Can a government be compassionate?

Some say "no." Compassion implies making a decision to help another. A government is a bureaucracy, made up of bureaucrats who must follow rules. If this is not the case, the government employees are freer to make decisions. How can there be certainty that the decisions are made for the right reasons, as opposed to personal gain?

The solution is to move the decision making out of the purview of the government employees. Move it to people who are motivated to help the beneficiaries of the program. Marvin Olasky (as he popularized the phrase "Compassionate Conservatism"1) suggested delivering social services through charities.

This ComingTogether Plan goes even further. It puts the decision making at the family level, the beneficiaries of the programs. These are the people who have the greatest motivation to help those receiving the benefits, because they are the ones receiving the benefits.


Consider the income tax treatment of the income of married couples. The income tax was designed when most couples only had one wage earner, so the ability to file jointly with lower tax rates than a single filer was granted to couples since the income was being spread over more people. Logical? Yes. Compassionate? Yes. Fits today? No. Most couples who have not reached retirement age have both members working for pay, and the current system discriminates against this situation in the income tax, social welfare programs, and employee benefits. The income tax's widely publicized "marriage penalty" was reduced in the tax rates temporarily in 2001, 2003, and 2004, but it will return in 2011 (if the law is not changed). These laws do not completely eliminate the differences suffered by married couples. The ComingTogether Plan would abolish those differences, permanently.

Other unintended consequences of the current laws toward these two-earner situations are documented in the excellent paper Women and Taxes by Edward J. McCaffery. Government solutions, no matter how well intended, cannot be the best for every individual situation.


We believe that government can be most compassionate simply by refraining from micro-managing the lives of its citizens.

1Marvin Olasky, Ph.D., Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Change America (New York: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2000).