October 13, 1999 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

Welfare State Turns Compassion Upside Down

With his phrase "compassionate conservatism," Texas Gov. George W. Bush has re-ignited a much-needed debate over whether civil society-the voluntary network of families, neighborhoods, churches, communities and charities-can co-exist with the modern welfare state. I believe it cannot. Civil society and the welfare state are inimical to each other because their aims conflict-even if at first glance this does not seem to be the case.

To illustrate, suppose a family is hit with unexpected medical bills or the loss of the primary breadwinner's income. In the past, family members found help mainly in the institutions of civil society: friends, family, neighbors, their church. But liberals began to argue, especially during the latter half of this century, that when such voluntary help wasn't forthcoming, or didn't fully meet the family's needs, the government had a moral obligation to step in.

In simplest terms, that is how the welfare state began. Its growth, and indeed its very design, appeared to be nothing more than an extension of civil society. But that appearance springs in large part from a misunderstanding of the word "compassion."

For a modern definition of compassion, consider a story told in a 1998 Chicago Tribune editorial, "In Praise of the Simplicity of Giving." The editorial concerned Melvin Pryor, a hotel doorman. Each day a small group of homeless men gathered in the hotel parking lot, and each day Pryor gave them a few dollars. Other people fixed sandwiches for the men or contributed clothing. The editorial said:

"Some would call these Good Samaritans foolish-bleeding-heart liberals who are only hurting society with their mindless generosity. Who knows if one of Pryor's buddies might be moved to find a job if it weren't for his modest donations? Maybe some of those collecting sandwiches do so only to trade them away for a swig of booze.

"No matter," the editorial concluded. "The gestures come from the heart. Most of the time, we suspect … they do more good than harm ... After all, it certainly is not an overabundance of compassion that contributes to the plight of the poor."

I don't know if the men traded sandwiches for booze, or if they failed to look for work because they were getting handouts. Neither did the editorial writer, and that's the point. Even if Melvin Pryor wasn't actually doing these men any good-even if he was unwittingly encouraging dereliction-that was of "no matter" because his actions "came from the heart."

True compassion requires personal involvement with another's misfortune. It requires people to understand suffering before they try to alleviate it. It does not countenance unreflective giving. It requires society to think before it acts. This is why the institutions of civil society "succeed" at compassion-and why government typically fails.

An old joke goes, "Compassion is A getting together with B to decide what C shall do for X." But that isn't really a joke. It describes the ways and means of the liberal welfare state. Members of Congress and other government officials (A) get together with the poverty "experts" (B) and decide what taxpayers (C) will do for the needy (X). This equation leaves no place for personal involvement or genuine compassion.

Unlike government, the institutions of civil society have the power to bring about moral change. "In the name of compassion, conservatives are now restoring a sense of morality to public affairs and to the citizenry," writes historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. "This is why they initiated and supported the welfare reform act, which in effect 'stigmatizes' … chronic welfare dependence by devolving welfare to the states, thus eliminating welfare as a national entitlement."

She is making two critically important points. First, to stigmatize chronic welfare dependence is to set conditions on charity. There is such a thing as the "deserving poor" - and, consequently, such a thing as the "undeserving poor." True compassion requires us to make that distinction by placing conditions on public assistance.

That may seem harsh, but consider what the welfare state has wrought. If Melvin Pryor was mistaken in thinking he was helping the homeless by giving them a few dollars, his error affected only a handful of people. But similar errors in U.S. welfare policy brought harm to millions of Americans by creating a vast underclass of dependency.

Americans must dismantle the stifling constraints of the welfare state and give the institutions of civil society the freedom and opportunity to function. That is real compassionate conservatism. That is how best to help the less fortunate among us.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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