The phrase “compassionate conservatism” is of recent origin. While any number of politicians have laid claim to it, one thing is certain: it was born of the worry that being labeled a “conservative,” simply, would cause you to be portrayed as lacking in basic human feelings, particularly for the plight of the poor. Thus “compassionate conservatism,” like many political labels, is the result of political caricature—a label taken in self-defense as a response to ideologically motivated name-calling.

One area in which conservatives are caricatured concerns the concept of self-interest. It is relatively easy for those who dislike free markets to deplore self-interest, because it seems to denote a human motivation that is stripped of moral content. Generally speaking, self-interest is seen as the drive to improve one’s own economic condition. In this sense, self-interest is taken to be an important basis for economics, and free markets in particular. Milton Friedman, for example, has defended capitalism on the grounds that individuals, acting in their own self-interest in free markets will first, make only voluntary decisions; and second, consequently, will enter no transactions that are not to their benefit. Thus, in Friedman’s view, by allowing self-interest full play, we allow individuals to make decisions that will benefit themselves and in the aggregate (by enforcing rationality on both buyers and sellers) improve the well-being of society as a whole.

Friedman’s view of self-interest is not without moral content. He believes voluntary decisions are moral because they affirm individual autonomy and promote the common good. But opponents of free markets have attacked this view of self-interest on the grounds that it promotes moral myopia, a kind of collective indifference to those lacking the power to protect themselves in the rough-and-tumble of free economic life.

But this latter view is itself based on an impoverished understanding of the meaning of self-interest. For self-interest does not mean simply the narrow economic advantage of the individual. It is better seen as a recognition of the ability people have, both as individuals and as members of constitutive groups ranging from families to local communities, to define and pursue a vision of the good life that accords with human nature and the authentic requirements of social order.

In seeking a fuller understanding of self-interest, one obvious source of assistance is the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw self-interest not simply as a way to defend free markets but as a means of understanding the role of economics and voluntary interaction in sustaining for man a good life lived in common. Tocqueville used the concept of self-interest to help explain the nature and necessity of what Wilhelm Röpke—who might be thought of as the first theoretician of “compassionate conservative”—termed “the social framework of the free market.” With this phrase, Röpke did not mean merely to point out that free markets require certain legal structures to function efficiently and without force or fraud, although clearly that at least is the case. More fundamentally, Röpke meant by “social framework” the whole moral context within which free markets are able to contribute to a good life—a life in which compassion, along with other more fundamental ties linking man to man and generation to generation, is nurtured.

In his introduction to the current edition of Röpke’s A Humane Economy (ISI Books, 1998), the historian Dermot Quinn ably summarizes Röpke’s understanding of the role of free markets in a good life:

Free markets are preferable to tyranny not because they enrich us but because they moralize us. They connect us to authentic human communities, allowing us to be self-reliant yet also honorably dependent on the efforts of others. And precisely for that reason, to make a cult of the market is to detach it from its own moral imperatives. Markets do not generate moral norms; they presume them.

Thus, Röpke stood in opposition both to the idolaters of the state, who seek to enslave man in the name of utopian dreams, and to the idolaters of the market, who seek to remodel society on the pattern of economics in the mistaken belief that economic relations by themselves can form moral relationships and good character.

I turn to Tocqueville when considering the role of economics in a good life for two reasons. First, Tocqueville has been misused by Röpke’s adversaries, both to condemn and to deify market economics. Enemies of free markets often misuse Tocqueville to argue that there is something horribly alienating about economic freedom because it makes us all selfish individualists. This surprisingly widespread critique is based on a Marxian/Rousseauean psychology which posits that man can attain freedom and self-mastery only by flitting about from occupation to occupation, and that such flitting would be the essence of life in the socialist paradise. Others misuse Tocqueville to argue that market relations must become the sole basis for our society. Such arguments are based on the proposition that selfishness is a virtue, that greed and factionalism are the only proper bases on which we can construct a good society—which for these individuals means an atomistic but wealthy society.

It is important to correct these caricatures, both of which oddly enough rest on the same very un-Tocquevillean abstraction commonly called “economic man.” This common root renders both views morally debilitating. Both views rest in the end on the fantasy that we always, first and last, look after our own material interests. If you believe this material self-interestedness to be bad, then government must “free” us from it. If you believe it to be good, then government must free society from misguided notions, habits, customs, and structures that impede self-interest’s full reign throughout our lives.

The second reason why we must look to Tocqueville in discussing self-interest is because he gives us a nuanced and accurate analysis of the ways in which all of us are self-interested, both for good and ill, and the ways that self-interest can be addressed so as to promote the public good: that is, to promote well-ordered liberty within vibrant, active communities. Tocqueville presents us with a compelling description of man’s nature, which must always be the starting point for any discussion of what may be hoped for from economics. For as Röpke put it in perhaps his most famous maxim, “It is the precept of ethical and humane behavior, no less than of political wisdom, to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy.”

Turning then to Tocqueville, we encounter a rich meditation on the nature of self-interest and its role in social life. First of all, for Tocqueville self-interest is merely a fact of life; it is not a good in itself. Tocqueville was thus no precursor to the “objectivist” libertarian Ayn Rand. He saw both the dark and the bright side of self-interest; he saw that it could lead to crabbed selfishness or to mutual affection and support, depending on what we do with it. For, most important for our purposes, according to Tocqueville we are not helpless in the face of our inclination to self-interest. Our choices are not simply either to accept and indulge ourselves in selfish factiousness or to give ourselves over to tyranny. Rather, we remain free to choose between the vices of selfishness (what Tocqueville called individualism) and the virtues of loyalty and service to the community.

It is, in Tocqueville’s view, up to us to determine which form of self-interest comes to characterize our society. How so? Because it is up to us to decide whether we will construct a centralized bureaucracy that takes over the functions properly belonging to local, voluntary associations, or to maintain the local self-determination and liberty necessary for people to learn that self-interest, properly understood, entails public service and a profound sense of duty to one’s community.

These alternatives become clear in the course of Tocqueville’s best known statement on the subject, in Democracy in America:

Do you not notice how on all sides beliefs are giving way to arguments, and feelings to calculations? If amid this universal collapse you do not succeed in linking the idea of rights to personal interest, which provides the only stable point in the human heart, what other means will be left to you to govern the world, if not fear?

Perhaps most important in this quotation is what Tocqueville is not saying about personal or self-interest. He is not saying that it is a good to be wished for. Rather, he is saying that, given the collapse of religious faith in his time, the only way now available to us to secure liberty is to show people that their self-interest is served more effectively by well-ordered and public-spirited liberty than by despotism, however “benevolent.”

Self-interest is a necessary tool by which to convince people to respect what Tocqueville called “the sacred rights of property and of the family,” rights that are “the foundation of our social order.” Self-interest undergirded property rights in the America Tocqueville observed in the early nineteenth century because so many people owned property and wanted their property protected. In this way self-interest helped protect stability and freedom. Self-interest also protected well-ordered liberty by keeping people preoccupied. In essence, Americans were too busy looking after themselves to think up the utopian, millenarian projects that had all but destroyed France by Tocqueville’s time.

Self-interest, then, is merely self-regard, or concern with one’s own well-being. It is neither a virtue nor a vice. It is not a basis on which to build any new political or social system; nor is it something to expunge from the political or social system. It is, however, a fact to be taken into account in reconstructing a good life in troubled times.

Of course, though self-interest itself is neither a virtue nor a vice, it can lead you to become virtuous or vicious, depending on how it is treated—how you act on the natural impulses of self-regard. If you define your self-interest as the mere getting of money and other means of material well-being, you will undermine liberty and your own character. As Tocqueville observed in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, “Craving for material well-being…leads the way to servitude.” And, probably more important, “he who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave.” Self-interest may be a mere fact, but Tocqueville is quite willing to make a value judgment, as the social scientists would say, in deeming excessive indulgence of the selfish desire for material well-being morally bad and degrading.

More generally, self-interest can lead to what Tocqueville calls individualism. Individualism, the self-interested withdrawal into a concern only for one’s family and close friends to the exclusion of public life, is a vice. Individualism not only makes the community weaker—leaving the government free to rule all aspects of our lives unquestioned—it also closes up a man’s heart. An individualist shuts himself up in his own heart and his own house, failing to make the kinds of contacts and develop the kinds of relationships that nurture his better, disinterested instincts. An individualist defines his self-interest so narrowly that he cannot form the bonds necessary for him to transcend it.

And let there be no doubt, Tocqueville did seek to foster “the disinterested, spontaneous impulses natural to man.” The question, in his view, was how we might foster the better angels of our nature. And the answer, according to Tocqueville, was straightforward, though certainly not easy to put into practice. The answer was freedom:

The free institutions of the United States and the political rights enjoyed there provide a thousand continual reminders to every citizen that he lives in society. At every moment they bring his mind back to this idea, that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to be useful to their fellows….At first it is of necessity that men attend to the public interest, afterward by choice. What had been calculation becomes instinct. By dint of working for the good of his fellow citizens, he in the end acquires a habit and taste for serving them.

Constant interaction with one’s neighbors breeds civility and public service. Since you must deal with these people on a daily basis, your self-interest inclines you to make the dealings pleasant. What is more, repeated attempts to do well by one’s fellows develops into a habit and even a taste for public service. In effect, you come to see the community as your own. The self-interested individual comes to love his community because it is familiar; he accepts its faults and may even come to revel in its small joys. Self-interest thus can foster virtue by causing individuals to identify their own interest with the interests of family, friends, and neighbors. In part, one has merely built on a commonality of interest; but more importantly, the individual has in this process come to redefine his self-interest in broader, more spiritual terms. Instead of seeking only material well-being, he now seeks to be part of a vital community, in which neighbors care for one another. Through the transforming process of the free society, the “self” in which his interest lies has been expanded to contain other selves as well.

But what about social atomization? How can we prevent that alienation so many academics accuse America’s democratic market society of breeding in her people?

Again, Tocqueville’s answer is fairly simple, though the problem he sees is not one with any easy solution. The problem, to be blunt, is government. You have a choice, in Tocqueville’s view, between a government that protects freedom and a government that provides material security. You cannot have both. And if you choose comfortable slavery you cannot have community.

Tocqueville explained this phenomenon in his discussion of “soft” or democratic despotism. By doing too much for the people, benevolent centralized governments sap local communities’ lifeblood, their very reason for existence. By destroying the practical need for voluntary community, the welfare state destroys community itself, for people no longer feel the need to interact and bond with one another. In so doing, government also destroys good character, for it is only in the families, churches, and the various associations of local community life that men learn genuinely to care for their fellows.

Once the ad-hoc committee gathered to remove an obstruction in the road gives way to the state or federal Department of Transportation, the homely virtue that once grew out of self-interest gives way to individualism, to selfishness. Men no longer see themselves as intimately bound to their neighbors, and so lose the habit of tending their common interests, instead becoming mere favor-seeking wards of the state.

This is the irony of socialism. Those who seek, in the name of “compassion,” large-scale projects of political charity and welfare do so on the basis of distaste for “selfish” individualism. They are convinced that communities on their own will not tend to “public” needs because their members are too self-interested. Self-interest, then, is a vice demanding the countervailing action of the state. But state action, by taking away our reasons for joining together to take care of one another, isolates us and leaves us in the end with only our selfish, individual interests to pursue.

Perhaps Tocqueville’s most enlightening, and certainly his most heartfelt discussion of this problem appears in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, when he details the way in which French monarchs paved the way for socialist tyranny by relieving local nobles of their feudal obligations. According to Tocqueville, by the early eighteenth century, the French government already took great pains to tend the needs of its subjects, dispensing charity, doling out advice, and even giving awards for effective farming techniques. These duties had once fallen on townships, with their own charters, and on local nobles, with their own peasants and their own honor to consider.

The nobles were actuated by self-interest in the old days as well as in the new. But in the old days they “selfishly”—or at least self-interestedly—valued their honor and their standing in the local community. And this, combined with the general public recognition of their duty to care for their tenants, gave them the motivation they needed to interact and form bonds with those around (or beneath) them.

Under the absolute monarchy, however, the nobles came to see themselves as mere landlords, whose only interest was in getting as much money out of the peasants as possible, with as little trouble as possible. They interacted less and less with their tenants and more and more with their peers at court. “This led to what might be called a spiritual estrangement more prevalent and more pernicious in its way than mere physical absenteeism.” Landlords and peasants, once allies, became enemies competing for wealth and favors from the state.

Tocqueville often notes that it is the moral habits of a people, more than the laws, institutions, or even specific men in power that determine whether a good life is possible and sustainable in a given time and place. Our true self-interest should lead us to construct a government that will leave our local communities free, so that they can fulfill their duty of shaping character. For the individualist pursuit of mere wealth without public virtue would leave us at the mercy of a powerful central government that would take over the functions of our voluntary communities, further degrading us.

Compassion, then, is not to be had in the form of federal programs, under whatever political label. A political party may promote true compassion only by promoting the local autonomy necessary to transform vulgar self-interest into self-interest, properly understood. Conservatism’s task, then, is to make clear the connection between the local traditions in which it is rooted and the practice of virtue toward which all political and moral philosophies aim. We might call such a project: compassionate conservatism, rightly understood.

Republished with the gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2000/ Spring 2001).

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