Marvin Olasky has been described as the "godfather of compassionate conservatism." The right-wing University of Texas professor of journalism is a good source for those looking to demonstrate how what has become "big-government conservatism"
(that's a link to 7.25 million
Google hits for the term) was in fact conceived as a mechanism for resolving one of the primary dilemmas facing conservatives: the fact that the general public cares a lot about the very social welfare issues the right is determined to ignore. Olasky and his fellow compassionate conservatives were determined to shift the political ground on which battles over social welfare are fought. They never intended to pave the way for a vast expansion of entitlement spending. How they did so nonetheless is a story for another time - meanwhile, we have Olasky's quiet little plea
at Human Events to remind us of his original intent.
Olasky repeats an important point he made at the conservative summit
The politics of this are simple: If Americans have a choice between big government and small government, and if Americans think big government helps the poor and small government doesn't, a crucial mass will often vote for big government. If Americans think the only way to work together on social problems is through government, most will prefer government to giving up.
Compassionate conservatism was in one respect an ambitious policy agenda designed to account for this insight. Olasky's own focus was on redistributing federal resources to community-based (often faith-based) private efforts - one of his more notable ideas was an "anti-poverty tax credit" intended to keep tax dollars from ever passing through government programs.
His Human Events piece - "How Some Conservatives Hurt Conservatism" - is, by contrast, aimed at the behavior of those in his own ranks, whom he believes are hurting the right's cause by failing to uphold a model of vigorous private charity as an alternative to public investment:
Some Americans devoted to free enterprise and lower taxes actually push policies and lead lives that push this country toward big government. Leftists who want a centralization of power bear sizeable responsibility for governmental growth. But conservatives who don't understand the importance of religious and community institutions are also part of the problem.
That's because a majority of Americans want to do something through common action to help those who are needy. That something can be either governmental, in which case tax bills and government bulk up, or it can be through religious and community institutions, in which case government can shrink. We should not complain about the taxes that fuel governmental action if we neglect volunteer work outside of government.
If conservatives aren't out there volunteering their time and their money to show that private charity can substitute for public social insurance, how can they expect Americans to abandon their faith in government?
It's a valid point as far as it goes. It's also, in one respect, a curiously modest one. Or perhaps Olasky thinks it's more ambitious than I do: maybe he really believes that if only conservatives will personally tutor more struggling students and make more philanthropic donations, private sector charity will come to appear as a valid and comprehensive mechanism for providing the social goods that citizens traditionally expect government to guarantee.
Olasky may also genuinely believe that such philanthropy is worthy in and of itself. It is, of course - and I have no reason to question his goodwill on that count. But at the same time he's quite explicit about how the end is to "shrink government."
That goal dovetails with another project Olasky and his compatriots have pursued. Sourcewatch
notes that Olasky has long been associated with the Capital Research Center
, a think tank "which has been one of the champions of the defund the left
campaign." That campaign has been an ongoing effort - since the Reagan years - to "eliminate government financial support for non-profit groups deemed to be 'liberal'." By attacking public funds for "liberal" 501(c)(3)s and (c)(4)s engaged in any kind of lobbying, conservative activists have sought to chill progressive political activity and cripple the efforts of non-profits. As Grover Norquist put it: "we will hunt liberal groups down one by one and extinguish their funding sources."
At work here is the kind of elegant and vicious synergy we see so often in conservative political strategies. Not only does the "defund the left" campaign work to stop progressive social welfare efforts in and of themselves, it seeks to de-link social welfare from the public sphere altogether. A couple of years ago - unfortunately, I don't remember the source - I read an excellent article warning progressives against letting themselves become active dupes in the right's plan to eliminate government services. It's a very simple cycle: as conservatives in power slash social programs, progressives - both institutionally and individually - find themselves feeling more and more obligated to fill the gap with our own time and money, helping those whom Washington refuses to help. In this way, the left itself becomes privatized, obligated to spend its resources looking after the disadvantaged rather than focusing on the political battles necessary to retake control of government.
And in that regard Olasky's seemingly modest plea to conservatives is an element in a very ambitious plan indeed. Every step the right can take toward moving the fight over social welfare into the private sphere is both a blow against the progressive movement and against the notion of activist government in general. Olasky asks one hand of the conservative movement to give, so that other will be more free to take away.
Labels: compassionate conservatism, Human Events, Marvin Olasky