When Christian Socialists Attack
Friday, January 12, 2007
Michael Gerson helped create “compassionate” conservatism. Now he’s attacking the small-government ideal—and inadvertently highlighting America’s need to learn from Europe.
In what may be the most aggressive attack on small-government conservatism in years, highly influential former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson writes: “What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.” Gerson’s arguments, though flawed to the core, present a grave threat to the philosophical underpinnings of limited government conservatism and the legacy of Reagan in the Republican Party. At heart, Gerson’s arguments are old Christian Socialist arguments, falsely presented as being “conservative.”
If one believes, as Ralph Nader does, that ‘a society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity,’ then seeing the civil society weaken as the state expands is not a problem.
Contrary to Gerson’s claim, small-government conservatism has a great deal to offer inner-city neighborhoods. By providing security against crime, good schools and good education through vouchers, plentiful jobs, rising wages and benefits through an economic climate which encourages investment, and good retirement savings through personal accounts (nest eggs with cumulative interest that can be passed on, unlike current Social Security “savings”), small-government conservatism has much more to offer people in inner-city neighborhoods than the well-intended but failed policies it has gradually, happily, begun to replace.
Gerson claims he is concerned about compassion and charitable benevolence. If he is, let him look at the glowing dynamism and strength of the American civil society, which is so strong only because the U.S. government (unlike European governments) is still relatively small. The civil society is the social glue that holds a society with individualist economic policies together: it is the informal network of neighborhood associations, churches, charities, and philanthropic institutions that help good causes and those in need. The strength of American civil society, worth more than $260 billion in 2005 (about $500 billion if you include the estimated dollar value of volunteer time), shows us that compassion and human kindness do not vanish in a free-market system.
Gerson claims that the government can strengthen civil society, but as Europe shows, he has it backwards: it is the state, and not individualism, that destroys civil society and societal compassion. In France, Germany, Italy, or the Netherlands, though a vigorous civil society is as necessary today as ever before, it has been severely weakened by decades of “compassionate” welfare state policies.
If one believes, as Ralph Nader does, that “a society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity,” seeing the civil society weaken as the state expands is not a problem. But there’s an ominous catch: the warmth and effectiveness of the civil society cannot be effectively replaced by the state. When the government takes on “compassionate” social roles formerly fulfilled by the civil society, “justice” does not increase. Rather, voluntary giving is replaced with coercion, warm human charity with cold handouts, sincere compassion with bureaucratic redistribution, and even, as in Germany, church donations with a government tax for believers.
How vibrant is Europe’s civil society? How healthy are the networks of European churches, neighborhood associations and charities? It is not a pretty picture. For Gerson to favor that state of affairs when American civil society has proven to be such an extraordinary force for human good—so much better than the government could ever be—is deeply saddening.
Gerson writes that small-government conservatism is "a political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs.” In assuming that human needs will go unmet but for government intervention, Gerson falls victim to an old socialist fallacy. Frederic Bastiat, the great French free-market economist, wrote about this philosophical fallacy in 1850:
“Socialism, like the old policy from which it emanates, confounds Government and society. And so, every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of education by the State—then we are against education altogether… We object to an equality which is brought about by the State then we are against equality, etc… They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to the cultivation of corn by the State.”
And so, if small government conservatives object to massive philanthropy being undertaken by the federal government, people like Gerson conclude that small government conservatives are opposed to charity and philanthropy—but they are not. They are opposed to state “philanthropy,” which supplants the genuine philanthropy of the civil society and which is not genuine philanthropy in any case.
Perhaps President Reagan put it best when he proclaimed in 1981 that “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern.” Republicans like Gerson are not fond of Reagan’s small-government conservatism: in a bid to discredit Reagan, they go as far as to accuse him of straying from his small-government principles for the sake of political expediency.
Gerson’s accusation of fiscal profligacy (“During the Reagan years, big government got bigger”) should be taken with a big grain of salt and a look at the statistics, which prove otherwise. As AEI’s Veronique de Rugy notes, Reagan was the only President over the past forty years to have cut inflation-adjusted non-defense spending. And, as de Rugy shows, in Departments as varied as Labor, Energy, and Education, Reagan aggressively cut spending. President Bush, by contrast, has massively boosted spending on these departments and across the board.
Gerson claims that the government can strengthen civil society, but as
We should not be surprised that Reagan never was popular with the Republican Party leadership: GOP leaders consistently favored the big government conservatism of Nixon, Rockefeller, Ford, and now Bush, to Reagan’s small-government conservatism. Though voters and conservatives adored Reagan, GOP leaders considered his small-government idealism to be an irritating obstacle to winning votes. Voters proved those GOP leaders wrong by wide margins in 1980 and 1984, and in numerous elections since then, but Republican leaders just don’t seem to learn.
Just this past November, Democrats won not by campaigning on a big-government platform but rather by accusing Republicans of wasteful pork spending and prolonged complicity in the creation of large deficits. In so doing, ironically, Democrats tapped into a profound longing of Americans—a longing for limited government, balanced budgets, and fiscal responsibility.
To Gerson’s great dismay, most American politicians will realize sooner rather than later that pursuing small-government policies is not only the right thing to do—in the United States, it makes for smart politics as well.
Jurgen Reinhoudt is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image credit: "Washington 3" by Flickr user Xerones.