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They Care, And That's The Problem

Compassionate conservatism was, in practice, nothing more than spin and a vague gesture at a higher-order justification for corruption. ~Matt Yglesias

Speaking as someone who viewed “compassionate conservatism” as something more than spin, I would note that from a conservative perspective the first term proposals of “compassionate conservatism,” whether NCLB or the “faith-based initiatives” or something else, were a form of corruption all their own–a corruption of schools on the one hand, and a corruption of churches and charities on the other.  But to divide the high Gersonian rhetoric from the corruption and policy disasters of the Bush years is a mistake that allows both to escape from real censure much too easily.  Gersonism facilitates corruption, because it breeds a sense of entitlement and a loss of restraint in how power and resources are used.  Gersonism almost has to lead to policy disasters, because its assessment of ends and means is horribly wrong.  Fundamental to the entire project is an unreflective optimism and self-confidence that says, “I know I’m trying to save the world (and I will save the world), and anyone who doesn’t appreciate that is a moral monster.”  The obvious danger with self-appointed revolutionary transformers of the world is that the only thing they see more clearly than the rightness of their own view is the depravity of their foes, which makes for the perfect recipe for fanaticism and abuse of power.

This is the trouble that both cynics and progressives have in trying to make sense of Bush.  People will assume that he is using “compassion” and “democracy” talk as cynical cover for something else or that he’s cloaking his allegedly deep right-wing commitments (ha!) beneath a lot of talk about government moving to assist hurting people.  What is difficult for Bush’s critics, myself included, to appreciate is just how obliviously sincere they are that they think they really are caring for people and helping people by laying waste to their countries, imposing absurd unfunded mandates on their schools, frittering money away on feel-good foreign aid projects that leads directly to more corruption abroad, etc.  They feel they are doing good, and so the consequences do not concern them, which is probably why they apparently give so little thought to consequences and the possibility that things will go awry.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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