Compassion has no ideological litmus test

In the mythological view of some self-described progressives, compassion is a market long ago cornered by themselves.

In the mythological view of some self-described progressives, compassion is a market long ago cornered by themselves. I was reminded of this self-flattering view recently when Rafe Mair, a former British Columbia talk show host, waxed eloquently on his conversion from “Red Tory” conservatism to one who campaigned for New Democrats in B.C.’s last election.

“The right has no soul,” wrote Mair in his online column, who then described his voyage from right to left. It included accusations that conservatives don’t care about the mentally ill, the poor, and that any help for the disadvantaged is mere show.

What to make of this? Well, as someone who might be described as conservative, I take no offence. For one thing, I have a passing familiarity with Mair and it was positive.

Back when I was the B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Mair regularly interviewed me on a variety of issues; Rafe even provided an endorsement for the back cover of my first book.

But back to the accusation in general. It’s off-base and for a number of reasons.

We all use labels. They’re useful for shorthand explanations but are not comprehensive. For example, I’m in favour of moderate tax levels – that makes me a conservative; but I’m in favour of immigration, so according to traditional ideological categories, I’m a liberal; I oppose corporate welfare which makes me a socialist akin to David Lewis, the 1970s-era federal NDP leader who popularized the term; lastly, I think governments must justify their interference in our lives because that orientation on the part of citizens helps keep concentrated and possibly abusive power on the defensive – which makes me a libertarian.

Add it all together and good luck with a succinct label.

So ideological tags don’t capture nuances. But insofar as the self-described left (their description, not mine) wants to play the game of “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in the land is the most compassionate of all? – oh look, I am!” the evidence doesn’t support the narcissism.

Anecdotally, I don’t buy the exclusionary claim on compassion. I had an aunt, now deceased, who spent 30 years running an orphanage and a school in Colombia.

A Winnipeg friend just switched from general practice to psychiatric care because she loves helping people. A colleague at an online journal, University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on human and sex trafficking and is devoted to wiping it out. Another friend just moved to Cambodia to help children. What is their common descriptor, other than their compassion?

They’re all self-described conservatives.

More empirically though, last year, American author Peter Schweizer in his book Makers and Takers, asserted that compared with conservatives, liberals are more self-centred, less charitable, more prone to envy and less hard-working. In contrast to liberals, conservatives valued truth more and were less prone to cheat or lie; contrary to popular bias, conservatives were also more knowledgeable, happy, content and even hugged their kids more.

Schweizer’s claims were based on tax records, scholarly research, polling data and private archives. He theorized liberal belief in compassion as “their turf” derives from the notion more interventionist government is proof of compassion; this led not only to the delusion of a liberal monopoly on compassion, and a possible mistake about the proper means to desirable good ends, it led liberals to too often “outsource” their compassion instead of practicing that virtue themselves.

Schweizer’s conclusions are based on averages and even if correct miss individual exceptional behaviour. And it goes both ways. There are conservatives who are nasty; I’ve met a few. But then I know of a few hypocritical environmentalists, liberals who hate children and a couple of mean socialists.

Mark Milke is the director of research for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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