All You Need Is Love: A Recipe for Reviving Conservatism?

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July 12, 2013; Philanthropy Daily


Alongside Bill Schambra at the Hudson Institute, our other favorite writer from the conservative side of philanthropy, willing to take on all of us charitable southpaws, is Scott Walter, an executive vice president of the Capital Research Center and a regular columnist for the Philanthropy Daily. A vigorous critic of what he calls the “Leviathan nation-state,” Walter, like Schambra, is something of a philanthropic populist, challenging the top-down management-control kind of grantmaking pursued by many larger philanthropic institutions on the left and right.

In this article, Walter comments on Michael Strain’s article in The Atlantic, suggesting that conservatism might be considerably boosted by focusing on building and strengthening community. Strain is a labor economist at the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI) but the theme of his article—“all you need is love”—doesn’t cleanly fit into an economist’s input-output matrix. Part of his argument is implicitly that the combination of conservatives’ emphasis on the individual and their use of the nation-state to pursue grand policy objectives has led to their giving unnecessarily short shrift to building the “mediating institutions of civil society”—families, churches, charities, etc.

Walter notes that Strain’s emphasis on mediating institutions in building community has long been a concern of AEI, citing former AEI scholars such as Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, and Robert Woodson, in addition to himself and Schambra, who both had stints at AEI pushing this theme. But is Strain pushing against the current in conservative thinking? Schambra and Walter both watched Woodson implore other conservative luminaries at the Bradley Awards seminar as to what they would do for “the least of God’s children,” which was obviously a question about conservative concern for community, but the other panelists struggled to answer.

Woodson charged the others in the program, and conservatism in general, with viewing people in need as aliens. Walter cites the results of surveys of voters during the 2012 election, who viewed Mitt Romney as distant and uncaring. That might have been underscored by Romney’s dismissal of the large number of Americans who take advantage of government entitlement programs in order to survive.

What Strain’s argument sounds like to us is a little of George Bush’s program of “compassionate conservatism.” Woodson’s questions and Strain’s call for love and community encapsulate the quality of “mutuality” in community, the bond of compassion that brings Americans together around mutual aid. Too much of our society shows little sense of community. The far right tends to sound uncaring, and even hostile and punitive toward people in need, while the left relies overmuch on large institutions that care about people at a distance, and sometimes as abstractions. For philanthropy to build community, grantmaking should be reaching nonprofits that are authentically connected to the communities they serve, conveying the values of democracy and voice that the “least of God’s children” typically don’t have in large scaled-up nonprofits, large bureaucracies, and big business. In terms that we would connect to the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, foundations focused on strengthening the mediating structures that themselves strengthen community would rethink and restructure their approaches to support nonprofits in which the people to be served are treated as the subjects or “mutual subjects,” rather than the objects, of grantmaking.

Unfortunately, regardless of the merits or lack of merits of policy prescriptions of many conservatives, the vitriol of some conservative leaders on contemporary policy issues like immigration reform, food stamps, healthcare, and poverty does not fit well in a framework of love, community, and mediating institutions. Strain and Walter have their work cut out for them if they hope to reinsert a sense of compassion in conservative politics.—Rick Cohen

  • John Lofton

    FORGET, PLEASE, modern “conservatism.” It has been a failure because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless. In the political/civil government realm it has ignored Christ and what Scripture says about the role and purpose of civil government. Thus, it failed. Such secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:


”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.


“American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    In any event, “politics,” for the most part today, is whoring after false gods. It will not save us. Our country is turning into Hell because the church in America has forgotten God (Psalm 9:17) and refuses to kiss His Son (Psalm 2.) See, please, 2 Chronicles 7:14ff for the way to get our land healed.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Active Facebook Wall

  • Douglas Gould

    I couldn’t agree more with Rick. Political conservatives are defined by their negativity. Whether in Congress or the public square, these are the people that are trying to turn back the clock on social progress, eliminate our personal freedoms and even take food from the mouths of the hungry will lining the pockets of big agriculture.

    The problem isn’t with packaging. It is with their fundamental world view and policy positions that flow from it.

  • Peaceful Is Compassionate

    There is a tough question we have to ask ourselves –

    Is it more moral to help the poor now, even if it makes more poor people?

    Or is it more moral to cut back on programs to help the poor, hurting poor people now, but resulting in less poor later?

    Suggesting to a heroin addict that he stop using heroin is suggesting a course of action that will result in pain and suffering for him, with the benefit that eventually, he will be better off.

    Similarly, conservatives recommend pulling back on social welfare not because they hate poor people, but because they realize that economics determines marginal courses of action – do I get a job, or do I go on welfare, when the job would barely pay more? – and thus that expanding the welfare state indirectly creates more poor people.

    And on the subject of love and morality – can it ever be moral or loving to coerce others to give to charity? In the end, taxation is backed by force, and things like food stamps and free health care are possible only because of immoral acts. Even if you disagree with the sentiment “taxation is theft”, there is a segment of the population that believes it to be true. If they aren’t giving their taxes over voluntarily, then that means that they’re right – that money is removed by threat of force, which is nothing more than a petty street crime in the cloak of “charity.”

    If liberals want to help people, they need to start by realizing that conservatives disagree with them, and respecting that disagreement. And conservatives will never feel respected until they are no longer forced by liberal policies to support programs which they see as counterproductive to the common goal of both liberals and conservatives – the prosperity of as many people as possible.

    To me, the answer is clear. If two people with the same goal have differing methods to the same problem, each should be allowed to try it their way. That is why the progressive mindset is wrong. It’s not wrong because it wants to help people, it’s wrong because it demands on pain of force that everybody use their method, and in so demanding deplete time and money from their opponents that might have gone to a better way of helping the unfortunate.