From the October 2014 issue of Hillsdale’s Imprimis, William Voegeli writes The Case Against Liberal Compassion
A first step in that direction is to note a political anomaly pointed out by Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana. Daniels contended that disciplining government according to “measured provable performance and effective spending” ought to be a “completely philosophically neutral objective.” Skinflint conservatives want government to be thrifty for obvious reasons, but Daniels maintained that liberals’ motivations should be even stronger. “I argue to my most liberal friends: ‘You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.’ And,” the governor added slyly, “some of them actually agree.”
The clear implication—that many liberals are not especially troubled if government dollars that could help poor people are squandered—strikes me as true, interesting, and important. Given that liberals are people who: 1) have built a welfare state that is now the biggest thing government does in America; and 2) want to regard themselves and be regarded by others as compassionate empathizers determined to alleviate suffering, it should follow that nothing would preoccupy them more than making sure the welfare state machine is functioning at maximum efficiency. When it isn’t, after all, the sacred mission of alleviating preventable suffering is inevitably degraded.
In fact, however, liberals do not seem all that concerned about whether the machine they’ve built, and want to keep expanding, is running well. For inflation-adjusted, per capita federal welfare state spending to increase by 254 percent from 1977 to 2013, without a correspondingly dramatic reduction in poverty, and for liberals to react to this phenomenon by taking the position that our welfare state’s only real defect is that it is insufficiently generous, rather than insufficiently effective, suggests a basic problem. To take a recent, vivid example, the Obama Administration had three-and-a-half years from the signing of the Affordable Care Act to the launch of the healthcare.gov website. It’s hard to reconcile the latter debacle with the image of liberals lying awake at night tormented by the thought the government should be doing more to reduce suffering. A sympathetic columnist, E.J. Dionne, wrote of the website’s crash-and-burn debut, “There’s a lesson here that liberals apparently need to learn over and over: Good intentions without proper administration can undermine even the most noble of goals.” That such an elementary lesson is one liberals need to learn over and over suggests a fundamental defect in liberalism, however—something worse than careless or inept implementation of liberal policies.
That defect, I came to think, can be explained as follows: The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
This the fundamental premise of the The Road to Serfdom. Private virtues can be a vice in the public domain.