In every election campaign, we hear the word “compassion” at least a thousand times. One political party supposedly has it and the other one doesn’t. Big government programs are evidence of compassion; cutting back government is a sign of cold-hearted meanness. By their misuse of the term for partisan advantage, politicians have thoroughly muddied up the real meaning of the word.
Some of what is labeled “compassionate” is just that, and it does a world of good; but a whole lot of what is labeled “compassionate” is nothing of the sort, and it does a world of harm. The former tends to be very personal in nature, while the latter puts an involuntary burden on someone else.
As Marvin Olasky pointed out in his 1994 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, the original definition of “compassion” as noted in The Oxford English Dictionary is “suffering together with another, participation in suffering.” The emphasis, as the word itself shows—“com,” which means with, and “passion,” from the Latin term “pati,” meaning to suffer—is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them. Noah Webster, in the 1834 edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, similarly defined compassion as “a suffering with another.”
But the way most people use the term today is a corruption of the original. It has come to mean little more than, as Olasky put it, “the feeling, or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” There is a world of difference between those two definitions: One demands personal action, the other simply a “feeling” that usually is accompanied by a call for someone else—namely, government—to deal with the problem. One describes a Red Cross volunteer; the other describes the typical statist demagogue who gives away little or nothing of his own resources but lots of yours.
The plain fact is that government compassion is not the same as personal and private compassion. When we expect the government to substitute for what we ourselves ought to do, we expect the impossible and we end up with the intolerable. We don’t really solve problems; we just manage them expensively into perpetuity and create a bunch of new ones along the way.
From 1965, the beginning of the so-called War on Poverty, to 1994, total welfare spending in the United States was $5.4 trillion in constant 1993 dollars. In 1965, total government welfare spending was just over 1 percent of gross domestic product, but by 1993 it had risen to 5.1 percent of GDP annually—higher than the record set during the Great Depression. The poverty rate was almost exactly where it was in 1965, and now, 20 years later, it’s even higher. It was apparent when “welfare reform” was enacted in 1996 that millions of people on welfare were living lives of demoralizing dependency, families were rewarded for breaking up, and the number of children born out of wedlock was in the stratosphere—terrible facts brought about, in large part, by “compassionate” government programs.
A person’s willingness to spend government funds on aid programs is not evidence that the person is himself compassionate. Professor William B. Irvine of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, once explained, “It would be absurd to take a person’s willingness to increase defense spending as evidence that the person is himself brave, or to take a person’s willingness to spend government money on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself physically fit.” In the same way as it is possible for a “couch potato” to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various government aid programs. Conversely, it is possible for a compassionate person to oppose these programs.
It is a mistake to use a person’s political beliefs as the litmus test of his compassion. Professor Irvine said that if you want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted; instead, you should ask what charitable contributions he has made and whether he has done any volunteer work lately. You might also inquire into how he responds to the needs of his relatives, friends, and neighbors.
Many of the political world’s most boisterous welfare statists are also among the most duplicitous and selfish (in the bad sense of the term) hypocrites. While small-government conservatives and libertarians generally give generously from their own pockets, charitable organizations are lucky to get donations of used underwear from the Joe Bidens of the world. (For a mountain of evidence in that regard, see the 2006 book Who Really Cares? by Arthur Brooks, then at Syracuse University and now president of the American Enterprise Institute.)
True compassion is a bulwark of strong families and communities, of liberty and self-reliance, while the false compassion of the second usage is fraught with great danger and dubious results. True compassion is people helping people out of a genuine sense of caring and brotherhood. It is not asking your legislator or congressman to do it for you. True compassion comes from your heart, not from the state or federal treasury. True compassion is a deeply personal thing, not a check from a distant bureaucracy.
In a television interview in Nassau, Bahamas, last November, host Wendall Jones, an unrepentant welfare statist, asked me, “Mr. Reed, what about the Good Samaritan in the New Testament? Doesn’t that story show that government should help people?” My reply: “Wendall, what made the Good Samaritan good was the fact that he personally helped the stricken man along the road. If he had simply told the helpless chap to ring up his congressman, no one to this day would have the gall to call him anything but a good-for-nothing.”
“But what about Christ himself?” Jones then asked me. “Wasn’t he in favor of redistribution to help the poor?” Fortunately, I know a few things about the Bible and Christianity. My reply: “Wendall, the Eighth Commandment says ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt not steal unless the other guy has more than you do or unless you’re convinced that you can spend it better or unless you can find a politician to take it on your behalf.’ And even more to the point, when Christ was approached by a man (Luke 12:13–15) who wanted him to do some redistributing, Christ rebuked him with this admonition: ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?’”
Breast-beating welfare statists are often so convinced of their moral superiority that they tend to be very intolerant of a good, opposing argument. Mr. Jones edited out the above exchange before airing the show, but you can see the rest of it here.
The next time you hear the word “compassion,” probe the person invoking it to find out if he really knows what he’s talking about.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of FEE. An earlier version of this essay was published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in 1997.)