I was irritated a few weeks back by a quote from former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who is in favor of what he calls “heroic conservatism,” and who opined that non-heroic conservatism lacks a conscience. “I haven’t read Gerson’s new book,” I harumphined, “but, when somebody chides us conservatives for being heartless, you can just about lay money that they’re going to call for some new government program.”

George Will wrote a column more eloquently making this point:

“Gerson, an evangelical Christian, makes ‘compassion’ the defining attribute of political heroism. But compassion is a personal feeling, not a public agenda. To act compassionately is to act to prevent or ameliorate pain and distress. But if there is, as Gerson suggests, a categorical imperative to do so, two things follow. First, politics is reduced to right-mindedness — to having good intentions arising from noble sentiments — and has an attenuated connection with results. Second, limited government must be considered uncompassionate, because the ways to prevent or reduce stress are unlimited. …

“Conservatism is a political philosophy concerned with (BEG ITAL)collective(END ITAL) aspirations and actions. But conservatism teaches that benevolent government is not always a benefactor.

“Conservatism’s task is to distinguish between what government can and cannot do, and between what it can do but should not.

“Gerson’s call for ‘idealism’ is not an informative exhortation: Huey Long and Calvin Coolidge both had ideals. Gerson’s ‘heroic conservatism’ is, however, a variant of what has been called “national greatness conservatism.” The very name suggests that America will be great if it undertakes this or that great exertion abroad. This grates on conservatives who think America is great, not least because it rarely and usually reluctantly conscripts people into vast collective undertakings.”