“Compassionate Conservatism” and the Unemployment Debate

Opinion by Josh Jones
Feb. 17, 2014, 11:58 p.m.

For weeks, President Obama and the Democrats have been fighting to restore extensions to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. But on Feb. 6, Republicans blocked the $6 billion three-month extension in the Senate, insisting that their amendments and suggestions had not been considered. The extension would have increased financial assistance for the unemployed from the standard 26 weeks to 63-73 weeks and has been renewed by Congress every year since 2008.

Since these extended benefits expired shortly after Christmas, an estimated 1.7 million Americans have seen their checks stall at a time when the national unemployment rate hovers at 6.7 percent.

So whatever happened to “compassionate conservatism?”

Many liberals, out of their sincere desire to help, are quick to demonize ‘heartless’ fiscal conservatives that dare to question the efficacy or legitimacy of social welfare programs – and the recent battle over unemployment benefits has been no exception. In January, Obama denounced the failure to extend unemployment insurance as “just plain cruel.”  Senator Harry Reid claimed Republicans wouldn’t approve unemployment insurance “because they don’t care.” In response to GOP objections to the bill, the Senate Majority Leader scoffed, “What [Republicans] want is to know what the 57-year-old woman in Nevada is going to do to stop couch-surfing.”

But this is neither fair nor accurate.

For starters, even ‘extremist’ Tea Party politicians have said they’re willing to extend unemployment benefits if real spending cuts offset the cost and other job-creating initiatives are enacted. Trying a different approach, Senator Rand Paul has called for “economic freedom zones,” a project that would dramatically decrease taxes in areas with record-high unemployment in an effort to incentivize firms to hire and consumers to buy.

Senator Marco Rubio has called for streamlining welfare funds back to the states, which in the past have run successful anti-poverty measures such as job-training programs. Rubio said to CNN, “Our current programs help people in alleviating the symptoms of poverty…but they don’t help people emerge from poverty.” He later added, “An unemployment check allows you to pay the bills, and that’s important. But the only way to solve unemployment is employment.”

These are hardly the words or proposals of insensitive Scrooges. Rather, they highlight a crucial difference of political ideology – liberals want to pool money and have a small group of decision-makers in Washington reallocate the resources; conservatives want to leave more money at home and let local communities and individuals solve local problems. For all the demagoguing, policy debates in D.C. are largely about who should remedy social ills and how, not if, we should solve them.

In the case of unemployment benefits, many conservative lawmakers seem to be asking: After five years, is supplying over a year’s worth of unemployment checks still a tenable emergency response, or is it yet another Band-Aid solution that allows us to avoid dealing with the real problem?

America may be wondering the same thing. A recent AP poll noted: “Unemployment ranked near the top of issues for the government to tackle, at 42 percent. But only one of the 1,141 adults surveyed mentioned extending unemployment benefits, a proposal that seems popular but not highly important.” The sad reality is that many popular Democratic proposals help some while hurting others. In the case of the minimum wage, for example, setting a price floor above current wages reduces labor demand and causes unemployment, exacerbating the need for measures such as unemployment insurance.

Now, there’s plenty of corruption in government, and the elective nature of our system makes it difficult to discern who is genuinely concerned with the general welfare and who is simply accruing political capital. I, for one, am no Republican apologist. But to automatically label all who question social welfare programs as a bunch of self-righteous misers who think the poor too stupid or lazy to provide for themselves is both a judgmental and counterproductive approach.

True proponents of limited government have great faith in the common man – so much, in fact, that they reject the notion that an elite group of central planners has the right, capacity, or need to tell people how to manage their money or be better people. They believe that, while life isn’t fair or easy, government mandates dictated by the special interests aren’t either (and they’re more expensive to boot).

True conservatives believe in laissez-faire, not corporate bailouts, special deals and crony capitalism. Indeed, though conservatives and libertarians are usually accused of “trickle-down economics” because of their commitment to lower taxes, it is the big-government Republicans and Democrats who insist that the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach of the federal government is the best way to force the economy and society to run properly. Somehow, they say, the money will filter through the bureaucracy back to states, counties, and individual citizens.

Believing government has the power for good does not make you an evil or unintelligent person. By the same token, believing in solutions other than the use of government force does not necessarily mean you are indifferent to the people or issues at hand. Binary ‘right’ and ‘left’ political positions, polarized and exaggerated by reporters and talking heads, are often poor representations of personal desires, beliefs and lifestyles. If we really want less gridlock and more action, we should take care when implying otherwise.

Contact Josh Jones at [email protected].

Josh Jones is a libertarian-leaning columnist for The Stanford Daily and serves as Executive Editor of The Stanford Review. The son of a Marine, Josh has lived in various places around the globe, but usually identifies as a Southern Californian. While he enjoys reading, writing, and exercising, he believes that God and family are the true sources of happiness in his life. He plans to major in Public Policy and attend law school.

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