Now that they’re paying attention to him, some observers kinda sorta like what they see.

Michael Gerson regards him as the second coming of compassionate conservatism, something about which he knows a thing or two.
The Catholic (and increasingly Protestant) approach to social ethics asserts that liberty is made possible by strong social institutions — families, communities, congregations — that prepare human beings for the exercise of liberty by teaching self-restraint, compassion and concern for the public good. Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions. Responsible government can empower them — say, with a child tax credit or a deduction for charitable giving — as well as defend them against the aggressions of extreme poverty or against “free markets” in drugs or obscenity.

This is not statism ; it is called subsidiarity . In this view, needs are best served by institutions closest to individuals. But when those institutions require help or protection, higher-order institutions should intervene. So when state governments imposed Jim Crow laws, the federal government had a duty to overturn them. When a community is caught in endless economic depression and drained of social capital, government should find creative ways to empower individuals and charities — maybe even prison ministries that change lives from the inside out.

This is not “big government” conservatism. It is a form of limited government less radical and simplistic than the libertarian account. A compassionate-conservative approach to governing would result in a different and smaller federal role — using free-market ideas to strengthen families and communities, rather than constructing centralized bureaucracies. It rejects, however, a utopian belief in unfettered markets that would dramatically increase the sum of suffering.


David Brooks also likes what he sees, albeit not quite for Gerson’s reasons.
   I’m delighted that Santorum is making a splash in this presidential campaign. He is far closer to developing a new 21st-century philosophy of government than most leaders out there.

One of Santorum’s strengths is that he understands that a nation isn’t just an agglomeration of individuals; it’s a fabric of social relationships. In his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” he had chapters on economic capital as well as social capital, moral capital, cultural capital and intellectual capital. He presents an extended argument against radical individualism. “Just as original sin is man’s inclination to try to walk alone without God, individualism is man’s inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows,” he writes.

Communities breed character. Santorum argues that government cannot be agnostic about the character of its citizens because the less disciplined the people are, the more government must step in to provide order.

His political philosophy is built around the Catholic concept of subsidiarity — that everything should be done at the lowest possible level. That produces a limited role for Washington, but still an important one . . . .

Santorum understands that we have to fuse economics talk and values talk. But he hasn’t appreciated that the biggest challenge to stable families, healthy communities and the other seedbeds of virtue is not coastal elites. It’s technological change; it’s globalization; it’s personal mobility and expanded opportunity; it’s an information-age economy built on self-transformation and perpetual rebranding instead of fixed inner character. It is the very forces that give us the dynamism and opportunities in the first place.

Santorum doesn’t yet see that once you start thinking about how to foster an economic system that would nurture our virtues, you wind up with an agenda far more drastic and transformational.

If you believe in the dignity of labor, it makes sense to support an infrastructure program that allows more people to practice the habits of industry. If you believe in personal responsibility, you have to force Americans to receive only as much government as they are willing to pay for. If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.

If you believe social trust is the precondition for a healthy society, you have to have a simplified tax code that inspires trust instead of degrading it. If you believe that firm attachments and stable relationships build human capital, you had better offer early education for children in disorganized neighborhoods. If you want capitalists thinking for the long term and getting the most out of their workers, you have to encourage companies to be more deeply rooted in local communities rather than just free-floating instruments of capital markets.


It goes almost without saying that Brooks doesn’t like Santorum’s “culture war” rhetoric, but it seems to me that the fork in the path—one way leading to hyper-individualism and the other to community—is situated in our most intimate relationships.  If we favor individuality and choice there, it’s hard to resist it elsewhere, and hard to foster the kind of community Brooks seems to like.  On this point, Gerson is probably closer to Santorum than Brooks is.

But Brooks’s embellishment of Santorum’s agenda—his “far more drastic and transformational” variation on Santorum’s theme—strikes me as precisely the sort of temptation that Gerson and his colleagues couldn’t effectively resist the last time around.  The willingness of President Bush (in his better moments) to spend money to shore up civil society—making it perhaps less necessary to spend money down the road, as the promise of the “ownership society” was fulfilled—was taken as an opportunity by those not invested in that “limited” project (I have in mind here both the conventional Republicans in the Bush White House and the pork-barrelling Republicans in the House and Senate) to open the federal purse with relative abandon.

To be sure, Republican big spenders are pikers by comparison with their Democratic counterparts, but that’s not the issue here.  Compassionate conservatism became, in the Bush Administration, an excuse for fiscal indiscipline.  Would a Santorum presidency be any different?  I’m tempted to say it would, if only because the fiscal hole we’ve dug ourselves is so much deeper.  But, having been chastened by my past enthusiasms, I’d want to hear more from Senator Santorum about fiscal discipline before I could engage with his candidacy.

Both Brooks and Gerson, by the way, have doubts about whether Santorum can beat Romney, let alone Obama.  So do I.  And if there are still options when the time comes for me to cast my ballot, that consideration will loom very large.

blog comments powered by Disqus