Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Whittaker Chambers Speaks to Today

 

A few days ago I wrote about Mike Pence’s excellent Hillsdale speech on the president’s proper constitutional role. I noted that we conservatives devote great energy to criticizing liberals for their routine, expedient disregard for the Constitution, but don’t, often enough, make the affirmative case for the Constitution as the institutional source of our liberties.

Analogously, I’m not sure we do as good a job as the liberals do in articulating the affirmative case for our philosophy of government and our policies. It seems we find ourselves too often on the defensive, focusing more on liberal fallacies and misdeeds than promoting our cause. For example, we defend against the charge that the Bush tax rates for the highest income bracket are evil, greedy uncompassionate, and unfair, rather than say, promoting the flat tax. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” is a notable exception.

The left appears more motivated and certainly more consistent, nay relentless, in pressing their cause. In the last few days, I was reminded of this as when rereading the Foreword to Whittaker Chambers’ conservative classic, “Witness,” and the great struggle he described between two competing faiths: Communism and freedom — between those who rely on man for deliverance and those who rely on God. Upon reading this, I thought of the modern leftists’ “faith,” which rivals in intensity that of the communists of whom Chambers wrote.

I sometimes wonder whether many Christians and conservatives have as much faith in what we believe, for which there is an abundance of probative evidence, as liberals have concerning their views on the environment, macroevolution, Keynesian economics, foreign policy appeasement, etc. against which there is substantial evidence.

Chambers’ words in describing the conflicting “faiths” of his time are worth underscoring as we contemplate their relevance for the ongoing worldview wars in which we are engaged, which are not that different. If we were naïve before Obama about the extent to which liberals will go with unchecked power, we no longer have an excuse. Granted, not all leftists are Communists, but all Communists (and fascists) are leftists.

Listen to Chambers describe the nature and awesome power of the communists’ faith: 

Their power, whose nature baffles the rest of the world, because in a large measure the rest of the world has lost that power, is the power to hold convictions and to act on them. It is the same power that moves mountains; it is also an unfailing power to move men. Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die–to bear witness–for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it.

It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirected men’s destiny and reorganizing mand’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. …

The vision is a challenge and implies a threat. It challenges man to prove by his acts that he is the masterwork of the Creation – by making thought and act one. It challenges him to prove it by using the force of his rational mind to end the bloody meaningless-ness of man’s history – by giving it purpose and a plan. It challenges him to prove it by reducing the meaningless chaos of nature, by imposing on it his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace. It is the vision of materialism.” 

 Equally instructive and relevant for our consideration today are Chambers’ words about communism’s insidious ability to attract good people.

He wrote, “I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time.” So, he asked, why do men become Communists? How did he become one himself? Was it that he was “simply stupid?” “Morally depraved?” He answered “no” to both. “Educated men,” he said, “become Communists chiefly for moral reasons” even as they realize that “the crimes and horrors of Communism were inherent in Communism.”

He was one of the many to fall for its deceptive allure to the point that “this movement, once a mere muttering of political outcasts, became the immense force that now contests the mastery of mankind.” But, again, why? Answer: “Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind.” It continued to attract converts even after its evils became common knowledge.

Chambers pointed out that Communism “is not simply a vicious plot hatched by wicked men in a sub-cellar. Nor is it just the writings of Marx and Lenin, or its many precepts, or the theatrical appeal of the many revolutionaries who chant, “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.”

“Communists,” wrote Chambers, “are bound together by no secret oath. The tie that binds them across the frontiers of nations, across the barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weakness of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction. It is necessary to change the world.”

It is necessary to change the world. Kind of like, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

I have long believed that liberalism flourishes largely by virtue of its superficial moral appeal and the faith of its adherents in the power of man, through the agency of government, to solve all man’s problems and to continue down the linear path to enlightenment and toward man’s perfection.

While I am not trying to be melodramatic or overstate the case, I do believe we can profit greatly from Chambers’ words. Our victory in the Cold War did not end the existential threats to this nation – and I’m not here referring to radical Islam, which can be discussed elsewhere. With the advent of the Tea Party protests I am encouraged that we’re finally waking up to these challenges and the reality that we have to remain more aggressively vigilant if we are to preserve our liberty and security. This is a promising start, but we must understand the struggle in which we’re engaged will never end as long as human beings are human beings.

In words that we should heed as a reminder and savor as an encouragement, Chambers poignantly related that he was not just a witness in a trial against Alger Hiss, but that he was also a witness in a larger sense – “an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying power of faith,” that empowered him, “a man … tarnished by life, unprepossessing, not brave,” to “prevail so far against the powers of the world arrayed most solidly against him, to destroy him and defeat his truth.”

There are 27 comments.

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  1. Sisyphus Coolidge
    Sisyphus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

     

    Johnmark7: This is why I (a Republican) hate the Republican Party.

    The principles of the the American revolutionists (my ancestors were some)) are simple. If the RNC would spend a few million dollars simply explaining what it is that George Washington, Adams, and Jefferson believed in national commercials, we would be much more successful.

    Tell people what Liberty means, how it must work if we are to be successful, and why it matters. A simple project, but the Reps won’t do it. They won’t sell the truth of what conservative (revolutionary) principles mean to each and every American.

    We’re damned and doomed. · Dec 6 at 11:02pm

    This used to be the role of the school system. My public school did a pretty good job of it back during the Cold War. Urban schools, especially in very blue districts, are dropping the ball at best. “Plymouth rock landed on us,” and Howard Zinn prevail too many places. Parents within vacation distance of Colonial Williamsburg should take a look if they haven’t. They are doing awesome work despite being affected by the recession. I highly recommend their evening program where participants are inducted into the military.

    Remember. 

    • #1
    • December 7, 2010, at 1:23 AM PST
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  2. Jeremias Heidefelder Inactive

    Diane, if you still have a copy of that paper, I’d like to read it.

    • #2
    • December 7, 2010, at 1:35 AM PST
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  3. Johnmark7 Inactive

    Sisyphus,

    Indeed. I grew up hating Russia because it wasn’t a free society. School reinforced that, or inculcated Revolutionary values. But that was the 1950s.

    That’s why the Reps need to teach.

    Reagan taught. All those radio addresses and speeches taught about what was quintessentially American.

    It’s so simple. We want Liberty because people thrive when they are free. Not some, not a few, but most. Even almost all.

    • #3
    • December 7, 2010, at 1:41 AM PST
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  4. Profile Photo Member
    David Limbaugh:

    I sometimes wonder whether many Christians and conservatives have as much faith in what we believe, for which there is an abundance of probative evidence, as liberals have concerning their views on the environment, macroevolution, Keynesian economics, foreign policy appeasement, etc. against which there is substantial evidence. ·

    I have often commented that Christians should be Ashamed in the presense of Liberals.

    Jesus admonishes the Christian to have the faith of a Mustard Seed, and they will be able to accomplish Great Things.

    Yet Christians will so often fall short.

    Liberals, on the other hand, regularly demonstrate that they have the faith of an Avacodo Pit.

    It is time to shred the liberal’s favorite book, Winning Through Intimidation, and begin demonstrating the Mustard Seed Faith that can and will defeat the Lefitsts, if we only have that little bit of faith and act like we’re right for a change.

    • #4
    • December 7, 2010, at 3:37 AM PST
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  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    David, the points you raise trouble me every day. It requires so much knowledge of history fully to appreciate why communism is a wicked program. The intuitive appeal of the idea as a redress against the iniquities and injustices of the world is so powerful. What decent, naive young person would not contemplate this suffering world and consider with fascination its promises? It is an idea destined to rise again and again from the grave. And it is an idea destined to create grave after grave from which to rise.

    • #5
    • December 7, 2010, at 3:44 AM PST
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  6. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “Forward In The Form Of A Letter To My Children” is worth the purchase price alone. The next 800 pages are a bonus.

    Truly wonderful. Required reading.

    • #6
    • December 7, 2010, at 6:01 AM PST
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  7. Profile Photo Member
    Jimmy Carter: “Forward In The Form Of A Letter To My Children” is worth the purchase price alone. · Dec 7 at 5:01am

    My thoughts exactly. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so beautiful or that so clearly nails what really was at stake during the Cold War. Just thinking about Chambers’ forward gives me the chills.

    • #7
    • December 7, 2010, at 9:07 AM PST
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  8. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    To a great extent I believe that we are victims of our own prosperity. By any global standard, most Americans are prosperous and have the ability to shield themselves from the harsh realities of the world. We have the ability to turn from gruesome news stories about war, famine and genocide or viewing documentaries on fascism and communism and instead watch some of the pablum that passes for entertainment. Is it any wonder, then how easily our freedoms can be quietly and gradually taken from us?

    We are also victims of an education system that for the most part stresses conformity to the lowest common denominator rather than rewarding exceptionalism. Our schools have turned out too many graduates who have no understanding of history, philosophy, or ethics and perhaps worse no inclination or curiosity to learn beyond what they were taught in school. Or they were inisidiously fed veiled and not-so-veiled Marxist drivel as truth and so have become receptive or embracing of Marxist policies later in life.

    What’s refreshing about the Tea Party movement is that it has ignited a desire to read and understand the Constitution and our history and therein lies hope.

    • #8
    • December 7, 2010, at 9:31 AM PST
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  9. Diane Ellis Contributor

    David, your post has inspired me to read Witness, which is one of those books that I’ve always meant to read, but that I’ve never actually gotten around to reading.

    The Chamber’s passage that you quote reminds me of a passage in the book of Romans (1:2:1-25)

    For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator

    In college, I took a course on Twentieth Century European History with Professor Allen Koop (who moonlighted as a Baptist minister, and is incidentally the son of C. Everett Koop). The assignment for our final paper was to write 20 pages informed by our own personal worldview explaining the unifying theme of European history of the twentieth century. I wrote about how the twentieth century was a manifestation of the above quoted passage from Romans. Fascism, Socialism, Communism are all examples of men exchanging the truth about God for a lie, and worshipping and serving man-made notions of how to transform the world.

    • #9
    • December 7, 2010, at 9:32 AM PST
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  10. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: David, the points you raise trouble me every day. It requires so much knowledge of history fully to appreciate why communism is a wicked program. The intuitive appeal of the idea as a redress against the iniquities and injustices of the world is so powerful. What decent, naive young person would not contemplate this suffering world and consider with fascination its promises? · Dec 7 at 2:44am

    Many students in America were taught only the egalitarian aspirations of Marxism and not shown the atrocities that always seemed to accompany the practice of it. But even the fundamental tenets of Marxism are rarely challenged. The notion, for example, that everyone IS equal (not merely in the eyes of the law but through every aspect of life) and that the state has the authority to force everyone to be equal even if that authority is not granted to it by the people. And of course, as Orwell sarcastically points out, some are more equal than others. There are so many fundamental flaws in Marxist ideology about human nature that are never addressed, discussed or debated in academia. Are the works of Solzhenitsyn, Zinovyev, Havel and other dissidents even taught?

    • #10
    • December 7, 2010, at 10:09 AM PST
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  11. Mel Foil Inactive

    You can’t kill an American’s individual freedom, and replace it with authoritarian collectivism in one or two blows. But you can easily nibble our freedoms to death with 1000 little bites, over time. For some on the left, their only criticism of traditional communism is that the oldtimers tried to do too much too fast. It has to be done slowly, in stages.

    • #11
    • December 7, 2010, at 10:28 AM PST
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  12. Robert Bennett Inactive

    I think there is a good case that Witness is the most important book of American conservatism of the 20th century (We had thread about this once i think). I think Richard Brookhiser said that Buckley had more respect for Chambers than any other person he met. Conservatism owes a lot to Chambers and this book.

    • #12
    • December 7, 2010, at 10:34 AM PST
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  13. Joshua Riddle Inactive

    Thanks David. You also just inspired me to put this own my list of books to read for over break. It’s going to be cold in Colorado and I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than hoping to learn what you clearly understand on a deep level.

    • #13
    • December 7, 2010, at 11:05 AM PST
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  14. R.J. Moeller Inactive

    I’d have posted a comment but I needed a few more hours to get through Limbaugh’s “short” blog-post.

    JK. Good stuff.

    As a conservative in his 20’s, and an avid devourer of classic works of conservative thought in recent years, I have the distinct privilege of that experience GK Chesterton described so eloquently in Orthodoxy: feeling at once like I’ve discovered a new land but at the same time like I’m coming home again.

    He speaks to my generation and yet wrote it more than half of a century ago. The truth usually has this effect on those lucky enough to hear and wise enough to embrace it.

    • #14
    • December 7, 2010, at 11:20 AM PST
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  15. Profile Photo Member

    When I think about Chambers and other westerners of the time who shared his Communist views, I always think about Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”.

    Communist sympathizers in the West knew, beyond doubt, that such things as the hell depicted by Koestler were happening. They knew the famine in the Ukraine had happened. But somehow, they were able to compartmentalize what they knew from what they wished to believe.

    I’ve never understood how it was possible to do so.

    • #15
    • December 7, 2010, at 11:49 AM PST
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  16. Johnmark7 Inactive

    This is why I (a Republican) hate the Republican Party.

    The principles of the the American revolutionists (my ancestors were some)) are simple. If the RNC would spend a few million dollars simply explaining what it is that George Washington, Adams, and Jefferson believed in national commercials, we would be much more successful.

    Tell people what Liberty means, how it must work if we are to be successful, and why it matters. A simple project, but the Reps won’t do it. They won’t sell the truth of what conservative (revolutionary) principles mean to each and every American.

    We’re damned and doomed.

    • #16
    • December 7, 2010, at 12:02 PM PST
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  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    David Limbaugh: I sometimes wonder whether many Christians and conservatives have as much faith in what we believe…

    It’s the nature of evil to use our right desires against us by offering us false and corrupted versions of the good we seek. Christians want to be humble, and are taught to be silent. Christians want peace, and are asked to sacrifice justice or truth.

    We live in a time of unprecedented access to knowledge and unlimited distractions. In the midst of constant noise, we’re bombarded by so many conflicting worldviews, philosophies and traditions that many people become mentally exhausted and stop trying to sort through it all. Those who are not exhausted are uncertain of how to put their beliefs into action because laws, media, and every other element of modern society are designed to stop them.

    But there is indeed hope.

    David Limbaugh: Equally instructive and relevant for our consideration today are Chambers’ words about communism’s insidious ability to attract good people.

    Individuals with the most potential for good are tempted most.

    Witness has been on my to-do list as well, but I’m sure you’d like me to finish another book first.

    • #17
    • December 7, 2010, at 12:44 PM PST
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  18. Rob Long Founder

    The long Cold War and the struggle against communism is one of those things we sort of forget about — been there, done that — even as we acknowledge heroes like Reagan and Thatcher (and John Paul II) for their parts in winning the war. The Left wants us to think of it as some kind of historical quirk, not worth remembering because, well, communism is dead. But the Cold War, as you point out David, wasn’t about Communism. It was about freedom.

    • #18
    • December 7, 2010, at 12:51 PM PST
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  19. Umbra Fractus Coolidge
    Umbra Fractus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Really, RES made my point better than I did.

    David, I don’t think anything you said really contradicts anything I said. The data you point out are precisely the sorts of long term societal improvements I was talking about when I mentioned that our apparent mean-spiritedness is done in the spirit of long term gain. It proves that we’re right about making the proverbial omelette, but it doesn’t really assuage the sense of guilt some of us have over the eggs we break.

    I’ve always said that liberalism is when someone is trying so hard to be nice that they forget to make sure they’re being helpful.

    • #19
    • December 8, 2010, at 2:16 AM PST
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  20. Kervinlee Member
    Kervinlee Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I read Witness for the first time last year. What stays with me most I guess is Chamber’s overwhelming compassion, and his beautiful, lyrical prose.

    As a young university student at the end of the first world war Chambers went to Europe, and must have seen some of the destructive aftermath of WWI. He describes his turning to communism in a way that must still ring true with every young idealist: he was seeking a solution to what he describes as the two great problems: war and economics. How seductive a notion, that we, blessed with our rationalism, should be able to rationally end man-made problems with man-made solutions.

    Ostensibly he turned from communism due to the Stalinist purges, the Soviet/German non-aggesion pact, and the awakening of his religious faith. I don’t think he ever lost his idealism and he never became a jingoist yankee-doodle, but he pledged to vote a straight republican ticket. “From Narodniki to Republican,” as WFB said.

    That the grace of God looms large in this story is significant; Chambers describes it as “…the most difficult of vocations – to be a Christian as in the first century.”

    • #20
    • December 8, 2010, at 2:20 AM PST
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  21. Steve McCormick Inactive

    There is a strange tendency today to not celebrate our own culture. It partly has to do with the bombardment of multiculturalism that is pervasive. I think this causes many to not have faith in their own. They give way to others who have a stronger faith.

    • #21
    • December 8, 2010, at 6:15 AM PST
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  22. Umbra Fractus Coolidge
    Umbra Fractus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The reason conservatives lack faith is because liberals are right about one thing: conservative policies do cause suffering in the short term. We can justify these policies by arguing moral hazard, culture of dependency, etc. all of which are legitimate and morally defensible positions, but at the end of the day cutting Medicare does mean denying health care to old people; ending food stamps does mean denying food to the poor; refusing to extend unemployment insurance does hurt the innocent victim of a bad economy. Conservatism is the belief that short term suffering is a fair price to pay for long term gains, or to prevent long term societal decline. This is something every serious conservative has to come to terms with at some point in his or her life, and given the fact that most of us are Christian or Jewish it’s no wonder that the short term suffering might shake our conviction.

    Putting aside full blown communism, right vs. left is not good vs. evil, it’s letting a man go hungry vs. letting him become a dependent of the state. Both are bad outcomes, but the former is much more immediately visible.

    • #22
    • December 8, 2010, at 6:48 AM PST
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  23. David Limbaugh Contributor
    David Limbaugh
    Charles Lavergne: Putting aside full blown communism, right vs. left is not good vs. evil, it’s letting a man go hungry vs. letting him become a dependent of the state. Both are bad outcomes, but the former is much more immediately visible. · Dec 7 at 5:48pm

    Edited on Dec 07 at 05:53 pm

    It seems to me, Charles, that your talking about weening people from statism already in place, as opposed to starting from scratch. If the advance of statism hadn’t created such a dependency class we wouldn’t be talking about the choices you present — at least not in such harsh terms. Capitalism produces the most prosperity for the most people — period. BTW, with welfare reform we saw a significant reduction in child poverty, especially among blacks and also in black illegitimacy. Even weening people from the dependency class produced demonstrably positive results. So what did Obama do to this uniformly acknowledged bipartisan success? He reversed it under the radar in his stimulus package. He doesn’t want to reduce the dependency class, even when that is good for the would-be dependents. Same is true with school choice, etc.

    • #23
    • December 8, 2010, at 7:13 AM PST
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  24. RES Inactive
    RES

    When my daughter was younger I explained it to her thusly:

    The benefits of Communism are visible while the costs are largely hidden; the costs of Capitalism/Free Markets are highly visible, while the benefits are largely hidden.

    That is the differential ever enjoyed by salesmen of snake oil.

    • #24
    • December 8, 2010, at 8:21 AM PST
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  25. outstripp Inactive
    Charles Lavergne:

    but at the end of the day cutting Medicare does mean denying health care to old people; ending food stamps does mean denying food to the poor; refusing to extend unemployment insurance does hurt the innocent victim of a bad economy….. Both are bad outcomes, but the former is much more immediately visible. · Dec 7 at 5:48pm

    Edited on Dec 07 at 05:53 pm

    Well put Charles. I suspect the appeal of socialism derives partly from the visible effects of freedom (inequality) and a romantic “racial memory” of a time 100,000 years ago when we hunter-gathers were all (sort of) equal and we (sort of) shared everything. How nice!

    Another appeal is the appeal of hubristic rationality. Since we can rearrange all the junk on our desk and make it better, we extrapolate to society and imagine that we can rearrange it and make it better too.

    • #25
    • December 8, 2010, at 9:44 AM PST
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  26. David Limbaugh Contributor
    David Limbaugh

    I can’t use the quote feature on this iPad outstripp, but I think hubris was precisely what Chambers was describing. Man making himself god.

    • #26
    • December 8, 2010, at 9:54 AM PST
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  27. David Limbaugh Contributor
    David Limbaugh
    Charles Lavergne: Really, RES made my point better than I did.

    David, I don’t think anything you said really contradicts anything I said.

    Charles: A belated response to your post. Sorry. I understand your point and I agree to the extent you’re saying that the compassion in economic conservatism is less readily visible. I guess what didn’t sit well with me was your statement about your “guilt over the eggs we break.” I can relate to that in the example of cutting off unemployment benefits and the like, but it’s not always true. How about the school choice thing? Shouldn’t libs be accountable for their obvious damage to minorities by keeping them trapped in inner city schools? Or reversing welfare reform that was showing empirically beneficial results? I hope I have as much compassion as the next person but I’m not sure we should feel guilty about policies that ultimately help people and ending ones that hurt them. But I think I still get your point, so I’m not trying to debate here.

    • #27
    • December 10, 2010, at 6:23 AM PST
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