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Justice, Not Compassion


If the 2000 presidential race continues as it has begun, we might all best take a long nap and wake up when it’s over. It might be so insipid that we could all suffer a terminal case of boredom. How many of us are looking forward to a year and a half of debate over who’s the most compassionate candidate?

George W. Bush got the campaign on this inane track by claiming to be a “compassionate conservative.” That immediately upset his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, who all want to be known as compassionate. The very compassionate Lamar Alexander responded that the word “conservative” needs no qualifier. Conservatives are by definition compassionate, he suggested.

Heir apparent Al Gore scoffed at Bush’s label, calling what the Republican front-runner had in mind “crumbs of compassion.” Gore seemed to be saying: How dare a Republican try to seize the compassion issue from the Democrats! Rush Limbaugh, who defies description, took umbrage at Bush’s term at first, then decided he liked it. He thinks it is just keen that Bush tried to steal the issue from the Democrats; after all, Clinton had stolen so much from Republicans.

This, alas, is what passes for political debate in what Mencken called the “land of the theoretically free.”

Would someone like to explain what compassion has to do with a presidential campaign? Actually, I’m not that naive. I know what compassion has to do with it. The point of a campaign is to marshal all the forces of public relations and advertising in order to create a mood. In presidential politics, you don’t try to convey information. People don’t want that. They want to feel cozy and warm in the arms of arms of a surrogate papa. They want someone to feel their pain. Information and logic don’t cut it.

The voting system virtually ensures that campaigns will be more like encounter groups. The average voter has no interest in acquiring hard information about candidates. There are many reasons for that. First, what good does real information do? Each citizen has only one vote. His chances of breaking a tie on election day are considerably smaller than his chances of getting killed in an auto accident driving to the polls. People operate according to incentives. Think how you would approach an election if you knew that you would be casting the tiebreaker. Most people know that breaking a tie is highly unlikely, and they act accordingly. The economists call this “rational ignorance.” You don’t undertake to acquire information that will do you little or no good; the costs will outweigh the benefits.

Rational ignorance is intrinsic to voting. Your one vote won’t be decisive. In most other contexts, your choice is decisive. When you go to the store and select an item, you get that item. When you go to the polls and vote for Smith, you don’t thereby get Smith. You may get Smith, but not because you chose him. When your choice is decisive, there is always a cost: the opportunity forgone. If you buy Cheerios instead of, say, Wheaties. You give up Wheaties because you prefer Cheerios. At the polls, when you vote for Smith, you don’t give up Jones, because your choice is not decisive. All you give up is the act of pulling the lever for Jones. (Of course, driving to the polls entails an opportunity cost. You might have done something useful.)

The upshot is that “choice” at the polls is nothing like the real choice we experience nearly every waking moment. While the civics books, politicians, and news media strive to make us feel we have a monumental decision in our hands, for each individual it is a most trivial decision, so trivial that if any of us abstains from making it, no one notices.

I am not denying that many individual votes add up to determine the winner. I am simply looking at the matter as anyone must look at it, from the standpoint of the acting individual. When I awaken on election-day morning, I cannot ask myself, “Should we 100 million voters go to the polls today or not?” I can only reasonably ask, “Shall I go to the polls or not?” My decision hinges on the likely consequences of my contemplated act. What the other 99,999,999 other people do is irrelevant. People often ask at this point: What if everyone believed that? If I thought everyone planned to stay home, I might vote; my choice would be decisive in that case. (This assumes there’s someone worth voting for even under those circumstances.) But most people don’t think that way. We must base our actions on reasonable, not outlandish, expectations.

Under the circumstances outlined, few people are going to do any real homework on the candidates. There are other reasons why no effort would be rewarded. Candidates often say one thing in a campaign and do something else once they get elected. There’s no contract you can try to enforce if they fail to keep their word. The word of a politician is as good as fool’s gold, and people know it. That is why politicians have long been the favorite butt of jokes in America.

But Americans are of two minds about politicians. They love mocking them. But they need them too. They want their politicians and leaders to make them feel secure. So when they vote, they vote for the candidate who creates the right mood. The candidates know this, so they campaign accordingly. Campaigns thus are more or less like beauty contests.

Which brings us to compassion. If government were exclusively about protecting individual rights and securing justice, no one would talk about compassion. Do I care what is in the heart of a person seeking to be an administrative officer of a rights-protecting institution? I think not. But government is not a rights-protecting institution. It’s a wealth-transfer, or looting, machine, which is to say a rights-violating institution. People don’t normally like being looted, so the candidates and politicians have to do something to keep the victims from complaining. A heavy-handed approach isn’t practical. There are more people than politicians, and if the people chose to resist, the rulers wouldn’t have a chance. Some other method is needed to win acquiescence.

What has worked is ideology, a combination of moral and political philosophy, which in this case encourages people to believe it is virtuous of them to surrender their belongings and even their lives to the state if asked. One element of that ideology is the virtue of putting your own interests behind those of perfect strangers who are said to be needy. Generally, people do that only sparingly, preferring to spend their money on themselves and their families. The political system forces you to do it far more than you’d like because politicians need the money to buy the support of constituencies. While the tax system ultimately makes charity a matter of force, it’s easier for the authorities if people refrain from resisting and do their duty without being asked. (That’s the “voluntary” nature of the income tax.)

We return to the question asked earlier: What’s compassion have to do with the presidency? It’s a mood setter for the voters. It taps into the ideology that has been cultivated for hundreds of years, the one that makes people believe it is their duty to surrender a good portion of their income so that politicians can give it to people less “fortunate” than themselves. People have been taught that compassion demands it. It’s how they justify the looting to themselves. Most people like to think of themselves as compassionate and so value that attribute in political leaders. Hence the jockeying for most compassionate candidate honors.

It is clear that if rights and justice were taken seriously, the idea of compassion would never arise in a political context. What would be the difference between a compassionate respecter of rights and an uncompassionate respecter of rights? Could you tell one from another?

There’s a lesson here: when you see a politician talking about compassion, bolt the door and check for your wallet.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.