Compassionate Conservatism: An interview with Marvin Olasky

By Ben Koons ’15

Reflecting on Santorum’s upset victory in the Iowa caucuses, President George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, said, “But perhaps the most surprising result of the Iowa caucuses was the return of compassionate conservatism from the margins of the Republican stage to its center.” Santorum’s connection to compassionate conservatism can be seen in both his rhetoric and policy positions. In 2005, he said before the Senate Republican Conference, “Freedom is the dual activity of lifting our eyes to the heavens while extending our hand to our neighbor. The only orthodox conservative philosophy that matches with this is compassionate conservatism.” As a senator, he was the Chairman of the Republican Party Task Force on Welfare Reform and contributed to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 that reformed welfare using many of the ideas present in compassionate conservatism. Yet his positions during the Bush years on No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D have also associated him with the big-government tendencies of some compassionate conservatives.

I am not interested in Santorum’s policies so much as whether compassionate conservatism is ideologically predisposed to the big government programs Santorum himself supported. Now that the disappointments of President Bush’s domestic agenda have begun passing into history, I can show that the agenda’s failures were not incipient in his compassionate conservative ideology, but were shortcomings within his administration’s execution of the vision. First, the uncontroversial aspect of compassionate conservatism must be acknowledged—it rejects the liberal welfare state in moral and religious terms. Second, I will show how personnel and the advent of the war on terror doomed compassionate conservatism to be enacted in a more centralized way than originally intended. Finally, supported by the forces of small government, compassionate conservatism today promises to be a third path between laissez-faire and bureaucratized societies.

Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine and the godfather of compassionate conservatism, defined it as “a way to help the poor without growing government and bringing in all the problems that it leads to.” This definition, on its face, is rather all encompassing. Even libertarians, who are passionately opposed to compassionate conservatism, could accept this view since it does not specify what role the government should take in helping the poor. Indeed, even a critic of compassionate conservatism like Dick Armey, who argues that conservatism’s pro-growth and pro-personal freedom policies make it inherently compassionate to the poor without the need for government intervention, would approve of compassionate conservatism if it were defined in such a way. While this definition may seem to be vague, it does provide a rallying point around which many conservative strands can unite.

Olasky’s definition draws out an aspect of compassionate conservatism that all conservatives agree on—its critique of the welfare state’s failure to help the poor. During the welfare reform debates of the mid-90s, many Republicans approached reform as a budgetary issue. Compassionate conservatism, by contrast, provided an entirely new and more incisive rejection of the welfare state. In an interview with the Tory, Olasky explained, “It wasn’t primarily a question of budgets. It was a question of the way it was treating human beings like animals by just putting food in their bowls and asking them to be content with that rather than treating them as beings in God’s image capable of wonderful things. What helped to put welfare reform over the top in Congress was this different way of looking at it so it wasn’t just green-eyeshades-Republicans vs. Democrats who loved people and wanted to help people. It was actually a real way to help people that helped people get off the welfare plantation.” Olasky’s moral critique of the welfare state’s smothering of human aspiration proved so powerful during the reform debates of the mid-90s because its focus on the latent capabilities of the individual resonated at a religious level deeper than rhetorical platitudes.

Compassionate conservatism, while not identical to neoconservatism or Catholic social thought, shares their concern with the effects of the welfare state on human flourishing. While neoconservatism sprang from increasing disillusionment with the failures of the New Society evidenced by sociology and experience, and Catholic social thought came from Church traditions and a reaction to socialism in the nineteenth century, compassionate conservatism seems to have a newer vintage. The term was used sporadically in the 1980s, but did not gain real cachet until Olasky first used it in 1990. After that, it flourished as Congressional leaders used the ideology to phrase the terms of the welfare reform debate. “It really picked up in 1998 when Governor Bush started using it to define who he was,” Olasky said. “The term reached its height in 2001 and then has declined for the past ten years.”

Despite compassionate conservatism’s relatively recent political origins, Olasky looks to the nineteenth century and the Social Calvinists for the movement’s precursors. “In the nineteenth century you actually had a three-way divide. Social Darwinists were against anything that would help the poor because the human race would progress further and faster if the poor were just wiped out, and Social Universalists were in favor of universal redistribution of goods to the poor. And then Social Calvinists were saying much in the same way that you offer the Gospel to everyone and you don’t know who’s going to go with it and who’s not, you offer work opportunities to everyone and some would accept those opportunities and some would not. But they were neither Social Darwinists nor Social Universalists. They gave opportunities to individuals.” Compassionate conservatism’s basis in the evangelical Protestant tradition makes its potential demise even more worrisome. In rejecting it, its critics not only conclude that a recent ideology couldn’t withstand the test of history, but they also must deny form to a religious tradition’s civil doctrines. Without expression for their charitable values in the conservative mainstream, evangelicals will face the unacceptable choice between a degrading welfare state and a heartless laissez-faire policy. For these evangelicals, reform of the welfare state cannot come at the expense of the inalienable dignity of the individual.

While compassionate conservatism’s critique of the welfare state allows us to dissect the ideology’s central premises, it is not what earned the doctrine disrepute in the Bush years. That was the consequence of the terms’ association with bigger government and increased deficits. Gerson defined compassionate conservatism more strictly in 2006 as “the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself.” Yet debates within the Bush administration demonstrated that several policy options could encourage services provision. Given the choice between measures that centralized the administration of this encouragement apparatus and measures that devolved the power, the administration consistently chose the more politically advantageous route of centralization.

The hallmark accomplishment of Bush’s compassionate conservatism was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). Coordinating among several cabinet departments, the office directed government-non-profit partnerships to improve civil society. Even in the administration’s reform of the welfare state, the victory of centralization could be seen. Olasky described the two choices the administration faced in 2001 in crafting the OFBCI’s methods: “One way was to continue the centralized system—the granting system—where the government would decide where the money would go and organizations would apply to Washington, and government people would make better decisions than before, and they would not automatically exclude mainline religious groups.” This grant-based system eventually won out, but Olasky advocated a second method: “The other view which is the decentralized view—namely, as much as possible you start working through tax credits and vouchers. With tax credits, instead of individuals sending money to Washington and having Washington decide where to put that in communities, individuals could send that money directly to poverty-fighting groups in communities and get a tax credit for it.” Certainly, according to Olasky, this decentralized approach was most consistent with true compassionate conservative ideology.

The Bush administration failed to move in the direction of greater reform and decentralization, however, because of ambivalence amongst Bush’s advisers concerning compassionate conservatism. Olasky explained, “Really there was no one else in the White House besides Bush and Gerson who really cared about this at a high position in the White House.” Bush’s chief adviser, Karl Rove, conveyed in meetings his concern for the political effects of faith-based initiatives and how compassionate conservatism helped Bush win independent voters. The ideology in and of itself was not as important as its electoral implications. The first director of the OFBCI, John Dilulio, was a University of Pennsylvania professor “committed to a big-government approach,” according to Olasky. Once the institution was in place, it was difficult for the subsequent directors to steer the office away from grants into tax credits. “The first eight months of the program which were critical went in a big-government direction instead of a small-government direction,” Olasky said, “and actually John out of very good intentions pushed in that direction. That was the window of opportunity to get it going.”

The administration’s initial big-government approach became entrenched when the war on terror began. “After 9/11 that window [for decentralization] closed,” Olasky argued, “because President Bush and his administration became a war president and a war administration and other things like compassionate conservatism were on the back burner.” The tepid ideological commitment by key advisers like Rove chilled completely when pressing international concerns appeared. Calls for decentralized power were swallowed by executive expansions as the war on terror got underway.

While these incongruities between thought and practice may be unfortunate, any ideology must be actualized into a flow of history that will reduce its general wisdom into specific failures. Due to hypersensitivity concerning these failures, compassionate conservatism did not get a fair trial in the courts of history. It was a movement supported by too few true believers and reduced to a banner by others interested in rebranding their political message. In the hands of small-government tea party activists, compassionate conservatism has a chance to reinvigorate itself and avoid the traps of big government that it was originally created to prevent. Inasmuch as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are poverty-fighting measures and not entitlements, Republicans can advocate reform of these programs on the basis of compassionate conservatism. Some part of the budgetary reductions in these programs can be used to fund tax credits for individuals to use on poverty-reducing programs in their community. The other option isn’t austerity; it’s the status quo. “If it’s just a choice between government and nothing,” Olasky said, “then I think government will often win.”

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