As if on cue, Michael Gerson is back with another column showcasing the trend I discussed in my column today for the main site. For his latest wallow in self-righteousness, Gerson takes on Sen. Tom Coburn’s contention that “Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor’s possessions.” Gerson complains that Coburn is turning Jesus into a libertarian, but this is a strawman argument: Coburn himself isn’t a libertarian.
It is Gerson who has turned support for activist government into a test of one’s compassion. Coburn is simply pointing out that the believer cannot simply shunt Jesus’s injunctions onto the state. In fact, the specific Bible verses Gerson references to counter Coburn are injunctions for the individual lender and farmer, though they are handed down in the context of law-giving for the people of Israel. Gerson then recruits 18th- and 19th-century evangelical reformers to serve various 20th-century liberal cliches, though he does at least admit, “The argument that government is often a flawed instrument to improve social conditions has merit. There are limits to take-a-number-and-wait bureaucratic compassion — and tremendous advantages to the commitment and sacrificial love of volunteers. Which is precisely why compassionate conservatism looks first to the expansion of private, community responses to poverty and need.”
But the actual track record of big-government conservatism that the Huckabees and the Gersons defend goes well beyond this, and in the case of programs like Medicare Part D they did not look first to private and community responses. Compassionate conservatism began admirably enough with works like Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, which honestly sought to grapple with why welfare state liberalism went wrong. Great Society-style programs were designed based on a flawed view of human nature, exaggerated confidence in the life-changing powers of impersonal bureaucracies, and a failure to appreciate the likelihood of unintended consequences. Compassionate conservatism’s biggest problem is that it seeks first to establish the good intentions of the compassionate conservative and only secondarily to actually have any results for the poor.