Est. May 2008

26 July, 2013

On Governmental Compassion

Over at Blog and Mablog, Doug Wilson calls out ‘those evangelicals who have been seduced by leftist economics, or who are in some way flirting with leftist economics’, ending with the following:
Do me a favor, and look at Detroit. Look at the failure of all the compassionate nostrums. Look at the collapse of real integrity. Look at the grasping and demented idiocy of the unions. Look at the abandonment of government’s true functions. Look at the wreckage of human lives. Look at the ruin of a once great city. Look at what aching greedlust does. Behold the handiwork of your compassion.
The dictionary defines compassion as ‘a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering’ (emphases mine).  I’ve written before about basing laws and policies on emotions and how it doesn’t work: feelings and desires are ephemeral creatures, varying between (and even within) individuals; any foundation pillars made up of feelings and emotions are made of spun glass, and the first time the ‘reality-stick’ whacks them they shatter.

Additionally, I think society has conflated the feelings of compassion with the action of alleviation of suffering; after all, whenever someone is labeled ‘compassionate’ it’s most often because they’ve done something which shows compassion.  And it’s at that junction – of feeling and doing – where things begin to fall apart, especially on a government level.

You see, feeling compassion is both an individual and group thing; groups of people as well as individuals can feel compassion for others who are suffering.  Actually alleviating that suffering, though, is more of a focused and individualized effort since not all people suffer the same things, and not always to the same degree.  The person best suited to alleviate another’s suffering is someone who has witnessed it or personally involves themselves in the assistance – they will see what needs to be done and can actually focus their efforts on the source of the problem.

This, of course, can extend to small groups of people – neighbors, friends, perhaps even up to the level of a small community.  There’s a point, though, when group-assistance starts to become difficult: that point is when the group attempting to assist is distant (geographically as well as interpersonally) from the locus of the problem to be dealt with.

The least distant would be neighbors, friends, and relatives; then comes the city or town government; next comes the county government; then the state; then the federal government.  At each rung on the ladder the distance becomes greater and greater.  And the broader the governmental body, the greater the distance, again, both geographically and (more importantly) interpersonally.

I say the interpersonal distance is greater simply because the interpersonal relationship is critical to proper assistance.  If you have an interpersonal relationship with a sufferer, you will know (to repeat myself) what they need, how much they need, how soon they need it, etc.  The more distant the interpersonal relationship, the more difficult it becomes to focus on those needs.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) gave the commencement address at Hillsdale College, and it was transcribed in their newsletter, Imprimus (free subscription here; hat tip Mark Levin).  I want to quote something he said that’s pertinent to this discussion:
I remember some time ago when former Texas Senator Phil Gramm was participating in a Senate hearing on socialized medicine, and the witness there explained that government would best take care of people. Senator Gramm gently demurred and said, “I care more about my family than anyone else does.” And this wide-eyed witness said, “Oh no, Senator. I care as much about your children.” Senator Gramm smiled and said, “Really? What are their names?”
There’s the interpersonal relationship which is so necessary to adequately alleviate suffering which, by nature of its sheer size and responsibilities, government can’t possibly have.

Additionally, since governments deal with many people (again, as you rise up the ladder the number of people dealt with increases), they end up forced into having to use a ‘one-size-fits-nobody’ approach to alleviating suffering; they simply haven’t the time, money, and personnel to deal with every sufferer on an individual basis.  This is why many (I’ll venture out on a limb and say ‘most’) government assistance programs either provide too much or too little real assistance to those who suffer. 

Yet governments say they ‘have compassion’ for their citizens.  I’m sure they do; compassion is easy to have.  The hard part is acting on that compassion in an adequate way – focusing on the problem at hand and individualizing the assistance needed.

If you then conflate ‘compassion’ with ‘alleviation’, it’s not hard to say that government is compassionless, and ‘compassionate government’ is meaningless. 

I think government can be compassionate – I don’t think they can properly act on that feeling.

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