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Fruits of Compassion

March 4 2002

In January 1996, John Walters, now President Bush's drug czar, penned a piece for Policy Review. He wrote of then President Clinton that his "conception of citizenship is deeply flawed" and accused him of seeking to "reinvigorate civic life by trying to relegitimize government." How so? AmeriCorps -- that "Great Society-style program" whose "very premise - using federal resources to promote volunteerism - contradicts the principle of self-government that lies at the heart of citizenship."

As Walters rightly notes, it took a New Democrat to corrupt a distinctively conservative notion - private initiative as the solution to public problems - with a decidedly leftist approach - federalized philanthropy. But apparently it takes a Compassionate Conservative to quintuple the Clinton folly.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the auto-pilot response of the American public wasn't to hunker in the bunker. Our impulse was outward, and within hours of the attacks spontaneous charity burst forth across the country. At Ground Zero, restaurants stayed open round-the-clock to feed weary rescuers. Blood bank lines wound serpentine round city blocks. Children washed cars and held bake sales. Even jaded Hollywood managed an entourage-free evening of honest altruism

In the midst of this outpouring, no one checked with the feds to see what cash stipends, tuition waivers, child-care assistance, or relocation grants might be available in return. They simply gave what they could - or in many cases, far more than they thought they could - for the good of neighbor and nation. That moment made our benevolence exceptional, but generosity is a habit of the American heart. Materialistic striving and gated communities notwithstanding, 44% of us volunteer an average of 3.6 hours per week. A full 90% will help when asked.

From the Republic's infant days, we've tended our sick, aided our poor, and nursed our elderly - far more so before Washington assumed official responsibility for their care. It is that intrusion on civic duty rather than a lapse in genuine caring that finds us less invested in our communities, but not unwilling to lend aid.

A Republican president should recognize this. But this Republican president looks through the lens of compassionate conservatism and sees Leviathan as missionary. He forgets that compassion - the literal ability to suffer with - isn't a federal endowment, but a human trait. A bureaucracy cannot empathize. An agency cannot console. They can write checks, but because they have no money of their own, any gift they give must be taken from someone else - someone disconnected from the exchange. Thus the act terminates in itself. The recipient feels no steward's responsibility and the giver misses generosity's reward. The transfer doesn't spark a movement or connect a community. It simply pays the bills - for a time.

We've been here before. In his book, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years, author James Bovard runs the cost-benefit analysis on Bill Clinton's foray into forced compassion. Want to know what a $14,025 per volunteer annual price tag buys? In Mississippi, door-to-door efforts to recruit food stamp beneficiaries. In California, an "Undergarment Drive" and an "ultra-low flush" toilet substitution project. In New York, AmeriCorps paid children $5 to turn in toy guns. In South Carolina, "volunteers" visited small businesses to sell government-subsidized loans. Bottom line, a few bulbs short of a thousand points of light. Bovard concludes, "The more the federal government confiscates to spend for this bogus volunteer program, the less citizens will have to finance their own preferred voluntary and charitable activities."

But Mr. Bush wants $560 million to expand this losing venture, and he's likely to get it. Democrats can't pass up a new Big Government program, and Republicans won't do anything to jeopardize the President's approval rating. At present, AmeriCorps employs 40,000 volunteers. (Yes, that was "employs volunteers.") Under George W. Bush, its ranks will swell to 200,000.

So what will we get for our half billion dollar payout? A revitalized sense of civic duty? A renewed spirit of community? An awakened call to serve? The irrational joy of sacrifice? No government could buy these treasures with a hundred billion dollars and a legion of compassionate enforcers. But it can take them away...and we're dangerously close to selling out for the best of intentions and the worst of reasons.

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