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In their hearts, they know that compassion is right


FOR SOME Republicans, being conservative means having the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere, is being kind to his fellow humans.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush recently noted that conservatism can share the bus with compassion. You'd have thought the pope had allowed that hellfire has some good points. The right seems to think conservatism is bogus unless it uncorks the Bollinger over corporate layoffs, fenced-off neighborhoods, income inequality and other side effects of comfy selfishness.

This is a puzzling public relations error. Helping people should be economic conservatism's second most effective selling point.

Its most effective selling point is its hearty approval of trophy mansions, Land Rovers and executive salaries the size of Montana. But that's getting kind of worn, and the marketers are trying out a new theme.

"Sure, this expensive scotch is delicious, proves your status and makes you feel good," they're trying to say. "But did you know it's good for you, too?"

They've botched the message, however. "Tax cuts are compassionate. Tax cuts give people more money," has been one of Bush's more stirring utterances on the subject.

But there's a case to be made.

How might compassionate conservatism behave?

It would stress, before everything else, that jobs are the best welfare program, that the jobs recipe is well tested and that it doesn't include much government.

It would nag relentlessly about the link between economic freedom and high scores on almost any human-welfare yardstick you can think of: per capita income, life expectancy, bathroom square footage.

It would remember that education is everything -- the well of culture, work, politics, wealth. It would generously finance education and then let families choose schools.

It would extend the means to become responsible and then insist on responsibility.

It would wear a soft heart and a hard head, in Alan Blinder's phrase.

It would nurse a strong bias against bureaucracies and filigreed government solutions. Laws to "protect" jobs generally destroy jobs, it would point out, pointing to Germany and France, where labor rules have smothered almost any employment growth since 1970 and kept joblessness in double digits for years.

It would inscribe broad, clear boundaries concerning safety and the environment and then unleash companies within them.

Compassionate conservatism would note that economies tend to work better when they're defended from foreign attack.

It would admit ethnic diversity as the United States' greatest asset and welcome a future of many hues.

It would discourage the "greed is good" peanut gallery.

It might revive noblesse oblige, the now-quaint notion that privilege brings obligations, that good fortune requires recompense. It could beat the drum for voluntarism and suggest that philanthropy is more than writing a check to your church and buying a dress for the symphony gala.

It would remind conservatives that the self-interest ordering society and powering Adam Smith's invisible hand is something of a dubious means to a happy end, not the main idea.

It would recall that compassion has something to do with the Christian religion that conservatives like to talk about.

It would note that the Constitution only gives Americans the right to act like smug pigs. It does not require it.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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