Negative and Positive Compassion?

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this Crooked Timber post by Chris Bertram. Chris asks an interesting question: why do "compassionate conservatives" and other non-egalitarians reject compassion in the sphere of social welfare policy, but accept - and even demand - compassion in the realm of judicial sentencing?

Intuitively, these two areas seem easily distinguishable, but on closer examination, it is difficult for me to state exactly why this is so. Iain Murray makes a valiant attempt in the comment thread, distinguishing between "compassion (fellow-feeling)" and "clemency (the gentle touch)." There may be something to this; in the case of judicial sentencing, we have what one might call "negative compassion" - instead of doing X we do X-n, where X is a form of punishment and n is a reduction in the punishment. Whereas, in the case of social welfare policy, we have a kind of "positive compassion," where instead of doing Y we do Y+m, where Y is a certain level of social welfare benefits (perhaps zero) and m is an increase in the level.

This distinction fits in nicely with the disagreement over negative rights/positive rights separating left-liberals from right-liberals, but I don't find this explanation entirely persuasive. I reject "compassionate" social welfare policy not because of some trivial semantic distinction, but because (a) my conception of property rights leads me to the conclusion that forced charity is no different than theft and (b) there is something entirely uncompassionate about coercive charity.

Exactly who is being compassionate in the case of coerced charity? The giver certainly isn't; she doesn't have any choice in the matter. The taker isn't; he is simply doing his job. Is the politician acting compassionately when she votes for additional social welfare benefits? If the politician is acting as a representative of the voters, then her congressional vote is not compassionate; her act is no different than when the IRS agent does his job. Are the voters acting compassionately when they push for increased benefits?

Not if we understand this act according to the expressive voting model, which posits that voters are simply expressing support for one thing or another when they cast their ballots. Saying that you are for compassion is not the same as actually acting compassionately. Compassion requires a certain level of self-sacrifice for it to be truly meaningful, else it is nothing more than lip-service.

A society that socializes charity is not truly compassionate, because the choice of compassion has been taken away from the individual and turned into just another job for government bureaucrats, no different than delivering the mail or processing income tax returns. We no longer need to care for each other as friends, family and neighbors; instead, we can all treat each other as part of a larger statistic. I know I've done my part if I paid my income taxes; I no longer feel morally obligated to help my fellow man.

To borrow a concept from sociology, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx criticized capitalism for creating a sense of anomie and alienation. It seems to me that social democracy is even worse in this regard.

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