Liberals and progressives approach the task of caring for others largely through government, which conservatives are very wary of. Conservatives gripe that liberals always want to be generous with other people’s money, and there’s some truth to that; however, merely slanging the other side doesn’t get us anywhere. Conservatives need to make the case for their approach to caring for others, which involves explaining their attitude toward government.
Conservatives begin by pointing out that all government is based upon force. A law is not a suggestion, but a demand, and there are penalties for not obeying it. Taxes are not voluntary. The full police power of the State is available to extract them from the taxpayer; moreover, as the Supreme Court has said, “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Every government action, and every dollar paid by the taxpayer to fund it, affects the general prosperity of the whole nation and all the people in it. Not only that, but the more government programs there are, and the more money it takes to run them, the less freedom each person has to construe one’s life in accordance with one’s own wishes. A government that is too big or that attempts too much – even with the intention of doing good – is a burden and a bully to its people. This is why conservatives want smaller, less intrusive government. It’s not selfishness, but a fierce desire to “live free or die,” as the New Hampshire State motto puts it.
This doesn’t mean that conservatives want the government to do nothing to relieve human misery. We believe government is a necessary evil – and we emphasize both those terms, necessary AND evil. We just want to limit government to doing only what is necessary, for when it goes on to do things that are simply helpful (but which could be done by some other agency), it grows ever larger, and in its growth becomes more of a burden and a bully (an evil). It doesn’t take too long before officials start multiplying rules, not because the rules are needed, but because that’s what officials do; some of them take a positive delight in ordering the lives of others, too, and this is evident in the character of the departments they run. In the end, whatever good the government did by expanding its reach is counterbalanced by the evil it does by reducing the prosperity and freedom of its people.
Even when doing things that most people recognize as worth doing, government can get out of hand. We have drastically increased expenditures for food stamps since Obama became President, but no one has made the case that that many more Americans were in such need. We have simply given aid to those who had not been eligible before. In giving aid to the poor, government not only helps those who are destitute or stricken by disaster (a worthy goal), but creates dependence upon its aid, which traps people in poverty, and which conditions their children to accept government aid as a way of life. In effect, too much federal aid to the poor creates and expands poverty. It’s like a life-saving drug which can also be addictive. Uncle Sam becomes the pusher and forecloses on some people’s opportunity even while relieving other people’s distress. Liberals who work in private charity know better – at least when they’re dealing personally with the poor. Food pantries and community centers have rules about how often one can access their help, what steps one must take to show that one is trying to get a job, etc. We don’t want people simply counting on us to meet their needs; we want them to learn to meet their own needs. This is why conservatives keep wanting to tie government assistance to job training or community service or something useful. Conservatives don’t hate the poor, we hate poverty. We want those who are poor to find their way out of poverty, not merely be subsidized in their poverty.
Finally, conservatives believe in Civil Society. We do not see society as merely individuals and a government to organize them. We see society as a kaleidoscope of institutions – churches, service clubs, donor-funded community organizations, charities, neighborhood associations, foundations, colleges, towns, extended families . . . Individuals participate in the life of the larger society largely through participating in a selection of these institutions. Government provides a certain number of large institutions that are also normatizing in their effects, such as schools and the armed forces. The States also provide a bit of cultural identity and local flavor to the mix, quite apart from their governmental functions such as maintaining roads and so forth. Caring for others, especially those in need, is best done through the action of these institutions. The idea that the state – especially the federal government, the super-state – should be the primary way in which people cooperate to build our society strikes conservatives as culturally impoverishing, as well as an invitation to tyranny.
So, conservatives care about others. We care about the poor. We just think that there are more effective ways to care about the poor than government taxing the bejeezus out of the people and ordering them about. For liberals and progressives to accuse us of not caring is simply slander.