Michael Gerson is conducting yet another tutorial about what he thinks it should mean to be a conservative. He quite rightly invokes compassionate conservatives Lord Shaftesbury, a Christian reformer who built cottages for the poor, and William Wilberforce, who fought to abolish slavery (the recent movie was Wilberforce lite, but it was still pretty good). 

Gerson believes that there has been a falling off since the days of these worthies-but the real problem is that the egregious ills in our society, rather than being slavery or lack of housing, are social pathologies created by misguided social programs. Gerson’s brand of compassionate conservatism would only create more such programs.  

It’s interesting that, on the same page with Gerson, is an excellent piece by Robert Samuelson on how giveaway government policies almost inevitably end up hurting us all:

“It’s the extra demand for grains to make biofuels, spurred heavily in the United States by government tax subsidies and fuel mandates, that has pushed prices dramatically higher. The Economist rightly calls these U.S. government subsidies “reckless.” Since 2000, the share of the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol production has increased from about 6 percent to about 25 percent — and is still headed up….

“Biofuels became politically fashionable because they combined benefits for farmers with popular causes: increasing energy ‘security’; curbing global warming. Unfortunately, the marriage is contrived. Not only are fuel savings meager, so are the environmental benefits. Substituting corn-based ethanol for gasoline results in little reduction in greenhouse gases. Indeed, the demand for biofuels encourages deforestation in developing countries; the New York Times recently reported the clearing of Indonesian forests to increase palm oil production for biofuel. Forests absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

“This is not a case of unintended consequences. A new generation of ‘cellulosic’ fuels (made from grasses, crop residue or wood chips) might deliver benefits, but the adverse effects of corn-based ethanol were widely anticipated. Government subsidies reflect the careless and cynical manipulation of worthy public goals for selfish ends. That the new farm bill may expand the ethanol mandates confirms an old lesson: Having embraced a giveaway, politicians cannot stop it, no matter how dubious.”