Are Compassion and Community Evil?

Conservatives have historically argued against progressive policies on a variety of fronts: the unintended consequences of change, the primacy of the individual over government, the dangers of a growing bureaucracy (or more generically, "big government"), the importance of traditional values and local control, the worry of people growing too dependent on government, etc. With increasing vehemence, though, conservatives have begun to argue that kind-heartedness, compassion, and a sense of community are actually evil: that they lead inevitably to Nazism and death camps.

Political debate has always been hot and heavy in this country, with conservatives swinging hard and heavy and making some pretty wild claims: the pro-British Tories in the 1770s decried the "rats of democracy"; the pro-slavery Southern planters in the first half of the 1800s said that slaves were better off than if they were free; the Social Darwinists said society would be better off if the poor were allowed to starve to death, because their death would improve the gene pool. But the compassion-equals-evil argument didn't really get laid out in detail until Ayn Rand's writings, where she actually did argue that people with compassion and concern for others were leeches who drained society of its competitive life blood.

Just as Ayn Rand took the Social Darwinist argument and made it more virulent, the conservative author Jonah Goldberg brought a new, more extreme twist to the argument, literally saying that progressives like FDR were ideological soul mates of Hitler and Mussolini's brand of fascism. This easily debunked book has become the right's excuse for accusing everyone arguing for progressive causes of being a Nazi.

Glenn Beck is, of course, the present day leader of the pack when it comes to this kind of invective. Here's his latest insight on the subject:

This follows an earlier episode (that I wrote about here) where he essentially said that because Nazis and Communists used the words social justice, any churches that use those words are also Nazis and Communists.

The kind of people that Rand, Goldberg, and Beck are attacking -- progressives -- believe that our economy works better from the bottom-up, that making investments in jobs and education for poor and middle class folks is better for the economy than giving more tax breaks to the wealthy. Progressives believe that giving people some economic security and a hand up in tough times is what a decent society ought to do for its citizens. They believe that paying everyone a living wage, making sure everyone has a good education and decent health care coverage, builds a better, more productive society. Suggesting that these kinds of views lead inexorably toward Nazi death camps isn't just offensive: it goes against the fundamental cornerstone values of our culture and history. Declaring people who work for kindness and compassion as "leeches" on society twists morality into a pretzel.

This kind of distorted thinking is not only mind-bendingly wrong; it also leads conservatives into truly bizarre policy directions. For example, check out this quote from conservative economist and former Bush administration official Robert Stein:

"Once a country adopts an old-age pension system, it creates an implicit bias against having children. One of the natural reasons for raising children is not just because you like kids, but to take care of yourself in old-age. Once a country gives everybody access to everyone else's kid's money, it undermines the natural economic incentive to raise kids"

Only in Ayn Rand's selfishness-is-everything fantasy world would someone decide not to have kids because of that $400 a month Social Security check they will be getting someday. Can you imagine a couple sitting around having this conversation?

"Well, honey, I don't like kids very well, but we'll need someone to take care of us when we're old"

"But, darling, we don't have to worry about that because we'll be sponging off the government teat with all that Social Security cash rolling in"

"Great, dear, I guess I won't be throwing away those prophylactics after all"

So let me reassure my conservative friends: the fact that I care about keeping you from starving, freezing to death, and dying due to lack of good medical care does not mean that I eventually want to send you to a death camp. Although I do worry about your sanity a little.

Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my writing.