The terrifying politics of kindness 22

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’. – Ronald Reagan

We quote from an essay titled The Case Against Liberal Compassion by William Voegeli (via PowerLine):

All conservatives are painfully aware that liberal activists and publicists have successfully weaponized compassion. “I am a liberal,” public radio host Garrison Keillor wrote in 2004, “and liberalism is the politics of kindness.” Last year [2013] President Obama said, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not enough — I want your kids to do well also.” Empathetic kindness is “what binds us together, and . . . how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success”.

Well, if liberalism is the politics of kindness, it follows that its adversary, conservatism, is the politics of cruelty, greed, and callousness. Liberals have never been reluctant to connect those dots. In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt said, “Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” In 1984 the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, called President Reagan an “evil” man “who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations . . . . He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood”.  A 2013 Paul Krugman column accused conservatives of taking “positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable”. They were, he wrote, “infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness . . . . If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick.” …

Voegeli goes on to discuss, not how wrong this hugely mistaken and antagonistic view of conservatism is, but why liberalism fails; why government “kindness” is never enough to achieve its ends; why it is self-defeating.

He finds the root cause of its failure in a contradiction: that while the politician of kindness claims to be altruistic, his real motivation is self-gratification.

He recalls the words of a man who was a chief inspirer of the French Revolution:

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.” …

We can see the problem. The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better. Barbara Oakley, co-editor of the volume Pathological Altruism, defines its subject as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” Surprises and accidents happen, of course. The pathology of pathological altruism is not the failure to salve every wound. It is, rather, the indifference — blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic — to the fact and consequences of those failures, just as long as the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire. As philosophy professor David Schmidtz has said, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”

Indeed, if you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, the failure of government programs to alleviate suffering is not only an acceptable outcome but in many ways the preferred one. Sometimes empathizers, such as those in the “helping professions” acquire a vested interest in the study, management, and perpetuation — as opposed to the solution and resulting disappearance — of sufferers’ problems. This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent. Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people — people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives. “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

It follows, then, that the answer to the question of how liberals who profess to be anguished about other people’s suffering can be so weirdly complacent regarding wasteful, misdirected, and above all ineffective government programs created to relieve that suffering — is that liberals care about helping much less than they care about caring. Because compassion gives me a self-regarding reason to care about your suffering, it’s more important for me to do something than to accomplish something. Once I’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to “address” your problem, my work is done, and I can feel the rush of my own pious reaction. There’s no need to stick around for the complex, frustrating, mundane work of making sure the program that made me feel better, just by being established and praised, has actually alleviated your suffering.

This assessment also provides an answer to the question of why liberals always want a bigger welfare state. It’s because the politics of kindness is about validating oneself rather than helping others, which means the proper response to suffering is always, “We need to do more,” and never, “We need to do what we’re already doing better and smarter.” That is, liberals react to an objective reality in a distinctively perverse way. The reality is … that public expenditures to alleviate poverty, insecurity, and suffering amount to $3 trillion, or some $10,000 per American, much of it spent on the many millions of Americans who are nowhere near being impoverished, insecure, or suffering. If the point of liberalism were to alleviate suffering, as opposed to preening about one’s abhorrence of suffering and proud support for government programs designed to reduce it, liberals would get up every morning determined to reduce the proportion of that $3 trillion outlay that ought to be helping the poor but is instead being squandered in some way, including by being showered on people who aren’t poor. But since the real point of liberalism is to alleviate the suffering of those distressed by others’ suffering, the hard work of making our $3 trillion welfare state machine work optimally is much less attractive — less gratifying — than demanding that we expand it, and condemning those who are skeptical about that expansion for their greed and cruelty.

We do not dispute Voegeli’s point that the motivation behind the “politics of kindness ” is self-gratification.

But is he saying that’s all that’s wrong with them? He wants liberals to be less satisfied with their incomplete efforts and “stick around” and “make sure” the program  has actually worked. Which means that he thinks that socialism – to give the “politics of kindness” its real name – could “actually alleviate suffering”. Nowhere in this essay does he explicitly point out that it could not and should not attempt to. In fact, he considers the possibility, and while he says he does not reject the evidence for these “possibilities”, he prefers to believe it is the superficiality of the liberals who try to legislate benevolently that makes it all go wrong.

The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. … It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

I don’t reject any of those possibilities, or deny the evidence and logic adduced in support of each. But my assessment of how the liberal project has been justified in words, and rendered in deeds, leads me to a different explanation for why, under the auspices of liberal government, things have a way of turning out so badly. I conclude that the machinery created by the politics of kindness doesn’t work very well — in the sense of being economical, adaptable, and above all effective — because the liberals who build, operate, defend, and seek to expand this machine don’t really care whether it works very well and are, on balance, happier when it fails than when it succeeds.

Which leaves open the possibility that a different set of liberals might be more sincere, work harder, and succeed where none has succeeded before. They might do it more economically and effectively.

Finally, as if nagged by a doubt that his explanation for the failures of liberalism is not sufficient after all, he mentions “beliefs that have sustained America’s republic”, and “those moral virtues and political principles necessary to sustain it further”, without saying what they are:

Those of us accused of being greedy and cruel, for standing athwart the advance of liberalism and expansion of the welfare state, do have things to say, then, in response to the empathy crusaders. Compassion really is important. … But compassion is neither all-important nor supremely important in morals and, especially, politics. It is nice, all things being equal, to have government officials who feel our pain rather than ones who, like imperious monarchs, cannot comprehend or do not deign to notice it. Much more than our rulers’ compassion, however, we deserve their respect — for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own pains without their ministrations; and for America’s carefully constructed and heroically sustained experiment in constitutional self-government, which errs on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate official a monarch’s plenary powers.

Kindness … doesn’t begin to cover all the beliefs that have sustained America’s republic, however. Nor does it amount to a safe substitute for those moral virtues and political principles necessary to sustain it further.

The principles he does not name are the ingredients of the constitution of liberty. And they are incompatible with – in fact, totally exclude – the “moral virtues” and principles of socialism.

No government should take from you what you have earned and give it to others as socialism requires. To do so is not only unkind but unjust. Who is being kind when a government takes from you what you have earned and gives it to someone else? It is not kindness but tyranny.

It has been proved amply over the last hundred years that the more government interferes in the lives of the people “for their own good”, ever expanding as it seizes ever more power, the more miserable and impoverished the people become. Or to put it succinctly, as a hard rule: The fatter the government, the thinner the people.

Obama’s record alone is enough to prove this rule.

Those who claim to know better than you do what is good for you, will impose that “good” on you whether you like it or not. What they want is the power to control you, not your happiness.

The truly good government protects you with the law from being harmed by others, but leaves you free to do yourself good or harm.

The saying of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that Voegeli quotes is honest-sounding, and on the surface of it, strong advocacy for the politics of “kindness”. But what happened in reality when the Fellow Man rejected the good that was being thrust upon him by the Rousseau-inspired re-organizers of society? He had to be forced to accept it. Dissent and disobedience had to be punished with death. Rousseau, through his ardent admirer Robespierre, was also the chief inspirer of the Terror which immediately followed the revolution. The guillotine became the most effective instrument of what our contemporary American organizers of society like to think of as the Politics of Kindness.