This history is directly relevant to modern debates. In some conservative quarters we are seeing the return of Burkeanism — or at least a narrow version of it. These supposed Burkeans dismiss the promotion of democracy and human rights as “ideological,” the protection of human life and dignity as “theological,” and compassionate conservatism as a modern heresy.
But the compassionate conservatism of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury is just as old as Burke, and more suited to an American setting. American conservatives, after all, are called upon to conserve a liberal ideal — that all men are created equal. A conservatism that does not accommodate the “ideology” of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. will seem foreign to most Americans. A concern for the rights of the poor and vulnerable is not simply “theological”; it is a measure of our humanity. And skepticism in this noble cause is not sophistication; it seems more like exhaustion and cynicism. ~Michael Gerson
But neo-Jacobinism, which is what Gerson is implicitly defending, is ideological in the worst way. The promotion of “democracy and human rights” that relies on coercion and interference in the affairs of other nations is not simply ideologically driven, but divorced from basic precepts of justice. One marvels at Gerson’s claim to represent the cause that supports the “protection of human life and dignity,” when it was he who lent his pen and his words to the unleashing of a living hell upon the people of Iraq. The insight of Burke was not simply that change must be gradual and in keeping with the customs of a people, but that revolutionary change, change wrought by violence, the very kind of change Gerson has himself promoted, is inherently desructive of social order, morality and the welfare of the people in whose name it is being done. Burkeans are as concerned with the practical means for pursuing the Good as they are with the high-minded intention to do good.
Why Wilberforce and Shaftesbury are more suited to an American setting, Gerson never explains, but just asserts. Conservatives are actually called on to conserve a constitutional tradition and a system of ordered liberty; you could fill a small room with the books and treatises that explain why conservatives, yes, American conservatives, are not dedicated to preserving the idea contained in that most infelicitous of phrases. What is striking about this article is how Gerson wraps up the actual practice of ”compassionate conservatism” of the last six years in the legacy of men such as Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, as if what the “compassionate conservatives” have done in government can be compared with the kinds of work they did. The thinking seems to be: they valued human dignity and we, the compassionate conservatives, also claim to value human dignity, so they must be our forerunners, and we can appropriate their achievements for our cause. Shaftesbury combated the exploitation of child labour and the inhumane treatment of the insane. “Compassionate conservatism” in practice has meant zealous support for the importation of cheap, exploited labour and an apparent indifference to the human trafficking that goes on across our borders.–in the name of Christian charity and brotherhood no less! Wilberforce worked tirelessly to turn the power of the British state against the slave trade, which led to the employment of the British Navy in eliminating this trade. “Compassionate conservatism” in practice has meant aggressive warfare, the ruination of whole nations and the displacement of millions of people from their homes. Because Wilberforce and Shaftesbury actually acted compassionately, Gerson believes he can tie “compassionate conservatism” to their legacy, yet where they were gradualists and men who respected laws of man and God “compassionate conservatives” have been radicals with a rather more mixed record.