6 reasons there's no such thing as compassionate conservatism

Paul Ryan is the latest Republican to feign concern for the less fortunate. Here's why it's always a sham

Published December 12, 2013 1:11PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


The word is out that Republicans are attempting to rebrand themselves as compassionate conservatives (again). “Compassionate conservatism” is a term that typically comes up after Republicans have taken things to such an extreme that the country is revolted and tries to push them and their nasty ideology of greed and hate aside. George W. Bush famously resorted to using this term to campaign for president after Republicans disgraced themselves with anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, witch hunts and the unpopular impeachment. Of course, Bush is best known for Iraq and Katrina. And now we have a budget “deal,” courtesy of Paul Ryan, that drops unemployment benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed. Earlier in the week, Senator Rand Paul said helping the unemployed does them a “disservice” because it keeps them from getting jobs.

Yet Paul Ryan still had the gall to claim the mantle of "compassionate conservatism." Paul Ryan? That Paul Ryan? Compassionate?

Last month, a Washington Post fluff piece titled, “Paul Ryan, GOP’s budget architect, sets his sights on fighting poverty and winning minds,” portrays Ryan as trying to steer Republicans away from the angry Tea Party and toward a “more inclusive vision.” Yes, the Paul Ryan of the infamous "Ryan Budget," also called the "Path to Prosperity" and passed by House Republicans, that privatizes Medicare, repeals Wall Street regulation, wipes out student loans, repeals Obamacare, guts Social Security and dramatically reduces taxes for the wealthy and corporations. That Paul Ryan.

Ryan "has been quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods … to talk to ex-convicts and recovering addicts about the means of their salvation.” But Ryan and Republicans need some salvation of their own. Just one look at their ideology will tell you why. Ryan has said, “[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

Who is Ayn Rand, and what is the philosophy of this person Ryan calls a “thinker? Ayn Rand’s philosophy actually says it is not only bad for society, but morally wrong to help other people because it makes them “dependent.” Rand’s philosophy says that altruism is evil, and that democracy (which they call “collectivism”) is the ultimate expression of this evil because it brings about a society in which government works to make people’s lives better. Rand’s, Ryan’s and current Republican philosophy says that “individualism” — looking out for oneself only—is the moral principle that should rule society, not democracy. Randians envision a "utopia of greed.” (I suppose they can claim it’s compassionate greed.)

Another part of Rand’s philosophy is that that there are a few “producers” or “makers,” and the rest of us are “parasites” or “takers” who live off of the producers. Collectivism, or democracy, is bad because the many underserving takers can vote to do things like make the producers pay taxes so regular people can live better. So let’s see if we can find a few ways Paul Ryan and the Republicans can form a philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” out of their core belief that altruism and democracy are not just wrong for people and society, but are actually evil.

The Post puff-piece says the new “compassionate conservative” Ryan will “advance” an “agenda that combines an overhaul of the tax code and federal health and retirement programs with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility.”

But here is what compassionate conservatives like Ryan mean when they say they want to “overhaul the tax code”— cut taxes for the really rich and their corporations, and increase taxes for the rest of us to make up the lost revenue. Conservative ideology (compassionate or not) says that giving the wealthy ever more money causes that money to overflow and then “trickle down” to the rest of us. They say that giving the big corporations more tax breaks, subsidies, no-bid contracts, etc. will load them up with so much money that they will just have to use some of it to hire people eventually.

When they say they want to overhaul federal health and retirement programs they mean cut Medicare (healthcare for the elderly), Medicaid (healthcare for the poor), Obamacare (healthcare for the rest of us) and Social Security (retirement).

Another thing Republicans say is that government is too big, so it must be cut. What they mean by this is not cutting the huge, bloated, astronomical, sky-high military budget (we spend more on this than all other countries combined). They mean they want to cut out the things government does to make our lives better, like assistance for the needy, sick, disabled, elderly and unemployed. And get rid of the minimum wage, child labor laws, equal pay for women, workplace safety rules, etc.

Here are six examples that show how the new Ryan/Republican compassionate conservatism campaign is really nothing more than freshly applied, prime-smelling bullpucky.

1. Food Stamps

Conservatives are especially “compassionate” when it comes to helping the poor. Since many of them hold the moral belief that helping people makes them, as Paul Ryan said, “dependent” and “complacent,” the way these conservatives apply their compassion is to work to cut the poor, hungry, elderly, disabled, ill and others off from any means of assistance.

A month ago on November 1 a temporary “stimulus” boost to food stamps (real name: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) ran out and the amount desperate people receive was cut back from meager to minuscule. As a result local food banks that try to help the poor are swamped and overwhelmed.

Even as this tragedy unfolds Republicans are demanding to cut the program by another $39 billion, (and increasing subsidies to giant agricultural corporations) and are backing their effort with claims that people receiving Food Stamps are lazy, won’t work, are “dependent” on the program, etc. Along with these cuts, Republicans are demanding things like drug tests (implying people are on food stamps because they take drugs), increasing “work requirements’ (implying recipients are lazy), and and claiming people use food stampes to buy junk food, soda, liquor and cigarettes.

The Washington Post puff-piece on Ryan contains this amazing quote: “Paul wants people to dream again." Since 76% of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person, and these households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits, food stamp recipients probably dream of getting enough food to eat.

2. Minimum Wage

Compassionate conservatives are fighting tooth and nail to stop efforts to bring the minimum wage up. In fact, many of them believe there shouldn’t be a minimum wage at all.

Here is the conservative Heritage Foundation last April:

“The typical minimum-wage employee is a high school or college student with a part-time job, a major reason so many have attended—but not completed—college.

The primary value of these jobs is not the low wages they pay today. It is the on-the-job training they provide. Minimum-wage jobs teach inexperienced workers basic employability skills such as taking directions from a boss and working with co-workers.

… Upon first thought, raising the minimum wage sounds compassionate. Thinking a second time shows that it would hurt the very workers its supporters want to help.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) “only 11 percent of those who would see a raise are younger than age 20, and only 14 percent work less than 20 hours per week. Many are parents; if the minimum wage were increased to $10.10 by 2015, nearly a quarter (23.3 percent) of all kids in this country would see at least one parent get a raise.” In fact, raising the minimum wage helps the economy and helps create jobs. People at the bottom of the income ladder spend their money immediately. This means local businesses need to hire because of increased demand. Their suppliers need to hire as well. A higher minimum wage also reduces the need for — and spending on — assistance programs like food stamps.

Many compassionate conservatives not only oppose paying a decent wage for work, they want the minimum wage repealed. On a website called FEE, from the Foundation for Economic Education, you find the typical conservative argument for getting rid of the minimum wage (with a dose of anti-democracy included for good measure): "Ballot Box Charity: The minimum wage is hurting poor people and minorities one ballot initiative at a time."Starting with the (typical) false premise that raising the minimum wage costs jobs (where and when the minimum wage has been raised, jobs have increased, not decreased), the piece continues,

“These are the people who are deciding the minimum wage that workers must be paid. The vast majority haven’t run a business or made a payroll. They have no desire to grapple with, or experience in grappling with, abstract ideas such as the effect of government force in the labor market. People are kind-hearted when it’s not their work or business future on the line. Their hearts believe in giving everyone a raise: The people will spend more and everyone will benefit.”

Now there’s your conservative compassion for ya!

3. Unemployment Benefits

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said recently that extending unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed would be a “disservice” because, he says, unemployment benefits cause unemployment. "When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy. And it really - while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help."

This is the old “dependency” argument again. Supposedly getting a small check keeps people from looking for work. This is in stark contrast to banker bonuses, of course. Banker bonuses are good for the country, especially if they are given with money from the government for bailing out banks.

Reality: Long-term unemployment benefits run out at the end of December for 1.3 million people who have been unemployed longer and 6 months. Unemployment benefits increase employment because they enable people to continue to … eat and stuff … which means they shop at local stores, which increases the need for those stores to hire. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that cutting long-term unemployment benefits will cause a drop of .2% in GDP next year.

The new “Murray-Ryan budget agreement” negotiated between Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) lets long-term unemployment benefits expire at the end of December. This means that 1.3 million people who have been out of work longer than 26 weeks will just go away in about 3 weeks. (There are far more than 1.3 million people who have been out of work longer than 26 weeks but many of these are either not eligible for unemployment benefits or have been out of work longer than the current 73-week limit.)

Apparently “compassion” means to conservatives that the country should make people so poor and desperate they have to take any nasty-ass, low-paying, humiliating and even dangerous job that comes along at any pay rate.

4. Healthcare 

Paul Ryan has called our government safety-net programs “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will.” It is pretty clear at this point what the rest of the Republicans think of the idea of helping the poor and uninsured get healthcare. They are trying to nullify the existing law (passed by Congress, signed by the President, ruled legal by the courts and confirmed in the 2012 election) and Republican states are practically seceding from the United States to avoid expanding Medicaid to cover more people, even though the federal government is picking up the entire tab.

Here is the Heritage Foundation again:

“We were told that Obamacare was supposed to be compassionate toward the needy in America. … It includes disincentives for individuals to marry and for Americans of low and modest incomes to work.”

5. Immigrants

As with healthcare, it is pretty clear where Republicans stand on the idea of (non-European, white) people immigrating to the United States. They want them out. In fact, it is pretty clear where they stand on the idea of allowing people to stay even if they were brought to the country as children: they want them out, too.

Republican leaders are blocking the new Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill from even coming to a vote in the House — becauseit will pass. They understand that this will enrage the Republican base and cause many incumbents to face primaries. Displays of compassion are not welcome in the Republican Tea Party base.

In an attempt to provide cover for Republicans in blocking the bill, the Heritage Foundation issued a "study" claiming the bill would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion because it would cause new spending on social programs. It turned out that the study was co-authored by someone who had previously explained that there is a racial hierarchy of intelligence: “Decades of psychometric testing has indicated that at least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks.” This sounds slightly more racist than compassionate, no?

6. Corporate Taxes

To be fair, there is one group conservatives can be very, very compassionate toward: the wealthy and their corporations. While demanding cuts in food stamps, healthcare, unemployment benefits, etc., they are always, always insistent on cutting taxes for the fortunate few.

So keep your eye out for people claiming to be “compassionate conservatives.” It is an oxymoron, which means it sucks the oxygen out of the meaning of the words and is moronic to boot. In other words, it’s just the same old bullpucky.

By Dave Johnson

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Alternet Ayn Rand Compassionate Conservatism Food Stamps Minimum Wage Paul Ryan