William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and the author, most recently, of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion. I read a galley copy of the book this summer and believe it to be an important book. Bill is a natural teacher and he entertains while he instructs.
The book was published on Tuesday. I asked Bill to preview it for our readers; he has kindly obliged us with the following column summarizing his argument:
Kindness covers all my political principles, says President Obama. A prominent liberal writer asserts that the quality that really sets progressives apart is that they care about other people, not just themselves.
Conservatives shake their heads. Can liberals really be so fatuous as to believe that the profound challenges of politics, which have confronted and usually gotten the better of statesmen and philosophers for millennia, are in fact so simple that gentle admonitions to play nice are all we need to secure peace and justice? And are liberals really so self-righteous as to insist that opposition to, or even skepticism about, their project can be explained entirely in terms of their opponents’ greed, cruelty, and pathological mean-spiritedness?
The short answers are yes, and yes. A longer answer is that certain key features of modern liberalism, and of compassion, turn out to be made for each other—which is not to say that they’re necessarily good for each other, or America.
Consider three. First, liberals are in favor of the “modern bargain,” which holds that the most basic political problem, getting people to live together peaceably, can be solved by a “social contract,” a mutual non-aggression pact, where we agree to disagree about big, contentious questions, religion chief among them. Liberals are not alone in favoring the modern bargain. So do conservatives, and so do the large portion of the American population that doesn’t think about politics in left-right terms, or doesn’t think about politics much at all.
What’s notable about liberalism, though, is that it wants all the advantages of the modern bargain, but also the advantages of the pre-modern bargain. Liberals want the maximal autonomy: different strokes for different folks. But they also want togetherness, a profound sense of caring and sharing that pervades and unites society. As Hillary Clinton lamented in her “politics of meaning” speech in 1993, “we lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another.”
From the liberal perspective, compassion solves this dilemma. We can have the best of both bargains, ancient and modern. The perfect liberal is someone so compassionate that he cares profoundly about how you are, but so nonjudgmental that he could not care less about what you do. It is on this basis that liberalism believes it has reconciled the demands of individualism with those of community.
Second, like every political disposition, modern liberalism ultimately rests on certain precepts about human nature. The liberal view is distinctly hopeful on that score. We can understand this perspective by contrasting it with the American founding, which viewed human nature with suspicion and resignation. In the Federalist Papers, for example, James Madison said the least bad way to avoid both tyranny and anarchy was to arrange for ambition to counteract ambition, and thereby supply the defect of better motives through opposite and rival interests.
Liberals, by contrast, think the solution to our most fundamental political problems does not lie in supplying the defect of better motives. What we really need are…better motives. And relying on the better angels of our nature is a much smaller risk than perpetuating self-interested conduct by making it the fuel for our political machinery.
The belief that humans are not inherently selfish, which means that their relations with one another are not necessarily invidious, borrows heavily from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Not coincidentally, Rousseau was the great advocate of compassion, arguing that compassion’s best aspect was precisely that it relied on something more basic and accessible than the calculations necessary for ambition to beneficially counteract ambition.
Third, liberals have come to emphasize compassion more and more because they have decided to emphasize progress less and less. The -ism of the progressivism that laid the foundation for the New Deal and all subsequent iterations of liberalism was a belief in progress. Natural scientists had learned the laws of nature, which explained the physical world, and their discoveries gave mankind new capacities to control nature through technology. Now, social scientists would arrive at an equally penetrating grasp of the laws of history, creating “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it,” in Condorcet’s phrase.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, progressivism’s bland confidence in progress was no longer sustainable. Liberalism responded to devastating world wars and the rise of totalitarianism by making an all-in bet on the fact-value distinction and moral relativism. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it’s right,” said Judge Learned Hand in 1944. Among the problems with this popular formulation is that it renders untenable the idea that we can know the truth about progress. Progressive “values” are just some people’s subjective preferences, rather than conclusions derived from facts that were true and empirically verifiable.
Compassion has proven to be extremely valuable in this regard, and as a result has played a growing role in liberals’ rhetoric and self-understanding. Yes, compassionate liberals can now say, our project for alleviating suffering does rest on nothing more fundamental than our instinctive sympathy for those who suffer. And what of it? Would it be better to formulate policies on the basis of callous indifference to suffering?
Moreover, making compassion the rationale for liberalism lends itself to pathologizing liberals’ opponents. There is something ridiculous about the liberal do-gooder, instinctively ready to boycott Naugahyde the moment some provocateur tells him the nauga is an endangered species. But if the alternative is to be a do-badder, or a do-nothinger, the liberal do-gooder always winds up benefitting from the comparison. Progressivism now means, less coherently but also less problematically, being on the “right side of history.” Happily, such claims do not run afoul of the admonition not to be too sure one is right, since all they really mean is that the world will fulfill its destiny of becoming a nicer and nicer place as long as the nice people committed to that nice goal never yield to the mean people who want the world to be a mean place.
These features of liberal compassion give rise to three difficulties. First, being simultaneously compassionate and nonjudgmental — caring about how people are but not about what they do — disregards the many important ways that what they do determines how they are. Liberalism’s moral paradigm for social welfare programs is the relief effort after a natural disaster. For the same reason, liberals try to frame every issue they can in terms of children’s needs and vulnerabilities. But governing an entire nation on the basis of being nice to children inevitably infantilizes those who are not children.
It’s a perverse, reckless sort of compassion that urges people to dwell on all the ways they cannot be expected to help themselves, and so must rely on the sympathy and generosity of others, rather than on all the ways that individuals, families, and communities can, by discipline and determination, prevail against even the most severe challenges. History provides no basis for the belief that a promising path for individuals or groups to acquire significant, durable social and economic advantages is to feel sorry for themselves, or induce others to feel sorry for and guilty about them. What the embrace of victimhood secures, instead, is the debilitating “advantage” of being chronically dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Second, liberals’ hopeful, trusting view of human nature leads, counterintuitively, to strident denunciations of those who disagree with them, or who stymie the progress of the liberal project. Believing that the world’s default option is to be a nice place, liberals explain all the ways it remains an ugly and difficult one in terms of villainy, stupidity, or psychological pathologies. Liberalism exists to solve problems, and regards every source of dissatisfaction or discord as a problem, not an aspect of the human condition that we might ameliorate but can never eliminate.
The belief that humans are naturally disposed to live with one another in ways that are peaceful, respectful, and mutually uplifting, helps explain—but doesn’t justify—liberals’ vilification of those alleged to have caused the problems they seek to solve, or who oppose the solutions they seek to implement. As Christopher Lasch wrote 20 years ago in The Revolt of the Elites, “When confronted with resistance to [their] initiatives, [liberals] betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light.”
Finally, liberals’ view of human nature jeopardizes many valuable things, the modern bargain chief among them. They are, for example, inclined to interpret, by which I mean to misinterpret, people who detest our way of life as people who aspire to it. Tolerant, nonjudgmental liberals’ instinctive response when Islamist terrorists commit acts of mass murder is, in critic Paul Berman’s words, “to suggest ways in which the apparent mass pathologies were anything but pathologies, and terror was reasonable and explicable and perhaps even admirable.” Of the recent ISIS beheading videos he has written, “The spectacle of black-uniformed holy warriors conducting human sacrifices gives us the chills, but it also makes us sigh. We tell ourselves: Here is what comes of failing to provide adequate social services to young men in blighted neighborhoods.” In other words, liberals’ first reaction is to believe that if decent people simply appeal to the decency latent in others, all will ultimately be well.
Conservatives are not always clear, or in agreement with one another, about what, exactly, we are trying to conserve, or why, exactly, it needs conservation. I submit that American conservatism’s task is to conserve our republican experiment in self-government. Because republics are permanently vulnerable, the work of sustaining them is endlessly daunting but permanently necessary. Conservatives oppose liberalism because we think it’s mistaken, but also because we know it’s attractive, in ways that make it especially dangerous. I’ve been a conservative as long as I cared enough about politics to try to make sense of it … and even I wish liberalism were true. I wish that people, and nations, were so strongly disposed to get along with one another that eternal vigilance was not the price of liberty. I wish that wealth were self-generating, so that the gratifying process of distributing it could be disengaged from the challenging process of producing it. I wish the elemental emotion of compassion harbored so much power and wisdom that it provided clear answers to all the daunting questions about how to govern a republic of 319 million people in a world of 7.2 billion.
I’m pretty sure, however, that these wishes are, and always will be, just wishes. To take them seriously makes the hard task of governing even harder, and the dangers inherent in republicanism even more dangerous. Discrediting and ultimately defeating liberalism will not make self-government easy. Nothing will. But allowing liberals’ wishful thinking to dominate American politics will make self-government impossible.
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