All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1992

Can Politicians Really Care?

Care from politicians amounts to little more than a showing of emotion.

What does it mean for a politician to care? “Caring” is, after all, what some people believe politicians ought to be, first and foremost. But what does it mean, to care?

In ordinary English caring means making it one’s own concern when someone needs something. Thus, if I care about the plight of the coloreds and blacks in South Africa, I make their lot my personal concern. I try to help them alleviate their oppressive circumstances. If I care about my neighbor, I make it my business to look into his situation and help him cope with it.

What does caring for someone involve? First, it requires a clear understanding of his specific situation. At least that is what would be required for caring effectively. There is another kind of “caring,” more closely akin to curiosity than to helping. It is more emotional than active. When so many commentators want to test whether political candidates care, do they have in mind the kind of caring that makes a difference? Or does the care involved amount to little more than showing emotion?

In most cases what politicians mean by caring is nothing more than giving some evidence of emotional sympathy with the lot of some bloc of voters. What else could they do? How could even the president of the United States of America actually help people other than those whom he knows personally? That is part of the tragedy of being in the segment of society that is in near-permanent dire straits.

What researchers such as Charles Murray, in his book Losing Ground, have finally brought to our attention is that welfare simply does not work. Not only is it stealing from Peter to subsidize Paul, but welfare is making things worse for the people who need the help most. Government welfare must function in an impersonal fashion. But not knowing the recipients of welfare means not knowing their histories, personalities, characters, and circumstances.

Since human beings are individuals, not simply members of some group—blacks, women, Hispanics, teenagers, the poor, the middle class—they require unique help in even the most familiar situations of need. Even disaster victims seem best aided by voluntary groups. Witness how quickly the Red Cross and various church organizations produced millions of dollars of relief and donated goods in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. The ways in which these and other kinds of help ought to be delivered—when, where, by what means, in what shape, with what words—all would have to be evident to someone who really intends to care effectively, rather than merely show sympathy by introducing bill upon bill in the Senate or the House of Representatives and voting to appropriate other people’s money to pay for them.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.