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Government Can Be a Compassionate Alternative to the Harshness of the Marketplace
by Lawrence W. Reed
We hear the word "compassion" at least a thousand times. One
public policy leader supposedly has it, the other one doesn't. Big
government programs are evidence of compassion; cutting back
government is a sign of cold-hearted meanness. By their misuse of
the term for partisan advantage, partisans and ideologues have
thoroughly muddied up the real meaning of the word.
The fact is that some of what is labeled "compassionate" is just
that, and it does a world of good; but a whole lot of what is
labeled "compassionate" is nothing of the sort, and it does a world
of harm. The former tends to be very personal in nature while the
latter puts an involuntary burden on someone else.
As Marvin Olasky pointed out in his 1994 book, The
Tragedy of American Compassion, the original definition of
compassion as noted in The Oxford English
Dictionary is "suffering together with another,
participation in suffering." The emphasis, as the word itself
shows-"com," which means with, and "passion," from
the Latin term "pati," meaning to suffer-is on
personal involvement with the needy,
suffering with them, not just giving to them.
Noah Webster, in the 1834 edition of his American
Dictionary of the English Language, similarly defined
compassion as "a suffering with another."
But the way most people use the term today is a corruption of
the original. It has come to mean little more than, as Olasky put
it, "the feeling, or emotion, when a person is moved by the
suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it."
There is a world of difference between those two definitions: One
demands personal action, the other simply a "feeling" that usually
is accompanied by a call for someone
else-namely, government-to deal with the problem. One
describes a Red Cross volunteer, the other describes the typical
progressive demagogue who gives away little or nothing of his own
resources but lots of yours.
The plain fact is that government compassion is not the same as
personal and private compassion. When we expect the government to
substitute for what we ourselves ought to do, we expect the
impossible and we end up with the intolerable. We don't really
solve problems, we just manage them expensively into perpetuity and
create a bunch of new ones along the way.
From 1965, the beginning of the so-called War on Poverty, to
1994, total welfare spending in the United States was $5.4 trillion
in constant 1993 dollars. In 1965, total government welfare
spending was just over 1 percent of gross domestic product, but by
1993 it had risen to 5.1 percent of GDP annually-higher than the
record set during the Great Depression. The poverty rate in 1994
was almost exactly where it was in 1965 and now, twenty years
later, it's even higher. It was apparent when "welfare reform" was
enacted in 1996 that millions on welfare were living lives of
demoralizing dependency; families were rewarded for breaking up;
and the number of children born out of wedlock was in the
stratosphere-terrible facts brought about, in large part, by
"compassionate" government programs.
A person's willingness to spend government funds on aid programs
is not evidence that the person is himself compassionate. Professor
William B. Irvine of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, once
explained: "It would be absurd to take a person's willingness to
increase defense spending as evidence that the person is himself
brave, or to take a person's willingness to spend government money
on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself
physically fit." In the same way as it is possible for a "couch
potato" to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is
possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various
government aid programs; and conversely, it is possible for a
compassionate person to oppose these programs.
It is a mistake to use a person's ideological beliefs as the
litmus test of his compassion. Professor Irvine said that if you
want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are
wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted; instead, you should
ask what charitable contributions he has made and whether he has
done any volunteer work lately. You might also inquire into how he
responds to the needs of his relatives, friends, and neighbors.
Many of the public policy world's most boisterous welfare
statists are also among the most duplicitous and selfish (in the
bad sense of the term) hypocrites. While small-government
conservatives and libertarians generally give generously from their
own pockets, charitable organizations are often lucky to get a
little more than token donations from the "progressives" of the
world. For a mountain of evidence in that regard, see the 2006
book, "Who Really Cares?" by Arthur Brooks, then at Syracuse
University and now president of the American Enterprise
It's worth noting that not even progressives donate to
supposedly "compassionate" government agencies a penny more than
the law requires them to. There's nothing illegal about writing out
a check to the "Department of Health and Human Services" but
progressives, when they seek to personally help others, tend to
write their checks out to private agencies.
True compassion is a bulwark of strong families and communities,
of liberty and self-reliance, while the false compassion of the
second usage is fraught with great danger and dubious results. True
compassion is people helping people out of a genuine sense of
caring and brotherhood. It is not asking your legislator or
congressman to do it for you. True compassion comes from your
heart, not from the state or federal treasury. True compassion is a
deeply personal thing, not a check from a distant bureaucracy.
In a television interview in Nassau, Bahamas in November 2012, I
was asked by host Wendall Jones, "Mr. Reed, what about the Good
Samaritan in the New Testament? Doesn't that story show that
government should help people?" My reply: "Wendall, what made the
Good Samaritan good was the fact that he personally helped the
stricken man along the road. If he had simply told the helpless
chap to ring up his congressman, no one to this day would have the
gall to call him anything but a good-for-nothing."
"But what about Christianity itself?" Jones then asked me.
"Isn't it in favor of redistribution as a compassionate way to help
the poor?" Fortunately, I know a few things about the Bible and
Christianity. My reply: "Wendall, the Eighth Commandment says 'Thou
shalt not steal.' It doesn't say, 'Thou shalt not steal unless the
other guy has more than you do or unless you're convinced that you
can spend it better or unless you can find a politician to take it
on your behalf.' And even more to the point, a new book on the
subject, "For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty"
(link provided below) answers this in both a detailed and scholarly
Progressives are often so convinced of their moral superiority
that they tend to be very intolerant of a good, opposing argument.
Mr. Jones edited out the above exchange before airing the show but
you can see the rest of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reo0p9N1p4A.
The marketplace is often dismissed as a cold, impersonal and
selfish place where compassion takes a back seat to self-interest.
But that view ignores some important facts: 1) The marketplace is
what produces the wealth that compassion allows you to share or
give away; 2) Historically, the freest of societies are the most
compassionate in the truest sense of the term; 3) Nothing about
being a government employee spending other people's money makes you
more compassionate or effective than the rest of society; 4)
Government "compassion" usually gets diverted towards
appeasing special interests and programs that
perpetuate the very problems it was supposed to remedy. The news
brings daily reminders that there's no shortage of "harshness" in
government-as well as greed, waste, fraud and inefficiency.
The next time you hear the word "compassion," probe the person
invoking it to find out if he really knows what he's talking
about-or at least to determine if he does it with his own
"The Politics of Compassion" by William B. Irvine:
"Presidents and Precedents" by Lawrence W. Reed:
"For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty,"
Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley, editors:
"Book Review: The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin
Olasky" as reviewed by Daniel Bazikian:
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this essay have appeared
in FEE publications under the title, "What is Real