This is one of my favorite passages from William Voegeli’s THE PITY PARTY:
“Declaring a public policy successful is meaningless if all the tests it passed are ones it could not possibly have failed. The liberal project consists in large measure of having the government give people stuff—money, goods, and services. And it cannot be denied that when the government gives people stuff, the people it gives stuff to wind up with more stuff than they had before the government started giving them stuff.”
Here’s another excerpt, taken at random but fairly typical of Voegeli’s argument:
“The liberal contradiction…is caring compassionately about victims of suffering situations while accepting complacently government programs that discharge their core mission—alleviating that suffering—ineffectively and inefficiently.
The main political reason this contradiction persists is that neither conservatives nor liberals have the capacity and desire to solve it on their own, or to negotiate a deal yielding a more successful welfare state. Conservatives embrace laissez-faire, a policy of having the government stand aside while individuals act upon their inclinations. Their argument is not that laissez-faire guarantees results better than any imaginable alternative, but that it’s likely to produce outcomes better than any available alternative. Liberals believe that activist government has one major flaw—there’s not enough of it—which, if corrected, would remedy any minor flaws it might have.”
Having demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, the contradictions and policy failures of liberalism, the limits and unintended consequences of compassion, and the real and self-centered motives that animate liberals, Mr. Voegeli is willing to concede that “there are people who really do need help, and government programs that can improve their lives.” But that does not prevent him from claiming that “liberal compassion leads to bullshit” or from insisting that “Liberal compassion lends itself to bullshit by subordinating the putative concern with efficacy to the dominant but unannounced imperative of moral validation and exhibitionism.”
For all that, or even because of all that, I think THE PITY PARTY should be read by every liberal. William Voegeli calls his book “a mean-spirited diatribe,” but I think he’s doing himself a disservice; the book is spirited, to be sure, but I didn’t find it to be mean—nor did I find it persuasive. What I found it to be was instructive: instructive about what liberalism (and liberals) looks like to an intelligent conservative—forgive me, I know that for some readers that last phrase is an oxymoron, but so be it. THE PITY PARTY is as good a statement as I’ve read in some time of what conservatives object to about liberalism, and about what they would offer in its place.
Voegeli understands why the modern welfare state exists, despite the “moral hazards” it occasions:
“If government mitigates the consequences that follow from a lack of discipline, initiative, providence and self-respect, some people will respond to those incentives by discarding those habits and dispositions. If we, as a republic, believed upholding those habits and dispositions was so important that it was worth the risk that some people might starve or freeze to death (or be spared from doing so only by private charity), there wouldn’t be a welfare state. The fact that every nation prosperous enough to fund one has created a welfare state argues that no modern society is prepared to order its moral priorities in this fashion. We would rather live with the irresponsibility of some than with the abject misery of others, even if we believe that the irresponsible and the miserable are often one and the same because more responsibility leads to less misery.”
Still, there must be a better way, a less expensive way, a more efficient way, and a way with less moral hazard: or so conservatives insist. And in search of that better way, as Voegeli shows, conservatives have actual, concrete policy proposals. There is Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax” (which became Richard Nixon’s proposal for a “guaranteed minimum income”); and there is William F. Buckley’s idea of “limiting eligibility for federal social welfare and insurance programs to those Americans living in states whose median income was below the national average.” Residents of “prosperous states would rely entirely on state programs funded from state taxes to assist the poor within [their] own state’s borders.” If nothing else, claimed Buckley, we would at least stop turning “the sky black with criss-crossing dollars” going from the states to Washington and then back to the states.
But Voegeli gives the most attention to a proposal (a variant on Friedman’s) from Charles Murray:
“In Our Hands, Charles Murray’s book published in 2006, offered a detailed plan…It called for having the federal government give every American age twenty-one or older, and earning less than $25,000, an additional $10,000, no strings attached. People who earn more than $25,000 but less than $50,000 would see their $10,000 stipend reduced by 20 cents for each dollar they earn in excess of $25,000, up to an earned income of $50,000. Thus, someone with an earned income of $30,000 would receive $9,000 more from the federal government, a neighbor with an income of of $40,000 would receive a payment of $7,000, and someone making $50,000 would receive $5,000. There would be no additional reduction for those making more than $50,000, so someone with an earned income of $500,000 or $5 million would also receive $5,000.”
The “no strings attached” is misleading in one particular way; the string attached is that this government stipend would replace all other federal programs:
“Murray’s transfer system would abolish nearly every social welfare program…’Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare programs, social service programs, agricultural subsidies, and corporate welfare’ are all zeroed out. An appendix [to Murray’s book] lists ninety-eight federal programs to be eliminated, and the implementation of the plan calls for a constitutional amendment prohibiting not only the federal government but state and local ones from enacting any law or program that ‘provides benefits to some citizens but not others’…Murray leaves in place existing arrangements for public education, the provision of transportation infrastructure, and the U.S. Postal Service.”
Now we’re talking: get rid of those useless bureaucrats, administrators, examiners, clerks, and paper shufflers, get rid of the intrusive social workers, and get rid of drug testing the poor and haggling over “workfare” requirements.Just give cash to the poor and let them be; let them do with it what they will. Not that Murray is suggesting that, once we’ve paid out those stipends, we can wash our hands of the poor or the suffering—well, actually he’s suggesting just that, according to Voegeli:
“’Here’s the money,’ Murray’s plan says to every American, whether their ambitions are grand or meager, noble or base. ‘Use it as you see fit. Your life is in your hands.’ In other words, once we turn the welfare state into a transfer state, people are on their own. We don’t care, in our capacity as citizens dealing with other citizens through the medium of government, whether people use their basic income to go to night school, save for retirement, or buy vodka. Some people are going to make bad choices, and they will ‘own’ those choices, as pop psychology has taught us to say. We’ll still have moral duties to reach out to the suffering through churches and volunteer organizations, but will have already discharged our civic duty to them. George W. Bush’s armies of compassion will perform their commonplace miracles of renewal, that is, but through channels distinct from government rather than intertwined with it.”
Whatever else Murray’s plan accomplishes, William Voegeli believes it would call the bluff of liberals, challenging them:
“’Do you want to eliminate poverty? This eliminates poverty…Do you, on the other hand, want an endless, eternal supply of venues for demonstrating your empathy? That’s your problem—not ours, and not America’s. If you want to prove, to the world or yourself, how noble and sensitive you are, do it on your own time and your own dime. The fundamental obligation to one another’s economic welfare that connects us as fellow citizens has already been discharged through the transfer program. All other acts and feelings of solicitude will connect Americans in extra-political ways, as neighbors, co-religionists, etc.”
Liberal compassion, Voegeli claims, is mostly posturing: “I feel your pain,” says the liberal in order to feel himself to be, and to be seen by others to be, caring and kind. Moreover, liberalism creates a social and political dichotomy between “empathizers” and “empathizees,” between “the helpers and the helpless,” and some of those latter are not as helpless as liberals might claim. “The helpless,” says Voegeli, “include some who could have done things in advance to prevent or mitigate their suffering, such as buying insurance or making more prudent, less risky choices.” What’s so hard about making better decisions? “According to William Galston, a former Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, only 8 percent of Americans who (a) finish high school; (b) marry before having a child; and (c) postpone marriage until after the age of twenty wind up impoverished. By contrast, of those who fail those life assignments, 79 percent are poor.” 1
Mr. Voegeli is not entirely unsympathetic: “Such achievements,” he acknowledges, “are not always easy.” But he’s no bleeding-heart liberal either: “but neither are they heroic. Compassion that responds to suffering as such…without considering how the sufferer’s decisions or habits might have inaugurated, perpetuated, or aggravated his suffering harbors the potential for great harm.” The word Voegeli is hinting at throughout his book, but never actually uses, is “enables,” as in “Liberal compassion just enables people to persist in their shiftless behavior.”
Life is hard, but what can you do? Voegeli sums up the human condition:
“Each of us will live a life that turns out a particular way. that outcome will be the result of some things we can control, such as the choices we make and habits we cultivate, and some things we cannot control: how we fare in the genetic lottery of cognition, health, and attractiveness; the time and place we’re born; the usefulness of the cultural starter kit we get from the family, ethnic groups, and religion in which we’re raised, and so on.”
Who can tell whether our path is the result of, as Voegeli puts it, “pluck [or] luck”? But if we’re going to err, let’s come down on the side of pluck, because “individuals who dwell on or even exaggerate their ability to overcome, through discipline and determination, the obstacles in front of them are more likely to fashion lives well lived than those who dwell on or exaggerate the height of the mountains standing between them and their goals. Liberals work constantly to make us aware of the dangers of blaming people for things beyond their control. They’re equally determined, though, to deny the opposite danger: giving people reasons and incentives to do less than they might to live successfully and admirably.”
Nowhere in THE PITY PARTY does William Voegeli consider the possibility that compassion and encouragement need not be at odds, but that the two can exist in tandem; nor does he explain how funding (for example) a federal jobs program incentivizes participants to exaggerate their helplessness. Just as he believes (or claims) that liberals make no effort to assess the actual effectiveness of programs, he also believes (or claims) that they promote a “victim” mentality among the recipients of their (taxpayer-funded) largesse.
As William Voegeli sees the situation, it boils down to this: liberals are simplistic and naïve, they are hypocritical and they are moral poseurs. They do not understand that good intentions are not enough, nor do they grasp that compassion cannot have the final word:
“To insist compassion must have its way because it is such a basic, noble emotional force; to insist that all who defy it are mean and greedy; to disdain the reality that government’s challenges will frequently impel decent nations to subordinate compassion’s claims to those of justice, honor, liberty, and security—is to complicate and imperil self-government.”
“It is nice,” Voegeli admits, “all things being equal, to have elected officials who feel our pain rather than ones who, like imperious monarchs, cannot comprehend or do not deign to notice it. Much more than their empathy, however, we require their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own damn pain 2 without their ministrations…Kindness may well cover all of Barack Obama’s political beliefs, and those of many other self-satisfied liberals. It neither begins to cover all the beliefs that have sustained America’s republic, however, nor amounts to an adequate substitute for those moral virtues and political principles indispensable to sustaining it further.”
Apparently, wanting empathy and respect is akin to wanting to have your cake and eat it, too; at least, William Voegeli seems to think so. And perhaps he’s right, and perhaps conservatives are right, and perhaps liberals are in fact preening hypocrites given to the politics of desperate gestures. THE PITY PARTY makes about as good a case for that as can be made, I think, but it doesn’t leave us with much of an alternative aside from what we might call “the politics of helpless shrugs”: the poor you will always have with you, someone once said, which Voegeli understands to mean the Lord helps those who help themselves.
And yet the fact that the poor have always been with us indicates that poverty was neither invented by nor caused by modern liberalism, and that for all the flaws in the liberal program (and in the liberal psyche) it is intended to address very real human needs. Conjure away liberalism if you will, but the problems to which it has tried to respond won't go away so easily.
1 “Those who fail those life assignments” are, of course, going to get the same Charles Murray stipend as everyone else, and one assumes they will demonstrate their usual sagacity when it comes to spending it.
2 “Feel Your Own Damn Pain” would be quite the campaign slogan.