Liberals like to think of themselves as compassionate. It might surprise them to know that conservatives do too. The divide comes in the areas of how we think it should be defined and implemented. Having been on both sides of the divide, I understand it well.

Liberals want to help the underdog by smoothing out real and perceived inequalities in material possession. The more needy the downtrodden and the more insanely wealthy the privileged, the more it fuels their angst. The inescapable truth that a percentage of the most wealthy have acquired it through nefarious means only fuels the sense of being on a righteous crusade. They see government as the means of righting this intolerable inequity. The attendant corruption and crony capitalism are an unfortunate byproduct.

Conservatives want to help the underdog by improving processes. They believe in equality of opportunity, not outcomes. They have seen billions after billions poured into the war on poverty, education, and thousands of often untested government programs with often demonstrably worse outcomes. They subscribe to the maxim, “a rising tide raises all boats,” and believe that the marketplace is smarter than government and must be protected from (sometimes) well-intentioned meddling that not infrequently results in unintended consequences. Conservatives are perceived as favoring the wealthy at the expense of the downtrodden and ignoring corruption when its origin is Wall Street.

When liberal thinking is applied to something such as the illegal (aka “undocumented”) immigration issue, it plays out as concern for a poor, third world nation abutting an economic (hopefully, not soon-to-be erstwhile) giant. It’s easy to make a case for the poor. It’s much harder to make the case that compassion has a cost, and we no more have the ability to single-handedly lift Mexico with its ponderously corrupt government out of poverty than we have the ability to force other nations to adopt the ideology of liberty and democracy through coercion.

Compassion must look beyond individual suffering to the processes that abet it, if there is to be any hope of finding a lasting solution. The old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” is as true today as the day it was penned.

It’s time we shuttered the fish store and gassed up the trawler.


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