As The Smoke Clears In Baltimore, It’s Time To Revive Compassionate Conservatism

Reuters/Jim Bourg

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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After a week of unrest in Baltimore, chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby calmed the waters Friday by indicting six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I have heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace,’” Mosby declared.

When justice is not deaf, one wonders whether it can be blind. But I’ll leave others to ponder that. Because the Baltimore riots exposed something with much farther-reaching implications than the Freddie Gray tragedy: More than five decades into the War on Poverty, our inner cities remain wastelands of dysfunction and despair. We are witnessing an unconscionable squandering of human potential. We have ceded control over the anti-poverty agenda to one end of the ideological spectrum, and have little but disappointment to show for it. Conservative re-engagement is desperately needed.

President George W. Bush came into office as a self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative.” Less than eight months into his tenure, of course, the War on Terror understandably usurped his focus and held it for the duration his presidency. Even before then, the term “compassionate conservative” had come under attack from both the right and left. Many conservatives resented the implication that compassion was something that somehow had to be introduced into conservatism, as if it weren’t there already. They saw the term as a needless concession to the liberal stereotype of the heartless right-winger.

I’ve never agreed with that criticism. Compassionate conservatism is a repudiation of the liberals’ conceit that they have a monopoly on compassion. (Some liberals cling to that conceit as if their own sense of self-worth depended on believing they were morally superior to anyone who disagreed with them.) Particularly in the context of our inner cities, compassionate conservatism describes an alternative to failed liberal policies.

Liberals’ criticism of compassionate conservatism, on the other hand, stems largely from their inability to think outside of their own box. Some liberals act as if compassion is measured by the amount of other people’s money that one is willing to throw at a problem. They remain blissfully uncurious about whether the programs they support actually work or have harmful unintended consequences. In their view, it is hypocritical to call oneself a “compassionate conservative” if one ever advocates cuts to any social welfare program.

The phrase “compassionate conservatism” is believed to have first been coined in the late 1970s by Doug Wead, who had served as a special assistant to President George H. W. Bush. By the 1980s, a compassionate conservative agenda to address inner city poverty had been developed by urban activist Robert Woodson, Congressman (and later Housing and Urban Development Secretary) Jack Kemp, and others. That agenda included polices such as welfare reform and workfare, to help recipients transition into the workforce; enterprise zones and empowerment zones, to help attract jobs and free enterprise into poor areas; homeownership programs, including tenant ownership of public housing units, to enable the poor to claim an ownership stake in their communities; school choice, to give parents the power of consumers of their children’s education and force public schools to compete with private schools to provide quality education; empowerment of faith-based community social service organizations that can be more effective than government bureaucracies in helping the poor; and other reforms. Some of these policies, such as welfare reform, were eventually co-opted by the Democrats. Others, like school choice, have been successfully implemented in various parts of the country — despite the relentless opposition of the teachers unions and, usually, the Democrats they bankroll.

The common thread of these policies was that they were designed to promote empowerment over dependence, to incentivize productive choices over destructive ones, and to facilitate the expansion of capitalism into poor areas. At the heart of the compassionate conservative agenda was a very important assumption that had somehow escaped the well-meaning white liberals who designed the original War on Poverty: Poor people are just like everyone else. Like everyone else, poor people respond to incentives. If you design programs for the poor that inadvertently reward bad choices, such as having children out of wedlock, the poor will have more children out of wedlock and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Like everyone else, poor people will make the effort to succeed if they believe that their effort will be rewarded.  If you undermine a person’s self-belief and initiative by creating dependence, that person will be less likely to make the effort necessary to succeed.  Like everyone else, poor people defend and take care of things that they have a stake in.

Communities of homeowners, even if they are poor, are better equipped to fight urban social pathologies than communities in which the residents have no ownership. (The federal government eventually got too aggressive in promoting home ownership for the poor: widespread mortgage defaults led to the financial crisis of 2008.) In short, the liberal War on Poverty was undermined by the condescending assumption that, to twist the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the poor are different.”

Throughout our history, people have succeeded in America by getting educated, working hard, making good choices, claiming a stake in their society and taking responsibility for their actions. People like Woodson and Kemp reminded us that the urban poor were no different, and that they could succeed by following the same path that others had followed. African Americans had been held back by centuries of official racism, but the solution was not to segregate the black urban poor into a path that veered them away from the traditional recipe for success.

Proponents of this compassionate conservative agenda did not suggest that racism against African Americans had been eradicated. They merely suggested that racism had become, with the removal of the most heinous official barriers to advancement, a surmountable obstacle. They noted that black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, even though they came to this country poor, typically had greater success than native-born inner city blacks. This was because they had the mindset, values and self-belief of immigrants, rather than the attitudes of those with an induced dependence on government and the expectation of being thwarted by racism. These black immigrants faced the same racism that American-born blacks faced, but were more likely to overcome it because they believed that they could.

Even arch-liberals, in moments of intellectual honesty, admit that Great Society programs have ultimately harmed the urban underclass. Bob Beckel, the liberal co-host the Fox News panel show “The Five,” acknowledges how these programs have promoted dependence. And liberal commentator Juan Williams, who frequently fills in for Beckel on “The Five,” takes it one step further: He has become a passionate advocate for school choice, an important pillar of the compassionate conservative agenda.

As Terrence P. Jeffrey recently argued, Baltimore would greatly benefit from unrestricted school choice: allowing parents to send their children to any local school — public or private, secular or parochial. Only three major school districts in America spend more per pupil than Baltimore, yet 87 percent of eighth graders in the city’s public schools are below grade-level in math and 84 percent read below grade-level. In education, job training, income assistance and a whole host of areas, it isn’t that we aren’t spending enough money to help the poor in Baltimore and other urban areas. It’s that we aren’t spending money wisely. No matter how much money we spend, the lack of intact families may make it difficult for many poor people to reach the level where they can fully benefit from our assistance. And nobody — conservative or liberal — has yet figured out how to undo the damage that we have done to the American family.

Compassionate conservatism isn’t a laundry list of specific programs; it’s an approach to solving problems based upon conservative principles. Some of the compassionate conservative programs dreamed up in the 1980s may not be viable in light of today’s realities. From around the country, we now have several years of evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Liberals have proven that they don’t have the answers to what plagues Baltimore and other urban areas. Conservatives don’t have all of the answers either, but we need to be at the table. Whether or not liberals are willing to admit it, our perspective is urgently needed.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.