This primary season has encouraged some serious soul searching about what it means to be a conservative. The discussion is important, not just as the party selects a nominee, but as we at long last move beyond the Bush era of “compassionate conservatism.”

An important part of this discussion began when then-candidate Fred Thompson was asked if, as a Christian and a conservative, he supported President Bush’s global AIDS initiative. Thompson responded: “Christ didn’t tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it.” President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, excoriated the candidate in a Washington Post oped, “Callous Conservatives.” Gerson argued that Thompson’s response revealed a “lack of moral seriousness” and failure to understand the strategic value of humanitarian efforts.

The particulars of the AIDS global initiative are less important than the broader principle at stake. It’s true that targeted development and aid can be important foreign-policy tools. In certain circumstances, a federal investment can make sense. But Gerson wasn’t simply criticizing an underestimation of such initiatives’ foreign-policy benefits; he suggested that it’s a moral failing to question if government’s duties extend “to the treatment of sick people in extreme poverty.”

Yet this is a very important question. Is it government’s duty to care for all those in need? Most politicians accept Gerson’s view of “moral seriousness” and use promises of government action to showcase their compassion. Is this really compassion and charity?

It takes no sacrifice on the part of a politician to use taxpayer money to alleviate some group’s particular misery. In fact, these gestures tend to be the easiest politically, providing a visible photo-op and easy applause from the media.

Yet there was a time when both parties respected the limited role and responsibilities of government. Democrat Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1887 that would have sent federal relief to drought-stricken farmers in Texas. He didn’t want to encourage “the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government” and believed that individual Americans could best help Texan farmers through private acts of charity. (They did, sending several multiples of the aid proposed in Congress.)

  • Cleveland understood that government efforts – even, and perhaps especially, those motivated by compassion – tend to have unintended consequences that render them ineffective. Decades of foreign aid to African countries served to prop up failing governments and undermine private development, exasperating the misery it was supposed to relieve. The “compassionate” War on Poverty within the U.S. had a similar effect, devastating the very communities it was intended to uplift.

Advocates of limited government recognize that angels will never run Washington. Politicians will favor spending on a problem when it is advantageous to do so, and they will avoid accountability when the spending fails to solve the problem. Once it’s established that the government will aid all who suffer, the definition of suffering invariably expands, from drought victims to ill-advised recipients of adjustable-rate mortgages. Finally, a “moral hazard” is created – citizens realize that, if the decisions they make turn out badly, preening, crisis-hungry politicians will rescue them.

If being a conservative means anything, it should be skepticism toward big-government solutions and faith in the decency and competence of ordinary Americans. Gerson shows as little of the latter as he does of the former.

He jibes at Thompson’s assertion that private charity can address major problems, “One wonders . . . if responding to the 2004 tsunami should also have been a private responsibility.” Yet as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, private American donors gave twice as much as the U.S. government did to assist tsunami victims. And certainly the growing expectation that government will respond to crisis dampens private behavior. How many over-taxed Americans hesitate to support the local church’s food bank, because they know they are already forced to contribute to a food-stamp program and a government-run homeless shelter down the street?

What’s true at home is also true abroad. Doing what seems obvious often is not the route to doing good. You might assume that a major investment in public education in poor countries would be worthwhile. But the E. G. West Centre’s research in India and Africa has shown how markets for private education serving the poor have emerged in response to terribly corrupt, incompetent government-run schools. It would be counter-productive to more heavily subsidize what already is not working.

Kenyan think-tank leader James Shikwati has urged Western leaders to stop sending aid to Africa. He explained, “Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. . . . development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems.”

This kind of realistic talk often falls on deaf ears among so-called compassionate conservatives and other advocates of big government. In reality, it isn’t callous to question the value of government programs. It is the attempt to stifle debate and demonize skeptical views that truly shows a lack of moral seriousness.

Brad Lips is the executive vice president at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum.