Monday, February 02, 2004

It's All Coming Together (Slowly)

In the past week, I've written a couple of long posts on poverty and intervention, as well as a couple of shorter posts addressing my feelings about President Bush. The common thread running through all of them, more or less, is the political salience of, and moral nature of, compassion--and consequently, the degree to which it does, or does not, validate or justify or explain policies of distribution, intervention, and even coercion. I give money to the beggar, Nicholas Kristoff buys the freedom of prostitutes, Bush spends money left and right and invades a country in (mostly) the name of liberty. Apples and oranges, or all of a piece? Is there any coherence to all my various feelings about all these disparate events and actors? And now George F. Will writes a column wherein he claims that both conservatives and liberals need to wake up to what President Bush is trying to accomplish: the articulation of "strong government conservatism," a ruling philosophy which, rather than attempting to undermine or limit the contemporary interventionist state, tries to turn its positive actions in the direction of individual ownership, empowerment, morality and education, rather than collective welfare neutrally distributed. Despite the many ways in which Will's claims can be qualified--particularly via demonstrating the degree to which Bush's "compassion" has been more about unpredictable political opportunism than principled action--I knew as soon as I read it that Will had touched upon something that might help me weave my meandering thread into an actual coherent tapestry. But I couldn't quite put it into words. Then, with gratitude, I noticed that someone else already had:

"This is an extremely perceptive column on the part of Mr. Will, one of the first by a mainstream conservative to truly grasp the import of the President's vision of an "Ownership Society." The hard thing for Republicans to reckon with is the fact that modern man turns out not to be conservative in the classic sense--does not choose to live life without a social safety net in a kind of social Darwinist free for all. The hard thing for liberals to accept is that neither does this desire for security in an emergency make men any more amenable to being constantly dictated to by government when they aren't in particular need of help. The future lies then in a synthesis of the desire for freedom and the requirement of security (what Mr. Will calls equality). Bill Clinton understood this on a very superficial level and Tony Blair seems to recognize it more deeply. But it is the GOP that has the best chance of creating a thoroughgoing Third Way, and not incidentally making itself a semi-permanent majority party. The key is that conservatives have to accept the seemingly perverse notion that government itself, even a sizable government, can be the instrument by which conservative values are cultivated in society."

Bush, Clinton and Blair: all in the same sentence, and moreover, all presumably trying to articulate and work out the same essential idea? That's a pretty controversial reading of recent political history, to say the least. But I've always kind of liked "Third Way" talk, and Orrin Judd's comments here help me go a long ways towards situating myself and my conflicted beliefs and convictions into that talk. I'm doubtful of his conclusion that the GOP is the most likely spot for seeing this sort of "(economically) strong (activist) government (social) conservatism" to emerge; from what I can tell, the last prominent Republican to really try it, and actually want to put the money up to pay for it, found no help on either side of the aisle. But I'll keep an open mind. I'm still trying to figure out what this entails for my political allegiances; I think I may be moving towards a full-fledged position here (note to my many friends who have long since given up hoping I'll ever fully commit to any political position: don't laugh; I mean it), but (of course) I'm not there yet. In the meantime, the one substantive criticism I have of Orrin's gloss on all this is that, while he very admirably ties the idea of strong, individually-directed government action to "reknitting families, neighborhoods, communities, and so on so that civil society resumes its central place in our lives," ultimately the intellectual underpinnings of his reading of Bush and our (I hope, at least) Third Way future is one that is dismissive of the group; in its defensible effort to focus on the individual, it drops the necessarily social, even collective, aspect of welfare, justice, virtue, and even (yes) liberty. There is a lot I still have to think about here. But my fear is that as long as the compassion of Bush and others like him, however sincerely and well implemented through government (and I acknowledge the criticisms of those who claim it is neither), is ignorant on this point, then whatever other good is accomplished, the egalitarian concern which, I think, makes the whole movement worthwhile, will be at best secondary, if not a sham.