During the confirmation hearings for Representative Tom Price’s appointment as Health and Human Services Secretary, Bernie Sanders took aim at Price’s claim that America is fundamentally compassionate. “No, we are not a compassionate society … In terms of our relationship with poor and working people, our record is worse than virtually any other country on earth,” the junior senator from Vermont claimed.
Whether American government and American individuals are compassionate are two distinct questions.On 2016’s doozy of a campaign trail, Bernie Sanders focused his attention less on societal values and virtues — whether, for instance, we as a whole people act virtuously or otherwise — and much more on the size and scope of government programs and regulations. But the question of whether Americans act compassionately is distinct, and one Sen. Sanders gets wrong. Americans as private moral individuals are rife with the virtue of compassion. And this is not in spite of our wealth and relative freedom, as some might suggest, but because of it.
Sen. Rand Paul, for his part, addressed Sanders’ claim with statistics. At $400 billion dollars in 2014, and similar numbers annually, private individuals and organizations donated more than the GDP of many nations. Paul then compared that figure with “socialized” countries of the sort Sen. Sanders often professes a desire to emulate.
Here, Paul was plainly defining compassionate behavior as something individual moral agents display. The compassion of America is displayed through the generous actions of people. The paradigmatic case of this is in people like Bill and Melinda Gates, whose charitable foundation has received billions of dollars from the couple.
Even “ordinary” people, those who don’t make on their own more than some countries, also display these virtues. Sanders, for his part, wouldn’t dare deny this. After all, he bragged frequently on the campaign trail about the “small donations” from regular working-class Americans that drove his campaign. In fact, not only is charitable giving steadily increasing, but a large majority of it is driven by individuals rather than foundations or corporations.
But if both the “one percent” and the rest of us — the so-called “donating public” — are giving in massive amounts to all sorts of charitable causes, and neither Paul nor Sanders would deny these numbers, then where does the disagreement lie on whether American society is compassionate? If the act itself is not the source of disagreement, then it can only lie instead on whether it is sufficient to be categorized as compassionate behavior.
Government vs. Personal Compassion
In her book The Bourgeois Virtues, Deirdre McCloskey eloquently argues that ethical virtues flourish in the United States. As an economist and historian, she points to a liberal, capitalist society as a cultural context in which people have the opportunity and disposition to act ethically according to the classical virtues of faith, hope, love, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. She roots the virtue of compassion in part to the larger virtue of love. As she says in an article outlining the book,
It is also bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish all of humankind well, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace ...
Together with the virtue of justice (“to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege”), love can work as compassion for others. To recognize the value of others, and to help them, whether through monetary means or through service programs like Doctors Without Borders, is not hindered by a liberal society but aided.
With more wealth and more leisure time, people can make rational choices regarding where to use both.With more wealth and more leisure time, people can make rational choices regarding where to use both. As compassionate creatures and in a society that has cultivated the virtues of love and justice (however imperfectly or incompletely), we often choose compassionate causes. This is a virtue that is cultivated throughout circles both religious and secular, liberal and conservative. And it’s a virtue that was flexed before the birth of the welfare state.
Given the magnanimity of generous and unforced givers in the United States, it seems doubtless the virtue of compassion is far from rare. And if left with more income untaxed, generosity would be even greater. But perhaps this is something Sanders would say is still not enough. If that is the case, then ultimately his disagreement is political. Regardless of the private sector’s giving, he might claim (and does) that the government has not done its part for the poor. The social programs he has advocated are extensive, and the question of whether they are advisable is a separate one from the question addressed here. But it remains so that there is a difference between virtuous behavior on the part of individual moral agents and behaviors of the government.
To indict society for being devoid of compassion is to ignore private virtue and assign all moral responsibility to the State. As the government expands and social programs require more and more tax revenue to operate, room for the individual to act with compassion can only shrink with the loss of wealth and freedom. If such decisions are made solely by the government, then no compassion is exerted at all. Whether that is a good thing will likely be a difference of opinion between those like Sanders who advocate for the expanded State and those like Paul who believe more faithfully in the efficacy of private, and often wealthy, moral individuals.