Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do the Right Thing

We noted over a week ago the good news that recent developments in stem cell research have made the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells unnecessary. The LA Times has a story on this by Richard Hayes, the executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland. In the course of the story Hayes makes a rather stunning admission:

But the great unreported story of the cloning debate is that research using cloning also has been viewed skeptically by many scientists and public interest advocates who identify as liberals, progressives and supporters of women's health and reproductive rights.

Many have noted the immense technical hurdles that would have to be overcome before cloning could ever be used therapeutically. Others are concerned about access and affordability, given that cloning-based stem cell therapies would likely cost upward of $100,000 a treatment. Still others recognize that the development of cloning techniques for research would open the door to human reproductive cloning and an array of high-tech eugenic and "designer baby" applications. And many women's health leaders are concerned about the risks posed by the fact that millions of women's eggs, which are the raw materials of cloning, would be needed each year if the promised era of personalized medicine through cloning were ever to materialize.

As soon as religious conservatives called for embryo cloning to be banned, however, liberal leaders reacted by uncritically embracing it. From that point on, it was an uphill struggle for liberals who otherwise supported stem cell research to raise questions about cloning without being portrayed as dupes or fellow travelers of the Bush administration.

In other words, at least some of the apparent support for cloning human embryos was based on nothing more than a desire not be associated with Christians or George Bush. Apparently some liberals would rather keep their concerns to themselves rather than be found on the same side of an issue as George Bush or religious conservatives. It gives us a warm feeling to think that so many of our nation's citizens are so highly principled.

I wonder how many scientists are also skeptical of Darwinism but dread being associated with creationists, or skeptical of some aspect of the current global warming enthusiasms, but quaver at the thought of being on the same side of the issue as the Bush administration.

It's all reminiscent of high school social dynamics. These people would rather be popular and politically correct than do the right thing.


Common-Good Conservatism

Further evidence to support the belief that most people who vote have no idea what they're voting for: In one of the most inscrutable political moves ever made by the voters of Pennsylvania the man who wrote the following lost his senate seat a year ago to an all but anonymous liberal Democrat for no discernable reason other than that the challenger was a Democrat:

Let's be honest: How much credit do Republicans get for helping the poor? Let me tell you from firsthand knowledge - none, in terms of votes.

Understanding the reason requires a quick look back over how voter attitudes changed over the last 70 years. In the 1930s and 1960s, the Democratic Party, with huge congressional majorities, began giving tax dollars to the poor based solely on need. A dispirited Republican minority acted like cheap Democrats: agreeing to these big-government programs, but for less money. As a result, Democrats have been rewarded with the enduring allegiance of poor and working-class voters. It is easy to conclude that money talks in politics. I would suggest that initiative and caring do, too.

But after 50 years, Americans woke up to the ill effects of no-questions-asked government giveaways: welfare dependency, family disintegration and hopelessness among the poor. They also awoke to the effects of liberal class warfare: high taxes and a stagnant economy with high inflation.

The Reagan revolution rung in an era of lower taxes across the board and a push to scale back the size and scope of government. The revolution succeeded in cutting taxes and transforming the economy, but it was less successful in actually shrinking government than it was in limiting its growth. However, the rhetoric further convinced the poor and working poor that even though they knew the current system wasn't working, Republicans were not on their side. That was in spite of the passage of the most successful policy aimed at helping the working poor, the Earned Income Credit.

In addition to policy successes, the Reagan revolution realigned the country politically. "Reagan Democrats" came to the party because of their belief in core American values of respect for life, support for the traditional family, and a strong national defense. Many of these voters were Catholics who also brought with them more of a concern for the poor and less of an aversion to government programs.

In the 1990s this integration resulted in a conservative movement based on the Catholic concept of subsidiarity. Described by Pope Leo XIII in the late 1800s, the principle of subsidiarity suggests that social ills should be addressed by institutions that are as close to the need as possible, starting with the family and working out.

What I call "common-good" conservatism not only relies as much as possible on private charities and faith organizations, market forces, individual choice and decentralized decision-making, but also sees a role for government in empowering the nongovernmental institutions of civil society that serve the common good.

For example, with the use of government vouchers, individuals are better able to choose a nonprofit service provider that is better for their families than a government program is. Similarly, taxpayers are at least as capable as Washington bureaucrats of choosing an effective charity that aids the poor in their communities. So why not eliminate most government grants and give a tax credit to individuals who give to poverty-fighting nonprofits? Unlike past conservative proposals, that measure would be aiming not to save money but to save lives.

Common-good conservatism creates the opportunity for services to be more effectively delivered to those in need, while helping to re-create a community, a place to reconnect. And for Republicans, it creates an opportunity to reconnect to the millions of Americans who think we don't care.

This is former senator Rick Santorum sounding like Mike Gerson sounding like Mike Huckabee sounding like George Bush. For fifty years the preferred solution to poverty among Democrats has been to take from the rich and give to the poor. Unfortunately, six trillion dollars later, the poor are as numerous now as ever because simply throwing money at them does nothing to resolve the reasons they are poor in the first place.

Government has largely usurped the role of meliorating poverty previously filled by community organizations like churches and charitable organizations which are best suited to provide the oversight and discipline necessary to help people lift themselves into the middle class. Not only does government tend to perpetuate by its policies a culture of poverty, not only is it poorly equipped to teach the values needed to eliminate that culture, but, as Marvin Olasky writes in his wonderful book The Tragedy of American Compassion, government usurpation of the role played by local institutions has caused those institutions to largely abandon those roles and to atrophy like a limb that's no longer used.

Whether we call it Compassionate Conservatism (Bush), Heroic Conservatism (Gerson), or Common-Good Conservatism (Santorum) the key to winning the struggle to truly help the poor requires empowering those institutions closest to the people to instill in them the set of attitudes, disciplines, and moral values they must have in order to join the middle class. Simply sending people a check every month almost guarantees that they and their children will remain stuck where they are for the rest of their lives.

Booting out of the senate people who have a strong record of assisting the poor and replacing them with an empty suit - just because the empty suit belongs to the party that wants to send the monthly checks - doesn't help much either.