What Compassion Means to American Liberals and Conservatives

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The New York Times recently published an editorial by Nicholas Kristof citing several studies showing that conservatives not only give more money to charity overall, but give a greater percentage of their income to charity (“Bleeding Heart Tightwads,” Dec. 20, 2008). And lest anyone makes assumptions that people with more money need tax write-offs and are more likely to be conservative, let me add that the studies also concluded that: the working poor give a greater percentage of their income to charity; conservatives more often volunteer to help charitable causes than liberals; and conservatives donate more blood than liberals. Thus, the amount of money one has is not an accurate proxy for calculating how charitable one is.

To anyone but a conservative, these findings are probably a surprise. That is because there is a world of difference between what political conservatives and political liberals regard as “compassion.” In a nutshell: to the conservative, compassion is simply helping a poor person in need; to the liberal, it is telling someone richer than he is to help a poor person in need.

For many years now, the liberals have been able to bank, politically, on the notion that you can be “compassionate” simply by wanting to help the poor—whether or not you actually help them. Thus, the liberal Congressman casts himself as compassionate because the liberal wants to give one person’s money to another person under the mistaken notion that the other person deserves it more than the person who had it in the first place. In comparison, the conservative politician is cast as a stingy, greedy, heartless individual simply because he does not see why the government should be allowed to take one person’s earnings and give it to another person.

This has translated down into our culture as well, so that one can call himself “compassionate” not because he himself shows compassion, but simply because he votes for liberal politicians and favors liberal causes. The essence of the liberal’s position vis-à-vis the needy is not, “I will help you,” but instead “I will force someone else to help you.” Through this subterfuge, the liberal can rationalize to himself that he is doing his part to help the needy. Thus, Mr. Kristof casts Democrats as those “who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless,” and Republicans as “the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.” But what Mr. Kristof fails to appreciate is that he is merely exposing his own impoverished viewpoint. To him, government policy, alone, constitutes the sum of America’s social conscience.

Time and again, I am confronted by this crabbed imitation of true compassion. What the liberals fail to realize is that you can neither stimulate nor salve a conscience through enforced “charity.” It is neither “compassionate” nor “charitable” to compel a wealthy person to give portions of his bounty to the downtrodden. It is nobler and more rewarding to give freely—something that conservatives apparently understand better than liberals, judging by the studies.

But even more, compassion is not about money, and money is not how to measure moral obligation. In the end, the only rational assessment of the liberal-inspired masquerade of compassion is that it has nothing at all to do with true compassion, but is simply a sterile and completely misguided egalitarian notion of wealth redistribution. Compassion is a human virtue, and a human emotion. The government, being an institution, is not capable of bestowing compassion. It is neither “compassionate” nor “charitable” to give a poor person a government-issued check or voucher to which he is entitled simply by virtue of meeting a laundry list of objective criteria.

This is precisely why the liberals cling to government handouts rather than encourage and rely upon private charities. Their own elitist pride cannot entertain the idea that anyone might have to entreat anyone else for charity. Instead, it is much more comfortable to submit a form to a cold and faceless institution under the pretense that you are entitled to it, where you will not be subjected to anyone’s judgment or pity.

Granted, it is difficult for those in need to ask for help; it is humbling and, occasionally, humiliating. But I wonder: is it really better to sanitize our society of experiencing these less enjoyable aspects of our own humanity? Having to humble oneself may not be fun, but it is self-enlightening. And it is tremendously motivating. Confronting our own weaknesses is one of the ways we develop character.

But under the current system of government-sponsored “compassion,” we have fostered an environment where no one has to deal with his own weaknesses. Thus, everyone, including corporate America, is lining up at the government trough as though their well-being is an entitlement owed to them not through any merit or worthiness, but simply because they have suffered a setback and are more shameless in their pursuit of government handouts. The notion of entitlement even saves them from the inconvenience of having to feel or express any gratitude. Is this really an adequate substitute for dignity?

It is not that liberal individuals themselves are all stingy. In fact, as a general matter, all Americans are very generous when it comes to helping people all around the world, particularly when natural disasters strike. But there is a problem with the liberal concept of what constitutes compassion. They convey the completely mistaken notion that, somehow, one person’s financial well-being alone creates an obligation to give money to others, as though only the wealthy bear responsibility for society’s social problems and that the wealthy therefore need to feel guilty about their good fortune or success. The liberal is more apt to behave as though giving up your money is how you can prove to them that you are not a greedy, selfish jerk. But a bank account is not the same thing as a conscience.

In the end, the liberal’s concept of compassion is a tremendous insult to mankind, and demonstrates a decided lack of respect for his fellow man. It is based on a belief not in man’s goodness, but in his baseness. Thus, “charity” must be mandated by the liberal because he does not trust people to do what is right through the force of their own consciences. Instead, people are compelled to be “good” in spite of themselves, and those with more money have to be “better” than everyone else. And there’s the rub: forcing someone to do anything is to remove all human will, good or bad. In short, the liberal concept of compassion is the antithesis of real compassion, because it removes volition from the equation completely.

And that is the ultimate irony. Perhaps what the charity studies cited by Mr. Kristof really demonstrate is that liberals simply ignore the promptings of conscience that should motivate them to shoulder moral obligations themselves. Instead, they translate those pangs into railroading the rest of America into succumbing to a raft of government mandates according to what they deem is “fair.” They believe that this counterfeit compassion is a sufficient surrogate for the character and conscience that they lack, but that most other Americans possess in abundance. If liberals truly understood dignity, they would feel humiliated by what their politics say about them.

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Comments (1)

spazzNovember 28th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I come from a liberal family and charity has never been a question. I first started in 7th grade helping finding homes for stray dogs in Taiwan. We did fostering and even adopted two strays into the family. My mom now volunteers at a Filipino orphanage and I volunteer at the humane society. My mom and dad both volunteered after the big tsunamis flooded much of Manila. When I couldn’t volunteer while in college, I still found a way to give some money to organizations I believe in (ie, the Sierra club). As a Leftist, it only makes sense to reflect my rhetoric with action. With all the blaming of the poor as “economically unproductive” by conservatives, I’m just glad they don’t actualize those values.

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