With the inauguration of President Obama for a second term, Republicans seek an idea that can win back voters. Conservatism in other advanced industrial economies is in a similar quandary. One answer is provided by Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, in The Weekly Standard. She argues that conservatives need “to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it”.
I don’t think this argument will work to the electoral advantage of conservatives on either side of the Atlantic. Nor is it one that I find appealing.
Conservative modernisers such as David Frum in North America and Daniel Finkelstein in this country argue that a successful centre-right party needs to acclimatise itself to a diverse nation. This is true. And the obligation to deal with society as it is rather than wishing that it conformed to some Arcadian alternative requires acknowledging that people have diverse aims in life. Compassion doesn’t get them there. It’s a recipe for authoritarianism.
In personal relations, compassion is a virtue. In politics, it’s an affectation. Citizens of a complex society, in a market economy, will exercise innumerable choices. Some people will suffer and a fair society will protect the vulnerable. It should also provide citizens with the ability to make autonomous choices. That requires a degree of redistribution to reduce inequalities.
But that’s a principle of equity, not compassion. If the State sets out to be compassionate, there is no inherent limit to its powers. If devout religious believers are offended by the publication of satires on what they hold sacred, I may feel for their hurt on a personal level while insisting that no government has the right to suppress speech in order to make them feel better.
Himmelfarb’s views have had some currency in British politics, notably with her book The Roads to Modernity (which, in its UK edition, carries a foreword by Gordon Brown). She sharply distinguishes the Anglo-Scots and American Enlightenment, which she characterises as being concerned with liberty and small government, and the French Enlightenment.
This is a misreading of history. The French philosophes admired English liberty. The reforms enacted by the French Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were an historic advance for secularism and the abolition of the hereditary principle. That’s why they gained support from Thomas Jefferson, among many others. There is no sharp break between Enlightenment traditions; conservatives need at last to accept the values of the Enlightenment.