The second problem is that compassionate conservatism necessarily demands government activism. If normal conservatives are either too cheap or too uncaring to spend billions of dollars of other peoples' money on dubious social improvements, then compassionate conservatives must feel and do otherwise. In 2003, President Bush proclaimed, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move." Bush is certainly living up to that sentiment in the wake of Katrina. He's determined to prove he cares about black people, and "hurt" people, by spending more than the other guys.
But Katrina demonstrates to a certain extent how both compassionate conservatism and welfare-state liberalism alike are uncompassionate. Inheriting from the neocons a basic philosophical comfort with the concept of the welfare state, compassionate conservatism -- which also goes by "big government conservatism" -- sees no pressing need to pare government down to its core functions. Traditional conservatism, on the other hand, considers a lean government essential to the task of fulfilling its core responsibilities.
A great many liberals in recent weeks have argued that conservative hostility to big government suggests we don't support agencies like FEMA or fire and rescue services. This is nonsense. Every conservative I know wants firemen to put out fires. We don't, however, want firemen asking us how our marriage is going or lecturing us about how to be more "sensitive." A fireman can't put out the fires at my house if he's at your house giving you a big hug.
Ultimately, this is the core problem with all ideologies that try to make government an extension of the family. Welfare-state liberalism wants the government to act like your mommy. Compassionate conservatives want the state to be your daddy. The problem: Government cannot love you, nor should it try.
Love empowers us to do some things government must never have the power to do and other things the government can almost never do well. Parents are real social engineers. I can arbitrarily force my child to eat, play and dress as I see fit -- all in the hope this will make her a better person. I can punish her for making choices that are perfectly legal and reward her for making giant strides that look tiny or invisible to those in government, and which are none of their business anyway.
To its credit, compassionate conservatism understands this better than liberalism, which is why Bush wants to release "the armies of compassion" on the poor. Religious-based organizations are better equipped to offer tough love. But all that might as well be theology at this point. The real compassionate conservatism is the one from Bush's campaign speeches. It's all about proving that conservatives "care" -- no matter how much it costs.
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