What is Real Compassion?

By Lawrence W. Reed

In the last election campaign, we heard the word “compassion” at least a thousand times. Democrats have it, Republicans don’t. Big government programs are evidence of compassion; cutting back government is a sign of cold-hearted meanness. By their misuse of the term for partisan advantage, politicians have thoroughly muddied up the real meaning of the word.

The fact is that much of what is labeled “compassionate” is just that, and it does a world of good; but much of what is labeled “compassionate” is nothing of the sort, and it does a world of harm. The former tends to be very personal in nature while the latter puts an involuntary burden on someone else.

As Marvin Olasky points out in The Tragedy of American Compassion, the original definition of compassion as noted in The Oxford English Dictionary is “suffering together with another, participation in suffering.” The emphasis, as the word itself shows—“com,” which means with, and “passion,” from the Latin term “pati,” meaning to suffer—is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them. Noah Webster, in the 1834 edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, similarly defined compassion as “a suffering with another.”

But the way most people use the term today is a corruption of the original. It has come to mean little more than, as Olasky puts it, “the feeling, or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” There is a world of difference between those two definitions: One demands personal action, the other simply a “feeling” that usually is accompanied by a call for someone else—namely, government—to deal with the problem. One describes Mother Teresa or the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit, the other describes Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy or the welfare lobby.

The plain fact is that government compassion is not the same as personal and private compassion. When we expect the government to substitute for what we ourselves ought to do, we expect the impossible and we end up with the intolerable. We don’t really solve problems, we just manage them expensively into perpetuity and create a bunch of new ones along the way.

From 1965, the beginning of the so-called War on Poverty, to 1994, total welfare spending in the United States was $5.4 trillion in constant 1993 dollars. In 1965, total government welfare spending was just over 1 percent of gross domestic product, but by 1993 it had risen to 5.1 percent of GDP annually—higher than the record set during the Great Depression. The poverty rate today is almost exactly where it was in 1965, perhaps even slightly higher. Millions live lives of demoralizing dependency; families are rewarded for breaking up; and the number of children born out of wedlock is in the stratosphere—terrible facts brought about, in large part, by “compassionate” government programs.

A person’s willingness to spend government funds on aid programs is not evidence that the person is himself compassionate. Professor William B. Irvine of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, explains: “It would be absurd to take a person’s willingness to increase defense spending as evidence that the person is himself brave, or to take a person’s willingness to spend government money on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself physically fit.” In the same way as it is possible for a “couch potato” to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various government aid programs; and conversely, it is possible for a compassionate person to oppose these programs.

It is a mistake to use a person’s political beliefs as the litmus test of his compassion. Professor Irvine says that if you want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted; instead, you should ask what charitable contributions he has made and whether he has done any volunteer work lately. You might also inquire into how he responds to the needs of his relatives, friends and neighbors.

True compassion is a bulwark of strong families and communities, of liberty and self-reliance, while the false compassion of the second usage is fraught with great danger and dubious results. True compassion is people helping people out of a genuine sense of caring and brotherhood. It is not asking your legislator or congressman to do it for you. True compassion comes from your heart, not from the state or federal treasury. True compassion is a deeply personal thing, not a check from a distant bureaucracy.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland, Michigan-based research and educational organization. This article appeared in the March ’97 Georgia Policy Review.

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