“There is always inequity in life,” an American president declared. ”Life is unfair.”
The president was John F. Kennedy, speaking in 1962.
Today it’s hard to picture even a losing Republican nominee for president speaking so brusquely about the cosmic injustice of it all.
Where life deals a low blow, shouldn’t government step in to call a penalty?
Today, compassion fuels the American political bus. No one can expect to lead the country without proving that he or she feels our pain.
That is a fatuous basis for policy, notes political scholar William Voegeli in a calm and reasoned book that carries the impishly inflammatory title, “The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.”
Compassion creates a co-dependency between the empathizers and the empathizees: Liberalism is an “alliance of experts and victims,” in the words of Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield.
To top that up to 51% of the voters, says Voegeli, liberals argue that “those who do not recognize the expertise of the experts are stupid, preferring ignorance, and those who do not recognize the victimhood of the victims are wicked, lacking compassion.”
If the empathizees ever disappeared (by, say, having their miseries extinguished) then the empathizers would lose their purpose, the soothing soul balm of caring.
That’s why, no matter how much money gets poured into poverty alleviation ($22 trillion, not including Social Security or Medicare, in the last 50 years), “You will never hear the words “Phew! We cured poverty.”
Indeed, official poverty measures simply leave out anti-poverty benefits. That’s like saying you’re carless if you were forced to accept a Chevy paid for by other taxpayers.
So the poverty rate never really changes — it’s been around 14% or so for the last half-century — even as living standards for today’s poor surpass those of yesterday’s middle class.
Ah, but the poor are less healthy, argue liberals. True. But whose fault is that? Many avoidable illnesses that disproportionately afflict the poor are traceable to ill-advised consumption, not deprivation.
Smoking causes lung cancer (poor people are more likely to smoke) and overeating causes Type II diabetes (poor people are fatter).
Soon the literal and figurative fattening of the underclass will be so hard to ignore that poverty will be redefined as simply a state of mind: If you feel bad about others having more than you, you’re poor.
If you don’t feel bad about these people’s bad feelings, you’re inhuman.
It shouldn’t surprise us that liberalism tends to hold sway among those who place little stock in religion.
Not only does church charity disrupt the notion that only expert-based government can be trusted to alleviate human suffering, but liberalism provides a competing, earthly ecstasy.
“Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” argued political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”
Liberal compassion also suggests a lack of limits.
We’re selfish for thinking of our children as our children: As Melissa Harris-Perry averred on MSNBC, “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it’s everyone’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.”
It takes a village. (It’s important to frame liberal policies as benefitting children, as Marian Wright Edelman theorized back in the early 1970s, because unlike adults their story can’t be complicated by questions of what they deserve).
Our hearts need to be unbounded, our love without limit. And yet politics is all about tough choices. Child care or old-age pensions? Raises for teachers or maintenance for bridges?
There isn’t enough funding for everything. Do those who aren’t seeking work deserve as much unemployment benefit as those who are?
If we can’t distinguish the more deserving from the less, and if resources are finite, then who is best able to monetize liberal compassion?
The ones with the best lobbyists. Except they aren’t called lobbyists, usually. They’re called advocates. They’re called social justice crusaders. They’re called saints, like Marian Wright Edelman.
Finally, Voegeli points out that “liberal compassion leads to bulls–t.” The warm syrup of righteousness liberals pour all over themselves glues their eyes shut.
Just Wednesday, after President Obama’s policies received a humiliating rebuke in the midterms, he continued to press his agenda anyway, citing “early-childhood education” as something that “we know works.”
But as Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine, “Head Start simply does not work.” That’s $180 billion taken away from American families, to virtually zero effect.
Unless the point is good intentions, and if so, Obama ought to be president of another institution — the Road to Hell Paving Co.