The Pity Party

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This latest book by William Voegeli comes highly recommended with back-cover blurbs by William Kristol, Randy Barnett, Harvey Mansfield and Power Line's Scott Johnson. Its amusing subtitle: "A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion". I was favorably impressed with Professor Voegeli's previous book Never Enough. And this one was easily snagged via the University Near Here's membership in the Boston Library Consortium; the smart folks at MIT sent it up here with alacrity.

I was not disappointed: the book is well-written and full of insight. Voegeli is not really mean-spirited, as his subtitle claims; this is an ironic preemptive defense against one of the charges that liberals would no doubt want to wield against him.

Since full-blown socialism has been discredited on pragmatic grounds for decades, "compassion" is the strongest reed on which progressives can hang their arguments in the present day. And they have done so.

Did I mention irony? Certainly there's a lot of it inherent when "compassionate" liberals deal with their conservative/libertarian critics: then they can be unmerciful, spiteful, hate-filled, vituperative… all in the name of "compassion". This is not, we are told, something on which "reasonable and decent people can disagree". The natural conclusion: you are evil or wilfully deranged, deserving of nothing but bile. It's a funny old world.

Liberal compassion is also weirdly unconcerned with whether the numerous programs, mandates, subsidies, and regulations justified on "compassionate" grounds actually work in accomplishing their stated goals. Why, it's almost as if such measures were undertaken primarily to make their advocates feel good about themselves! Example one is Head Start, which continues to gobble up about $8 billion of spending at the Federal level without any evidence that it's "better than nothing".

In addition to being unconcerned with efficacy, "compassion"-based arguments tend to be incoherent, detached from reality. Liberal compassion springs from the natural sympathy one feels for the nearby unfortunate, and turns it into a blunt-force demand for whatever blank check strikes their current fancy, whether it's billions for stem cell research (save Christopher Reeve!) or subsidized health insurance for the middle class. But (as Voegeli points out) those arguments can't be extended logically to their obvious conclusions. When you ask why we should care much more about the medically-uncovered Betsy Morgan in Schenectady, than the desperately poor Mpinga Bombuku in Kinshasha — sorry, no answer is forthcoming.

My favorite chapter: "How Liberal Compassion Leads to Bullshit". (Yeah, he went there.) Voegeli, like me, is a fan of Frankfurt's classic work On Bullshit, and he illustrates how liberal arguments on gun control, environmentalism, and "diversity" are prime exemplars. Laugh, if you can keep from crying.

I think Voegeli is entirely on-target. I would like to think that your typical liberal could take some valuable lessons away from reading this book, too. If they can keep their heads from exploding, that is.

Last Modified 2015-04-07 4:53 AM EDT