Pseudo-Compassion and the State

Steven Miller

Those who never give up calling for more and more government—whether here in Nevada or elsewhere—learned long ago that their appeals must always be cloaked in the language of “morality” and “compassion.”

Thus, we never hear it straightforwardly admitted that, “Yes, we’re seeking expanded state coercion and more confiscation of private property.” Instead, the chimes are always rung on the necessity of us all “responding” to “human needs,” of being “caring” and “responsible,” and of not abandoning the “disadvantaged” and the “needy.”

As a political ploy—a way to extort higher taxes—this approach is often effective. But it’s also entirely disingenuous. That’s because the nature of government, in both spirit and fact, is deeply antagonistic to both authentic morality and genuine compassion.

The distinguishing characteristic of government, as any beginning political science major once was able to tell you, is its legal monopoly on the use of force. In consequence of this—and because of Americans’ own experience at the receiving end of British government force—early on in the history of this nation its founders agreed that our government’s powers were to be strictly limited: The state’s legal monopoly on the use of force would only be deployed against people who’d already set themselves outside the social compact by using force or fraud to attack others and violate their rights.

This distinction between the realm of society and the realm of government was much better understood in the 18th Century than it is today. Tom Paine expressed it succinctly in Common Sense, the small booklet that changed the world and helped give birth to the United States of America:

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Because government is, at root, only an instrument of coercion, the only relevant distinction it is really equipped to handle, ultimately, is whether or not people obey. The highly nuanced valuations that human beings actually make, every day, in all the infinite dimensions of human life and human interaction, are far beyond the capabilities of the state.

Such a matter is human charity, the question here. As the history of government welfare in America and elsewhere has shown, the rote and casual dispensing of charitable assistance is destructive—both socially and individually. Thus, whether or not charitable efforts actually achieve success as a social good rides almost entirely on the accuracy of subtle human judgments. Is the applicant serious? Trustworthy? Attempting to game the system? How appropriate is a given kind of assistance for a given applicant’s situation?

Such highly nuanced evaluations and prescriptions are necessarily beyond the lumbering, rule-bound nature of government bureaucracies. Moreover, such agencies will always remain “lumbering”—i.e., constrained and encumbered by laws and regulations—because they expend not their own resources but resources that the government has coerced from the public and remains easily embarrassed about—especially when scandals involving the coerced loot start attracting public attention. Additionally, state welfare agencies must remain highly regulated because their functionaries are able to also deploy the lethal power of the government—from which both individual applicants and society itself must be protected. 

Thus, because government “compassion” is necessarily based on indifference to individual valuations, it is also generically hamstrung in any attempt to achieve positive change. The fundamental premise of government—that people are to be coerced, rather than treated as moral agents—always shows through and lethally taints every attempted social program. The one exception is government’s basic mission of maintaining law and order in the face of violent or fraudulent predators.

At bottom, government “compassion” programs are essentially political artifacts, designed to provide pseudo-compassion. While sold to the public as responses to grave social issues, they actually carefully evade the actual dimensions and nature of the human-behavior problems really at issue. As such, these programs offer a cheap sop to conscience for inattentive but “concerned” voters, while building special-interest constituencies for big-government politicians and government union ideologues.

Campaigns for government transfers to the “disadvantaged” also allow those supporting the campaigns to wax indignant, feel morally superior and temporarily achieve heightened self-esteem—while avoiding the challenges of confronting these human problems on a personal level.

Down deep, the whole project of human morality remains fundamentally difficult.

Nothing real will be accomplished while evading that fact.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.