WASHINGTON -- In the 1920s and '30s, the American left was driven by multiple factions furiously representing different flavors of socialism, each accusing the others of revisionism and deviationism. Leftists comforted themselves with the thought that "you can't split rotten wood."
But you can. And the health of a political persuasion can be inversely proportional to the amount of time its adherents spend expelling heretics from the one true (and steadily smaller) church. Today's arguments about conservatism are, however, evidence of healthy introspection.
The most recent reformer to nail his purifying theses to the door of conservatism's cathedral is Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for the current president, and now a syndicated columnist. He advocates "Heroic Conservatism" in a new book with that trumpet-blast of a title.
His task of vivifying his concept by concrete examples is simplified by the fact that he thinks the Bush administration has been heroically conservative while expanding the welfare state and trying to export democracy. His task of making such conservatism attractive is complicated by the fact that ... well, it is not just the 22nd Amendment that is preventing the president from seeking a third term.
Gerson, an evangelical Christian, makes "compassion" the defining attribute of political heroism. But compassion is a personal feeling, not a public agenda. To act compassionately is to act to prevent or ameliorate pain and distress. But if there is, as Gerson suggests, a categorical imperative to do so, two things follow. First, politics is reduced to right-mindedness -- to having good intentions arising from noble sentiments -- and has an attenuated connection with results. Second, limited government must be considered uncompassionate, because the ways to prevent or reduce stress are unlimited.
"We have a responsibility," Bush said on Labor Day 2003, "that when somebody hurts, government has got to move." That is less a compassionate thought than a flaunting of sentiment to avoid thinking about government's limited capacities and unlimited confidence.
Conservatism is a political philosophy concerned with collective aspirations and actions. But conservatism teaches that benevolent government is not always a benefactor. Conservatism's task is to distinguish between what government can and cannot do, and between what it can do but should not.