"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, November 23, 2007

Michael Gerson, Christian? Idolator!

The libertarian-minded Cato blog endorses Kara Hopkins' swipe at Michael Gerson's new book, Heroic Conservatism:

[None of this is] to say that social justice isn’t a Christian concern. But Gerson is more stirred by abolitionists and activists like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., and the sweeping social change they wrought, than he is by Christ’s own model, which was conspicuously short on political impact and long on individual acts of mercy. He implies that his giants—--poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, genocide—are too big for hand-to-hand combat. Thus the Biblical call to “do unto the least of these”—--the hallmark of which is personal sacrifice—--must be replaced by government programs—the wellspring of which is coercion. If this constitutes an act of worship, it honors a failed god.


Now hold on here. Me, I like Gerson. He speaks to a void in the GOP that many in the party feel. It’s important to know who Gerson’s target audience is.

Quite so that it’s impolite to invoke God to someone who doesn’t believe in Him. [Which is why arguing from “natural law” is becoming a favored method by believers: both Suarez and Grotius submit that the natural law exists independently of deity.]

The fact remains that a certain acceptance of the New Deal and even the Great Society is entirely within the center, the mainstream, of American politics, and to ignore that fact is to lose elections. So too, we’ll find enough in Adam Smith himself to justify concern for the poor. It’s a human thing, not just religious, not to mention prudent for the cohesion of a society:


How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it…That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane…the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
—--Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments


Now it’s true that Jesus didn’t order his minions to go rip off the rich man’s house and give the goods to the downtrodden. But as citizen-rulers in this here republic, just rule requires we look out for the little guy. One need not be a Christian to embrace that duty.

Gerson is simply speaking the language of many Republicans, the language of God, and that seems entirely proper since that’s where the Godites tend to hang out these days. It may be so that he makes the libertarian wing uncomfortable with such talk, but they should heed Gerson if only for practical reasons, and in response to him, perhaps should try natural law arguments themselves.

But compassion is part of the natural law, of man’s nature, so there’s a structural problem here, and the libertarian-minded must tread lightly in making their practical [and sound] arguments. As Smith notes elsewhere about how man is wired, unless we admire the other fellow’s motives, we cannot hear his arguments or respect his deeds, no matter how much they accrue to the unfortunate man’s good.

Or as GK Chesterton put it, "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it."

Easy with that libertarian bludgeon, Ms. Hopkins. People vote with their hearts and not their heads. It's in our nature, and it's not an entirely bad thing.


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12 comments:

Michael Simpson said...

True, true, though Gerson may lean a bit too much toward the heart (not surprising, given his evangelicalism). I think Gerson is quite well-meaning and has been quite right in his emphasis on some issues (i.e. AIDS in Africa), but I also think that he is too quick to take recourse to state action to solve every problem.

I could be wrong but isn't it the case that both Suarez and Grotius said that natural law *could* exist independent of God? I always took that to be the crucial move that eventually made their natural law "modern" as opposed to Aquinas's, whose natural law emerged out of an order of creation that matched God's character or nature or something like that...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Could can be accurate, since they were believers. If there is no God [unthinkable!] there would still be the natural law, goes the formulation.

Per Aquinas, man is imago Dei, so God, man, and the natural law are of a fabric anyway, which is why the nonbeliever, the wise and good Aristotle, for instance, can discern the natural law through reason. [General revelation.]

Suarez and Grotius' formulations simply would be corollaries, in my view, opening the door for natural law arguments without dragging God in.

Because you know how that upsets people like Ms. Hopkins.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Me, I'm not much of a Gerson fan, nor of Mike Huckabee. They promote more of a populist, big government conservatism, which I don't see as conservative at all. In one of my quotes of the day from last week you will find the following:

[Michael] Gerson’s jab at [Dick] Armey on Medicare invents a binary option set where none exists. In another column, Gerson approvingly quotes long-shot presidential candidate Mike Huckabee as saying, “I’m a conservative. But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I’m not going to do that.” Being a conservative doesn’t mean any such thing. But neither does it mean that one ought to support wasteful, ineffective programs that appropriate taxpayer money for poorly managed charity work. One needn’t be Scrooge to recognize the folly of publicly funded social programs.

This is from an article by Matt Kibbe at NRO: "Gersonism Unveiled: Michael Gerson’s version of conservatism bears no resemblance to the real thing." (From 11/15).

He puts it very well here, and we make a huge mistake if we think we will appeal to the American electorate by pushing more and more government programs or more money for government programs to prove how much "heart" we have. The folks at NR have of late been arguing that most Americans don't care a whit about limited government, and they are right. But I don't think we have to gut conservatism to make our case.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As I noted in a previous post, real world people have problems, real problems. When conservatism doesn't address them, it leaves itself open to legitimate charges of not caring.

I believe Gerson is describing a real phenomenon and unrest in the GOP, because I feel it, too. He is no doubt wrong in his choice of big-government means, but the party ignores his very well-identified ends and sentiments at its peril.

Per Adam Smith, people don't vote for those whose motives they are not sympathetic to. All the wonkage and graphs in the world mean nothing without the human touch. We hate bloodless technocrats, whether from the right or left.

Evanston2 said...

Ah, the allure of the social gospel. Create an unbiblical Christ who is just a super-powered social worker and use Him as your mascot.

Those people who actually bother to read the Bible know that Christ's miracles validated his message -- that we are all sinners and must repent and rely on His Lordship.
His miracles were NOT his message but as works of God obviously glorious and "sneak previews" of the Kingdom.

Those "evangelicals" of the Left or Compassionate Conservative variety both rely on a children's Sunday School version of Christ, a paper cut-out and covered with glitter, where they've cut out all of his preaching. Read what the God/man said!

As a practical matter, some of us have experience with Habitat for Humanity and other private ventures. These are worthwhile because they are voluntary and do not spray money like a firehose and then sit back and feel better about themselves.
The biggest threat to the poor, worldwide, is not starvation nor poor health care but thievery and government corruption. Particularly in the U.S. the poor are much more likely from being obese than starvation.

Using other people's money to feel good about yourself has to be one of the more insidious and ultimately futile forms of "compassion" known to mankind. Pushing democracy worldwide, no matter how unpopular or "unstable" this may be in the short term, is the best way to provide for effective government and safe, prosperous lives.

Even better for "evangelicals" would be if they preached the Christ of the Bible. But expecting them to actually follow the Great Commission is too much, evidently.

Evanston2 said...

I meant to say:
- "His miracles were NOT his message but as works of God are always glorious and "sneak previews" of the Kingdom."
- "Particularly in the U.S. the poor are much more likely to die from being obese than starvation."

Overall we should note that good government -- under God -- is the solution for mankind now and in eternity. The notion of propping up dictatorships (Mugabe, anyone?) by sending in aid that is stolen or prevents civil unrest is counterproductive.

My comments may be unfair to Gerson because I have NOT read his book, but I have scanned a few articles and find he has nothing new whatsoever to say. Again, this is the social gospel recycled for the next generation.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

I came across a wonderful article by John Stossel some time ago that speaks to this debate very well. OK, he's a libertarian, but listen to his argument, and I think he makes a point that all conservatives can embrace. Here's a quote from an article back in June titled, "Big-Government Conservatives":

America became an economic power despite, not because of, Hamiltonian intervention. Hong Kong and much of East Asia went from abject poverty to affluence in a few decades not because their governments gave people "tools they need to compete" -- they didn't -- but because they exercised limited powers.

I wish [David] Brooks and other Hamiltonian conservatives understood that freedom and prosperity have nothing to do with bureaucrats managing society through schooling and tax manipulation. Prosperity comes from leaving people free in a legal system that respects their persons and property so they can pursue their dreams while taking responsibility for their actions. Free people find their own tools if the state leaves them alone.

In the era of big government, the last thing we need are champions of the statist Hamilton. What we need now are champions of the libertarian Jefferson, who said in a very un-Hamiltonian way: "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it."

Amen! For me I'd rather err on the side of less rather than more government. Let us hope conservatives can make that case before leviathan swallows us all.

Evanston2 said...

MDV, as a UVA econ major I absolutely agree with everything you said.
George Will's slap at Gersonism today may be a bit obtuse, but generally echoed your points.

For the record, I am not a libertarian (legalize ganja, etc.). But I reject the Gersons who would label immigration amnesty (oops -- "reform") as compassionate when it rewards scofflawry and steals security from the citizens of this nation. That Gerson is connected to big government spending and de facto amnesty, the biggest points of disillusion to Republicans nationwide in 2006/7, makes it even more remarkable that he is being treated with any respect within conservative circles. Gerson should be properly viewed as the latest Gergen, a RINO who is useful to the WaPo and others who claim a higher level of "reason" and "caring." Gerson himself has stated that he would still be a Democrat if it weren't for the abortion issue and this is quite believable.

The dust-up over his taking sole credit for Bush speeches is also quite telling. For a nominal christian, he is not adept at giving proper credit to others or leaving many friends in his wake. Testimony at church among the "converted" is not important, it's how you live your day-to-day life with all its challenges and temptations that reveals true worship of Christ. This guy is at best a mediocrity like that described in NRO today by Victor Davis Hanson, and at worst is a wolf in sheep's (or shephard's) clothing.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

E2, just read the Hanson piece. Brilliant! And the drive-bys are all too willing to give them voice. Always will as long as it's a conservative Republican that is taking the hit.

Evanston2 said...

David Frum just posted an interesting fragment on Gerson at his NRO blog.

Evanston2 said...

Another critique of Gerson's book is on OpinionJournal today, author = John C. Hulsman.

Referring back to TVD's original post, I'm with Ms. Hopkins. Unlike her, I am (to use TVD's term) a "Godite" but my heart cannot be fooled into supporting statism and socialism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, if the estimable Mr. Smith can't move you either, Mr. E, my pale efforts surely cannot.