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Get A Grip

Advice for conservatives to embrace realism instead of idealism.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 3, 2001

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Get A Grip_James Leroy Wilson-Advice for conservatives to embrace realism instead of idealism. Conservative writers and broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh don't like President Bush's use of the term "compassionate conservatism" because they think it's redundant. Conservatism, they say, is by definition compassionate. And they really do mean it. They think lower taxes and school vouchers and welfare reform will really make the lives of the downtrodden better.

That may be true, but compassion is not and should not be what drives government policy. As a conservative myself, I say that the liberals are right: compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron. To be compassionate is to "suffer with" somebody, whereas I want my government to be strong and hard-headed. The public interest which the government serves will not always benefit everyone equally, because it changes according to external forces and social developments. If the rich pay higher taxes for the stated purpose of directing those revenues toward helping the poor, the justification should be based on the public interest, and not because that somehow satisfies an ideal of "social justice." I want government to protect our lives, liberty, and property, not to engineer society to a compassionate outcome.

But conservatives are always on the defensive, because progressives set the domestic agenda for most of the last seventy years. And so we try to take reclaim the supposed moral high ground from liberals, arguing that we, too, are compassionate. It's a dangerous game for us to play, because in the end we vote for essentially liberal policies. We will never win the compassion argument, and a better recourse is to change minds rather than hearts.

But even when we do that, we insist on playing on the liberal home field of idealism. "Right to life" becomes an ideal, even at the expense of acknowledging that the fetus, while human, is not really a member of the civil society which the government protects. "Color-blind society" is another ideal, as is "freedom of thought.". Conservatives scold liberals for hypocrisy and pride themselves for their reason and logic, but it is conservatives themselves who are abandoning their real-world foundations and do not think things through.

Hate crimes is an example. What brought this subject to my mind was an April 2 Wall Street Journal editorial on the matter. The Journal repeated arguments often argued elsewhere, namely, that hate crime laws are dangerous because if a crime is committed, it doesn't matter what motivated it, and to punish the thought behind it is a slippery slope. It is a fairly strong argument.

But think it through: if hate crime laws are bad, even worse are civil rights laws. If you own a business, you can hire and fire anyone you please. No one has a "right" to work for you, or to patronize your business. You can discriminate against people you don't like. Unless, of course, the reason you don't like them is that they are black or female. In that case, you are violating federal law. Talk about thought police - even where there is no crime victim, your thoughts cause a law to be broken. Now how many conservatives will stand up for freedoms of association and thought, and advocate the repeal of civil rights laws? Very few, because they don't want to be called racist, and they see a moral purpose behind those laws: for us to become a color-blind society, members of society must be color-blind in their treatment of each other.

So why do conservatives single out hate crime laws as "thought" crimes? I don't know, for there are very strong theoretical and practical justifications for hate crime laws. Think of Palestinian-Americans pelting rocks at Jews walking to synagogue in Chicago, which actually happened last year after the violent outbreak in Palestine last year. There is a difference between crimes against randomly-targeted victims, and randomly-selected victims of a targeted group. What hate-crime critics forget is that the purpose of the crime is to provoke terror throughout a particular community. Whether it's a Jew pelted with rocks, a gay beaten up, or a black home vandalized in a predominantly-white neighborhood, the message to other Jews, gays, and blacks is clear: you could be next, so you better leave.

This is not to downplay the sufferings of victims of other crime, whether they were random or not. And of course crime is itself a social problem. But what hate crimes laws seek to prevent is the particular divisions within society brought about when some groups of people feel, and are, less safe than others. Additional penalties are justified for hate crimes because of the social divisions, the social destruction, they are designed to provoke.

That said, I am not altogether convinced that we must have hate crime laws. But I do think the conservative position on such controversies should be to acknowledge actual social conditions, i.e., to be pragmatic, not idealistic, when it comes to legislation. Idealism in general discourages restraint and encourages usurpation of power - as such, it is the antithesis of conservatism. And it also fails practically - an ideal like color-blindness can have the effect of turning a blind eye to the hardships of people of color. Law should address real-life problems, and not just reflect hoped-for outcomes. Conservatives should remember this before they carry on about hate crimes, affirmative action, abortion, and other social issues. We would benefit politically and govern better.

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