Is Compassion Tragic?

Certain ends have achieved the status of being above criticism in our democracy. It has been thirty years since any mainstream figure has felt entitled to disagree with racial equality as a goal, for example. (For a brief period of intoxication after the 1994 elections, hatred almost became respectable again.) When ends become unassailable, those who oppose them restrict themselves to attacking the means we use to achieve these sanctified ends. Thus, affirmative action is attacked as reverse racism or as ineffective by people who would never publicly admit that they disagree with the goals to be attained.

"Aid to Families With Dependent Children" (AFDC), popularly known as "welfare", went in the last few years from a core guarantee (as it had been for six decades since the New Deal) to an embarassment with no defenders; a Democratic president jettisoned it with no protest from his party, replacing it with block grants. Most of the highly public, seemingly incontestable attack on AFDC that resulted in its destruction was aimed at the means, not at the ends, as usual. AFDC, it was said, didn't promote work or the work ethic, and created--a term we heard endlessly--a "culture of dependency." The weak, passive and mealy-mouthed defenders of the program could come up with nothing better than "mend it, don't end it." Illustrating the old adage that the battle is usually won by the party selecting the ground, AFDC proponents fell in neat rows before the "culture of dependency" argument.

In more virile times, defenders of AFDC would have selected a better strategy: expose the means/ends blur. What the public debate should have been about was whether we are a compassionate people or not. If the answer to this question is Yes, then the means debate is simplified--it is carried on in good faith among people who really want to find an answer. In such a climate, good answers--or at least good experiments--are easy to find. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt only set in when we are not really talking about what we are talking about--when the means debate is really a discussion about ends, but no-one will say the word. In fact, in such times, the spectacle of Newt Gingrich and the Contract Republicans talking of "compassion" raises the spectre of Lewis Carroll's walrus and carpenter walking down the beach with the young oysters to "talk of many things." At the end of the poem, the walrus and carpenter are weeping tenderly for the oysters, after having eaten them.

In his book, To Renew America, Gingrich says that welfare condemns "the poor--and particularly poor children--to being deprived of their basic rights as Americans":

The welfare state reduces the poor from citizens to clients. It breaks up families, minimizes work incentives, blocks people from saving and acquiring property, and overshadows dreams of a promised future with a present despair born of poverty, violence and hopelessness.

He concludes, with an unusual swell of bombast even for him: "We owe it to all young Americans in every neighborhood to save them from a system that is depriving them of their God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." And he makes eight vague recommendations, which sound fine in principle until you realize that he is not actually proposing that we spend any money to accomplish them.

Gingrich's last hurrah, before he went mute during 1995 to avoid harming his party any worse than he already had, was to blame a grisly murder case that was in the headlines on the welfare culture. When the victim's parents pointed out that only the victim was on welfare--the murderers were not-- Gingrich stood exposed as a racist and fraud, a leading architect of the means/ends blur.

Gingrich approvingly cites Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion, a history of public assistance and private volunteerism in this country. Olasky's book, which encyclopedically and exhaustingly compiles anecdote after anecdote about American treatment of the deserving and undeserving poor, is a sermon for the converted. Useful and thought-provoking on a superficial level, the book relates stories of useful experiments such as missions where supplicants were asked to chop wood for a few hours before being entitled to receive food. Like Gingrich himself, Olasky never broaches the metadebate: Should we be compassionate, and, if so, what is the right way?

Olasky calls for a renewed volunteerism to replace the role of government, as does Gingrich as one of his eight points. It is impossible to disagree with him; in a perfect world, we would establish renewed ties of community, neighbor would help neighbor, everyone would be happy, and the lion would lie down with the lamb. However, human nature being what it is, it is hard to countenance that anyone really committed to helping the poor would want to leave the job entirely to private initiative.

Suppose I were to argue as follows. Big government is inefficient. It cannot do anything well. Government involvement in defense leads to contracts of unseemly cost, where the government complacently buys thousand dollar flashlights from fatcat contractors who deliver inferior products that won't fly or fire properly. Meanwhile, even in the absence of a real enemy, the defense budget balloons from year to year, creating a culture of dependency among the millions of ineffectual workers supported by the defense economy who are creating no value while showing up for their make-work jobs. Let's therefore eliminate defense and:

If I made such a proposal, you would seriously doubt how committed I was to the defense of this country. In fact, this line of analysis reveals another deliberate blurring engaged in by opponents of AFDC. They treat the problems of the poor purely as a psychological issue and not as an empirical one. By choosing this battleground, they once again place themselves in a triumphant position, as government is least effective when it comes to psychological issues. Government can force us to salute flags, but it cannot make us patriotic. It can make people work, but it cannot make them want to work. What this approach ignores is that there are children in this country who are physically hungry. Physical deprivation, unlike emotional stuntedness, is an empirical problem like disaster or war that can be addressed--is best addressed-- by government.

Which brings us back to the little question of the "undeserving poor." The question of who deserves what is actually rather foreign to the concept of compassion. Compassion is an urge to suffer with another, to help. "Deserving" imports a limit to compassion, the idea that it should be tempered by justice. And so it must be, but to what extent? When bad people are drowning, we still try to save them; and we even try to save attempted suicides, even though they threw themselves in to the raging waters. The adjective "deserving" masks an ugly philosophy, an idea that certain people (and certain people only) have it coming, deserve whatever happens to them. And this attitude is ultimately based on nothing more than irrational double standards. Why shouldn't I choose to feel more compassionate towards a teenage welfare mother, for example, then a middle-aged politician dogged by accusations of illicit campaign contributions and conflicts of interest? Given they may both have made bad choices. Inevitably, the idea of the "undeserving" poor puts you on a road to an "us versus them" philosophy, where we must categorize certain people, typically of other races and economic classes as irretrievably bad, even while we refuse to do so for people of our own race and economic class. Differences in mandatory sentencing standards between those convicted of possessing crack cocaine and powdered cocaine are among our society's most blinding examples of this.

Opponents of government efforts to aid the poor, especially poor children, ought to lay their cards on the table. What do they think will become--should become-- of the subjects of their "concern"?

Olasky never says. The dilemma--a prisoner's dilemma indeed--is that the "undeserving poor" (Gingrich's phrase) have children, who are themselves innocent, but who are affected when we cut benefits. During 1995, I reported here that there was unusual agreement between Democrats and Republicans that the adoption of a two year limit on welfare benefits would force five million children into poverty. Olasky continually deflects from this issue; like Gingrich, he is mainly concerned with the spectacle of lazy adults who would rather accept handouts than work. But what really happens to the kids? If we are really being compassionate here, we should care.

If the AFDC slashers really admitted where they stood, the argument would go something like this. The more welfare we give, the more lazy people we will create, and they will create more lazy people, by having children and training them to be lazy. If we cut it off today, we may kill some children, but its in the service of a good cause; some adults will return to work, possibly most of them; some will turn to crime and we will catch and jail them; some may die, and good riddance to them--they had it coming. The deaths of a few children is more regrettable, but count as acceptable losses--after all, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It really all boils down to a simple choice. Assume, since life is so fuzzy, that we can never be 100% accurate in setting solutions that will punish the lazy while protecting the innocent. Therefore, which would you rather do: subsidize a few of the lazy in order to save children, or kill a few children in order to make sure you get rid of all the lazy?

This is the metadebate. If we are compassionate, we will tolerate some lazy people, if that's what it takes to make sure that we have cared for the kids. If. The title of Olasky's book itself promotes a means/ends blur. If it were called The Tragedy of Compassion, we would know the answer: compassion is bad. The Tragedy of American Compassion begs the question: perhaps compassion is good, but the American practice of compassion is bad. "An emphasis on freedom," Olasky writes, "also should include a willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole 'suffer the consequences of their misconduct.'" He concludes that we should have "warm hearts and hard heads." One ends the book believing that Olasky feels compassion, albeit tempered by what he himself calls a Calvinist perception "that time spent in the pit could be what was needed to save a life from permanent debauch". Perhaps it is his conditional compassion which makes him unable to confront the question of what happens to the innocent children.

What is "the tragedy of compassion"? Let's start by defining tragedy. As I learned in high school English when we first studied Shakespeare, a bad outcome is not itself a tragedy, without more. A random car crash is not a tragedy, though the word is often used this way. A tragedy, in the classical sense, is the process by which a human being (or, by analogy, a human system) is undone by a fatal flaw. Presumably, Olasky is using the word in this sense. Thus, his complaint is not solely that American compassion led to a bad outcome, but that the system itself has a tragic flaw. It creates dependency.

However, in order to be a tragedy, a story must have a really dismal outcome, almost always the death of a principal character. Is American compassion a tragedy in this sense? If the bad outcome is that we support a few cheats, that sounds like more of a farce to me. In order to attack and destroy the means of compassion, Newt Gingrich argues that it is indeed a tragedy, that in fact the result is the soul-murder if not the physical murder of millions of American children.

This is where his analysis (like his moral character) becomes really repellent. The plight of these children has apparently nothing to do with racism, redlining of ghettos, a lack of opportunity, or an easy availability of guns legally purchased in Southern gunshops. Gingrich is killing two birds with one stone: he is disposing of AFDC by blaming it for all the other problems he would otherwise have to confront and cure. Gun control isn't even in it, though Gingrich has also called for "a Monday morning when we will wake to find that not a single child has been killed over the weekend." Apparently he thinks that he can accomplish this goal merely by eliminating AFDC.

A more serious argument would be the environmental one, that earth is an overwhelmed lifeboat, that any act, no matter how small, that we take to encourage the undeserving poor to have more children contributes to the destruction of us all. To which I answer, there is no better argument for fuzzy morality than this. By all mean, let us educate and empower people to plan their families. If you tell me that under a utilitarian approach, we will all be better off if we kill a few existing children, I can only answer that you left something out of your cost-benefit analysis: the psychic costs of giving up our humanity.