»  National Review Online

July 25, 2000

   Sense and Sensibility in Philadelphia


Michael Oakeshott warned us against the anthropomorphizing of government, observing that the virtues we should look for in our ruling establishments are by no means the same as those we prize in our personal acquaintances. We want our friends and relatives to be generous; but when a government is generous, it is generous with our — the people's — property, since it has none of its own. We should therefore prefer stingy governments to spendthrift ones. Similarly, we hope for those around us to be trusting; and the virtues of a wide "radius of trust" have since been very well argued by Francis Fukuyama. Our elected and appointed officials, however, must swim in the turbid waters of international intrigue, and must cope somehow with the most antisocial and treacherous elements of the domestic community too. We should prefer them to err, if err they must, on the side of too much suspicion, if they can do so without slipping into paranoia.

You may take it from these remarks that I am not part of the target market for "compassionate conservativism." I cherish and applaud compassion as a private virtue, but see very little place for it in the corridors of power. In this, as in so much else, the standard for conservatives in office was set by Ronald Reagan, who never set a foot wrong in his deployment of presidential emotion. His speech commemorating those who died in the space shuttle Challenger, for example, was certainly emotional, but it was "compassionate" only in the strictly etymological sense of expressing, very memorably, feelings shared by the whole nation.

Of the more current usage of "compassion" by political figures — the patronizing, head-patting, de haut en bas concern of the mighty for the powerless — Reagan was blessedly free. This, the Great Communicator understood in his very bones and blood, is the land of opportunity. Who is powerless in America today may be mighty tomorrow. It follows that what is mainly owed by the mighty to the weak is not compassion — not official compassion, at any rate — but to keep open and well-dredged the channels of opportunity. At the risk of stretching my point, I will argue that for governments to display compassion towards their lowlier citizens betrays a view, on the part of government functionaries, that the status of those citizens is immutable, and that the discontent generated by knowledge of this fixed inferiority must be assuaged by fund transfers and expressions of official sympathy, since it is futile to hope that the lowly might rise by their own efforts. "Compassion" politics is caste politics, the politics of feudalism.

This week's Republican convention is, of course, awash with compassion. To pluck an example at random from the press: "the new GOP plank says goodbye to a host of controversial, conservative ideas — such as insisting that everyone in America learn English" (Vincent Morris in the New York Post, 7/30/00). Controversial! Conservative! Heaven forfend that any American incompetent to read his nation's Constitution lose any particle of self-esteem on that account! Such wilful, antisocial ignorance calls not for condemnation, nor even for instruction, but for compassion!

Oh, I understand the necessity for slogans of this sort. There is an element of war in politics; and war, as the ancient Chinese strategist SunZi pointed out, is hardly ever won without some deception. The same is true of seduction, of course, and a party must, to some extent, be a seducer of the public if it is to win elections. For better or worse, large numbers of Americans have come to believe that a Chief Executive should be a person of feelings: not a romantic hero, exactly (I think Lord Byron might be a bit too much for them) but someone who, as well as being a capable guardian of the national interest, can also serve as Pontifex Maximus of the state religion — which is, the worship of feeling as a guide to, or substitute for, action. They want Sense, but they want Sensibility too. So, of course, do I, so long as it is kept firmly in the private sphere.

At the risk of giving offense, I hope that the "compassionate conservatism" strategy is a deception, and of course I hope it will be a successful one. I hope George W. Bush will win the coming election; and I hope that I shall then have the satisfaction, early next year, of watching him fill the seats around his cabinet table with flinty-faced puritans wearing green eyeshades, with not a single teardrop of public compassion among the lot of them.

In Jane Austen's great novel, Sense is represented by the calm, self-controlled Elinor, while the family's entire quota of Sensibility is concentrated in her sister, Marianne. When decent Edward breaks Elinor's heart, she suffers in privacy and silence; when the worthless Willoughby abandons Marianne, she openly displays grief like unto death. And yet headstrong, lip-trembling Marianne is captured and made happy at last by Colonel Brandon, the most sensible man in the book. The U.S. electorate is a 200-million-headed Marianne Dashwood: generous, forthright and brave, but a tad too fond of the taste of their own tears. I hope that they will make a choice as wise as Marianne's — that, recovered from their infatuation with a charming rogue, they will give themselves to a mature person of sense, and be made happy thereby. And if Sense cannot win without making some appeals to Sensibility, you won't hear me complain.