What Is Real Compassion?

First Published: 2010-11-19

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York and is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan.

When we expect the government to substitute for what we ourselves ought to do, we expect the impossible and end up with the intolerable.

In the last presidential campaign, we heard the word “compassion” at least a thousand times. Democrats have it, Republicans do not. Big government programs are evidence of compassion; cutting back government is a sign of cold-hearted meanness. By their misuse of the term for partisan advantage, politicians have thoroughly muddied the real meaning of the word.

As Marvin Olasky points out in "The Tragedy of American Compassion," the original definition of compassion as noted in The Oxford English Dictionary is “suffering together with another, participation in suffering.” The emphasis, as the word itself shows — “com,” which means with, and “passion,” from the Latin term “pati,” meaning to suffer — is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them.

But today most people use the term to mean little more than, as Olasky puts it, “the feeling, or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” There is a world of difference between those two definitions: One demands personal action; the other, simply a “feeling” that usually is accompanied by a call for someone else — namely, government — to deal with the problem. One describes the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, the other describes the Lansing welfare lobby or any politician who votes to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The fact is that government “compassion” is not the same as personal and private compassion. When we expect the government to substitute for what we ourselves ought to do, we expect the impossible and end up with the intolerable. We don’t really solve problems; we just manage them expensively into perpetuity and create a bunch of new ones along the way.

From 1965, the beginning of the so-called War on Poverty, to the mid-1990s, total welfare spending in the United States was $5.4 trillion. In 1965, total government welfare spending was just over 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), but 30 years later it had ballooned to 5.1 percent of GDP annually — higher than the record set during the Great Depression. Until welfare reforms that emphasized work began to kick in four years ago, the poverty rate had hardly changed from where it was in 1965. For decades, millions lived lives of demoralizing dependency, families were rewarded for breaking up, and the number of children born out of wedlock soared to the stratosphere — terrible facts brought about, in large part, by “compassionate” government programs.

A person’s willingness to spend government funds on aid programs is not evidence that the person is himself compassionate. Professor William B. Irvine of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, explains, “It would be absurd to take a person’s willingness to increase defense spending as evidence that the person is himself brave, or to take a person’s willingness to spend government money on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself physically fit.” In the same way as it is possible for a couch potato to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various government aid programs and, conversely, it is possible for a compassionate person to oppose these programs.

It is a mistake to use a person’s political beliefs as the litmus test of his compassion. Professor Irvine says that if you want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted; instead, you should ask what charitable contributions he has made and whether he has done any volunteer work lately. You might also inquire into how he responds to the needs of his relatives, friends, and neighbors.

True compassion is a bulwark of strong families and communities, of liberty and self-reliance, while the false compassion of the second usage is fraught with great danger and dubious results. True compassion is people helping people out of a genuine sense of caring. It is not asking your legislator or congressman to do it for you. True compassion comes from your heart, not from government treasuries. True compassion is a deeply personal thing, not a check from a distant bureaucracy.

The next time you hear someone use the word “compassion,” ask him if he really knows what he’s talking about.

This article, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy June 14, 2004, is posted here with the kind permission of the author. (The Mackinac Center first published a version of this commentary in 1997)

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