all that is left is the desire to alleviate, not the actual alleviation. It would seem to me that a true desire to alleviate the distress should include a desire to see that distress end, not just to postpone it for a while – only to have it return after the force or support is removed.

Otherwise, compassion becomes simply a false emotion, a temporary personalization of the pain of someone else and thereby self-serving act conducted by self-important people as a way to say to society at large that “I’m better than you because I feel their pain”, albeit quite temporarily.

In the world of the political left, the answer to the compassion equation is always more government. This is expressed through direct transfer payments (welfare, WIC, unemployment benefits), programs (government funded parenting, job skills, mental health) or support for local social charities.

Buy by outsourcing compassion to a third party; i.e. the agencies of the federal government, does that not violate both of the main tenets of compassion (at least as I have established them)? Since there is no personal connection, we never actually know the people that the government programs are designed and purported to help and government programs have not succeeded in alleviating distress, they just warehouse the less fortunate and hope that the don’t starve. Take the “War of Poverty” – by government standards there at more people below the poverty line now than ever and we are ballooning the federal deficits and debt to pay for the very programs that have proven to be ineffective. Just last September, the New York Times reported that:

Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.

Conservatives have tried to answer the lack of compassion charge by coining the moniker of the “compassionate conservatism” – a theme that differed very little from the big government programs of the “progressives”, demanding the same coercion and redistribution. In real terms, politicians from the right have never reduced government; they have only slowed its growth trajectory – so let’s just go ahead and stipulate that we on the right have not been successful in actually reducing government.

If lower poverty, less welfare and higher living standards can be correlated to more government spending, then as spending increases, these aspects should improve – but they haven’t. By definition, reducing or eliminating these conditions would be fit the definition of compassion; however, there is actually a negative correlation as these categories have actually become worse as the size of government has increased. That indicates to me that there is no compassion to be found in the use of government as a method of relieving distress.

The right fosters the idea of individualism and self-determination. If true compassion requires a personal relationship and a desire to end distress, it would seem to me that churches, charitable associations and individuals – smaller units of collaboration, closer to the source of distress – have the greatest opportunity to resolve these issues and it is a documented fact that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.

You may say that the government supports charities, and it does through grants – but with strings. Christian charities can no longer teach the lessons of Christ or Christianity for fear that they might offend. Private citizens run afoul of health laws when they make sandwiches in their own homes and had them out to the needy. The government works to prevent the kind of meaningful personal contact that changes lives.

Is it more compassionate to give a man a fish and feed him for a day or to teach him to fish so he can feed himself for a lifetime? Is it more compassionate to engage with a person one on one or by anonymously refilling his welfare debit card electronically once a month?

There is no compassion in government and those who espouse the checkbook method of compassion via expecting the government to do it, do not express it either. This is enough reason for me to declare the political left’s accusation that the political right lacks compassion a lie.

Compassion is truly more in line with the individual freedoms and right to self-determination prescribed by  the right side of the spectrum than the collectivist/corporate ideas of the “progressives” on the left.

4 thoughts on “Compassion

  1. My feelings about the govt’s role in carrying out the desires of the writers of the line, “promote the general Welfare”, is to do the type of things that FDA is set up to do for us. I think our govt should make certain that what producers are selling us to eat is edible. I think they should make every possible attempt to prevent drug manufacturers from making attorneys richer by alowing the sale of drugs that cause health problems.
    I think some of the requirements the govt make in our daily lives, like seatbelts and airbags in vehicles, are not out of line. I think doing things like making it illegal to put lead in paints is a reasonable reaction on the govt’s part. I even feel that requiring me to carry some insurance to cover someone else’s losses if I am responsible for damage to their vehicle or person is not stepping over the line.
    I think all of these things are ways that the govt can PROMOTE the general welfare of the American people. I definitely think requiring me to insure my own health is going over and beyond what the framers of our Constitution had in mind. I am certainly in favor of reducing the size and scope of our federal govt, but I don’t want to eliminate all of it.

    • I don’t want to eliminate it all either but spending more doesn’t seem to be the answer. Seems to be just chasing bad money with good…

  2. May I reply by way of some quotes from the founders – please? 🙂

    As to the notion that “welfare” means taking care of people, I side with James Madison:

    “With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

    and:

    “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”

    And as to the notion of “compassion,” I believe as Benjamin Franklin did:

    “The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy. An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy.”

    “This gave me occasion to observe, that when Men are employ’d they are best contented. For on the Days they work’d they were good-natur’d and chearful; and with the consciousness of having done a good Days work they spent the Evenings jollily; but on the idle Days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with their Pork, the Bread, etc. and in continual ill-humour.”

    And:

    “Repeal that [welfare] law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday and St. Tuesday, will soon cease to be holidays. Six days shalt thou labor, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.”

    So, for me, the whole role of govt. is to limit the ability of others to stomp on the INDIVIDUAL rights and liberties of their neighbor – especially through and at/by the hand of the govt. In this sense, it IS compassionate to want to preserve the “opportunity” for the least among us to make what he/she will of himself/herself through his/her own industry. But to make one dependent upon others is the antithesis of what I consider “compassion” to mean as it is the act of enslaving that person made dependent while making him/her incapable of escaping that slavery by crushing his/her sense of self worth and ability.

    Hope that made sense.

  3. The definition of welfare is: The state of being or doing well; condition of health, happiness, and comfort; well-being; prosperity. The second definition is govt.aid.

    So I reckon it boils down to who’s handing out your money; you or your Uncle Sam.

    I suppose I lean to the Libertarian side in that I believe were govt. agencies privatised, they would be more successful.Churches and non-profits seem to be far more successful helping the needy here and abroad.

    Of course, my personal preference in compassion is to send them all to Rick Perry’s Hobo Farm. I guess I’m just gettin spring fever…..

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