The moral and economic benefits of compassionate conservatism

There's nothing wrong with compassion. In fact, there's a whole lot right with it

Matt K. Lewis

The Bible does clearly teach the right of property, but both the Old Testament and the New Testament put a tremendous stress on the compassionate use of that property. If at each place where the employer was a Bible-believing Christian the world could see that less profit was being taken so that the workers would have appreciably more than the 'going rate' of pay, the gospel would have been better proclaimed throughout the whole world than if the profits were the same as the world took and then large endowments were given to Christian schools, missions, and other projects.

—Francis Schaeffer

Ed Morrissey and I have had a good back-and-forth over Ross Douthat's contention that "today's Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas."

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I have already presented several reasons to explain the trend toward a more libertarian brand of conservatism, but there is an obvious if simpler explanation: Conservatives are reflexively seeking to become the opposite of Barack Obama.

If Obama wants collectivism, then the opposite of that isn't responsible and voluntary communitarianism, but radical individualism. If Obama wants to redistribute wealth via government, then the opposite of that isn't to encourage private charity, but to flaunt the virtues of selfishness.

This Randian impulse, of course, is not nearly as pervasive as some in the media would have us believe. Many conservatives are quietly very charitable (in fact more charitable than liberals). But too often, harsh rhetoric about "makers and takers" and the "47 percent" belies this.

Conservatives are frequently complicit in this misrepresentation. We stress that government shouldn't mandate certain things, but too seldom acknowledge that our own consciences should have required us to privately provide these very things in the first place. If you employ someone, you should feel a self-imposed responsibility to them that transcends whatever the minimum wage law is.

This is not to say free-market conservatives should accede to the redistributionists who misunderstand human nature, competition, and incentives. Conservatives must preach capitalism and the importance of free markets. But in teaching the yin, we should not ignore the yang.

Most educated Americans know Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, expounding on the virtues of self-interest in free markets. But how many Americans know Smith's first (and only other) book was called The Theory of Moral Sentiments and that it was about the virtues of personal benevolence? Indeed, Smith developed a theory of an "impartial spectator" (a sort of conscience) as a standard for moral judgment.

Smith believed that in both instances, an "invisible hand" unintentionally changes things to benefit others. The "greed is good" saying is a simplistic perversion of Smith's philosophy.

But how often do conservatives portray our ideals this way?

Our founders believed self-imposed responsibility was essential to the preservation of freedom. An immoral majority will eventually discover that they can vote "themselves largess from the public treasury." But a nation's elite must also be moral — which is to say, not greedy. As Ed Morrissey noted, "Any society with a large class of exploited poor will have no end of social difficulties and instability, the costs of which in a properly ordered system would far exceed the assistance extended." That's the invisible hand at work.

Compassion isn't just right. It's also a matter of self-preservation.

As conservatives engage in continued soul searching, we must be careful not to allow the backlash against Obamaism to define our own worldview.

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