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What’s Compassion Got to Do with It?

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Gov. George W. Bush has distinguished himself from the pack of Republican presidential aspirants by calling himself a “compassionate conservative.” Some conservatives have taken umbrage, charging that Bush’s label implies that conservatives aren’t generally compassionate.

That lame response is to be expected of conservatives, who lack a coherent political philosophy. The better response is: What’s compassion got to do with it?

As the American founders conceived it, government isn’t about compassion. It’s about the protection of individual rights, including property rights. There is absolutely no difference between a compassionate government that protects rights and an uncompassionate government that protects rights. The compassion issue is a distraction, as it is intended to be.

For more than a century, government in the United States has sought to portray itself as compassionate. It has done so mainly by taking wealth from producers and giving it to nonproducers. By “nonproducers” I don’t mean exclusively the “poor.” Billions of dollars have been given in subsidies to corporations and the middle class; that is every bit as much “welfare” as food stamps are.

There is no better way for a politician to appear compassionate than to promise to give away other people’s money. It is not really compassionate, however. When government exists mainly to transfer wealth, it encourages dependence, reduces production, and makes society poorer than it would have been. In sum, a “compassionate” government corrupts society. It’s not good for anyone.

Government should be guided by justice not compassion. Justice consists in respecting people and their property. Theft is theft, even when committed by government. Protection of rights is the key to prosperity. If we want everyone to have a chance at a higher standard of living, we should want people to be free to pursue any peaceful course of action they think best for themselves. The result will be a vibrant free market that spreads prosperity far and wide. Will it create economic equality? Of course not. People are too different in too many ways for us to expect equality of income. But freedom will yield growing prosperity for anyone who exercises even minimum self-discipline and self-responsibility. Any attempt to equalize incomes requires a violation of people’s rights, which in turn discourages the creation of wealth.

Governor Bush should be challenged to explain exactly what he means. Does his compassion mean he favors taking wealth from those who earned it and giving it to those who didn’t? Or does he mean that he respects rights and will begin to undo the transfer state that has plagued us for so long? Whatever his answer, let him drop the maudlin appeal to compassion. It only obscures the core question: What is the proper purpose of government?

Bush has distinguished himself in another way: his record-setting fundingraising ability. That has brought renewed calls for campaign-finance reform, especially from Bush’s rival Sen. John McCain. Here is another issue where essentials are obscured. Government control of campaign contributions has two defects. First, it interferes with freedom of expression, which is protected by the First Amendment. Any limit on contributions is a limit on a peaceful activity that violates no one’s rights. Second, to the extent that campaign contributions are disguised payments for favors from government, the problem is the government’s power to grant favors, not the payments themselves. Since government is mainly in the wealth-transfer business (subsidies, tariffs, and the like), people are willing to pay for a piece of the action. That leads them to make large contributions to candidates who they believe will be sympathetic to their cause if they get into office. The way to stop this corrupting influence is not by attacking the contributions, which will only drive them underground. Rather, the way to stop it is to not let the government have booty to give away. No one will buy if the government has nothing to sell.

This brings us back to the original point regarding compassion: government should be protecting rights and nothing more. If we can limit government to that function, compassion and campaign finance will take care of themselves.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.