May 31, 2008

Gerson's Straw Men

By: James Poulos

We all know that Michael Gerson’s theoretical compassion cashes out in practice as a seemingly neverending string of tendentious and condescending attacks on mean old Republicans. But who, exactly, are these people? Could they be…straw men? Bear with me as we consider Gerson’s latest missive:

[…] compassionate conservatism has come under criticism for a variety of reasons. For some, it is fundamentally at odds with fiscal conservatism — no social priority is deemed more urgent than balancing the budget. For others, it is a violation of their vision of limited government — the state’s only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty. But by drawing these limits so narrowly, such critics would relegate conservatism to the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored. And by leaving great social needs unmet, they would grant liberalism an open field and invite genuine statism.

What a fanciful thing for Gerson to say, in an era when Republicans have defined themselves (fatally) by their willingness to pay any price and bear any burden to avoid balancing the budget! But notice how Gerson slips in two important terms: ‘social priority’ and ‘the state.’ Gerson’s vision is so flawed — and so unconservative — because he thinks that the abstract term ‘social priority’ (like ‘social justice’) has concrete meaning, and indeed a meaning that should set political priorities. Since he has nationalized and abstracted American society into a unit of justice all its own, he can crib libertarian language about ‘the state’ and evade altogether the nagging question of why it must always be the federal government that transforms compassionate conservatism into political activism servicing ‘great social needs’.

What are these sweeping requirements of our great Society? Those of certain of its members: “addicts and the homeless,” “disadvantaged children in need of mentors and adequate education,” and “people living among the broken glass of durable poverty.” Can anyone find me a mainstream conservative whose ideology sets him or her foursquare against practical state and local projects targeted at these unfortunates? The visionary ideas that Gerson name-checks as hallmarks of compassionate conservatism are hardly his own private property of piety: “school vouchers, the promotion of community and faith-based institutions, the encouragement of wealth-building and social mobility” — these are utterly noncontroversial concepts on the mainstream Republican agenda, and basic components of movement conservative politics.

But they are so because federalism remains, in spirit at least, at the center of conservative and Republican principles. And Gerson’s whole worldview — which holds that plain old justice is never enough, but that social justice can never attain itself and requires the active application of centralized, concentrated, non-negotiable political power — spits in the face of federalism, probably considering it to be the greatest excuse for not living up fully to one’s Christian faith since the Protestant work ethic. This is bunk. Federalism must be judged by the standards of political theory, not social ideology. And by the standards of political theory, federalism is a stroke of genius. It permits citizens with activist comprehensive doctrines like Gerson to participate in politics, while preventing them from transforming government into a centralized, omnicompetent hierarchy that’s nonetheless wholly enslaved to their trans-political dreams.

Conservatives must recognize that Gerson’s entire project of enslaving politics to society depends entirely on straw men. Tellingly, Gerson criticizes Sen. Tom Coburn for

merely restating a fairly common view: that compassion is a private virtue, not a public one, and that religious conscience concerns the former and not the latter. But this is a theological assertion, not a political one. And as theology, it is flawed.

Yet Gerson himself has conflated public and politics. Religious conscience concerns the former and not the latter. But this limits his theological mission, which is to define everything public as ‘social’ so as to destroy any political boundary set between private and public. Gerson asserts that any gap between social justice and political justice is something very closely resembling an affront to God. And as political theory, it is flawed. One might even go so far as to say that as theology, it is deeply, and rightly, contested.

The strain of sustaining an utter separation between our cultural commandments and our political liberty is, indeed, more than a liberal democracy can be expected to bear. But this is what federalism is for — to create a contingent latticework of regionally variant public laws organized by citizens who gather and practice politics at sub-national levels. Gerson is positively mad to keep insisting that ‘government’ means only federal government, and to keep pretending that anyone who rejects his European model of unitary Christian Democracy also imagines that state and local governments do not exist. Of course, they do. But when Gerson isn’t pretending that federalist institutions don’t exist, he’s flying into full self-contradiction by insisting that they do exist but are useless:

the scale of these needs is sometimes overwhelming. Private compassion cannot replace Medicaid or provide AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa for the rest of their lives. In these cases, a role for government is necessary and compassionate — the expression of conservative commitments to the general welfare and the value of every human life.

As if the only alternative to the limitless expansion of nationalized health care is passing the church collection plate! And as if suffering outside of the United States somehow discredits America’s internal political arrangements! This is not just bad political theory or arguable theology — it’s shallow, shoddy, empty argumentation. I tolerate worthy intellectual opponents with profoundly different passions and interests. So should all conservatives, libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, and American citizens. What should not be tolerated are tiresomely recurrent episodes of well-paid public harping strung disingenuously together with the stuffing of straw men. Good night, Mr. Gerson, and good bye.

(Photo courtesy Flickrer CW61.)