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2016 Conservatism
Rick Garlikov

Hillsdale College president, Larry P. Arnn, gives his explanation of the appeal, ascendance, and justification of conservatism in the 2016 elections in the article “A More American Conservatism”  in the college’s publication Imprimis (December 2016 • Volume 45, Number 12).    It is essentially the philosophy that centralized control by the Federal government (particularly with rule by too copious, countless, complex, cumbersome regulations rather than by law or principle) impedes the economic growth that would allow the middle class to thrive and the poor to escape poverty.  He argues that local institutions and state and local government are more aware of and responsive to the needs and will of the people and would be far more likely to operate in their best interests without interference and obstacles from the regulatory agencies of centralized, federal government.  This seems consistent with the comments and speeches made by many conservative political candidates, pundits, businessmen, and elected officials.  

I will try to show that the belief is only reasonable however only when a majority of the legislators (at any level) recognize a problem needs their assistance to remedy and that, for at least three different reasons, along with history itself,  conservatism of this sort is seriously flawed because states and local governments and institutions too often ignore the injustices, inequities, and other problems which do not affect a majority of constituents and/or they do not have the resources to reasonably address or remedy them even if they were to recognize them.  Notice, this is not to argue that centralized federal control is the right alternative.  This is a false dichotomy because the problem of governance is not about who should govern but about which laws, policies, and programs are right or best.  And the liberal/conservative dichotomy is also a false one, since 1) people can be conservative in some areas and liberal in others, and 2) what is right to do may be neither liberal nor conservative in any meaningful or useful sense.  Neither liberals nor conservatives have a monopoly on truth or virtue.

Dr. Arnn wrote:  

“If American conservatism means anything, then, it means the things found at the beginning of America, when it became a nation.”  

That to begin with should signal problems for black people and women, since they did not fare well in the laws governing, and the practices guiding, the nation for at least the first century and a half.  But Arnn goes on to try to make his case:

“our government has swollen beyond recognition, and it is centralized to a degree unimagined in the Constitution. Laws are made now chiefly by regulatory agencies that combine in themselves all three powers of government.”

Rule by regulators essentially eliminates, from those enterprises which are today governed primarily by regulation rather than by laws, many of the checks and balances built into separation of powers of government,  and it negates the concept of rule by representatives elected by the people and subject to their approval through re-election.

“It means that the government is separate from the people, and it means that the government grows.”

“The government has grown so large that it is a major factor in everything, including elections, and is in the position of taking on a will of its own. It is on the verge of being too big for private people to manage. This is the political crisis of our time. No policy question, with the exception of imminent major war, which we do not have right now, can matter so much.”

His solution is essentially to give control back to states and local government, but we had that to begin with and it didn’t work originally for two or three reasons and would work even less well now for another in addition to those.  While I do not doubt or dispute the problem with regulation, it is not that it is centralized that is what is wrong with it, and decentralizing it won’t remedy that problem.

Even when Congress passes bad laws, it is not the fact they came from Congress that makes them bad. States, counties, and local governments pass bad laws too.  It is not who passes laws or promulgates regulations that makes them bad; it is their content.  When Arnn writes about decentralizing control of schools by wresting it away from the Department of Education and allowing more charter schools, he asks:

“What if the federal government required states to pass charter laws that delegated wide latitude and real authority to schools, not to the Department of Education or to state departments of education or to school districts? What if it relied, not upon high-stakes centralized testing as in Common Core, but in the simple fact that parents and teachers are much more likely to care for students than strangers, even if those strangers are highly trained federal bureaucrats?”  

Arnn, and many people, both liberal and conservative, confuse problems with particular policies and regulations with how they were made and who made them.  The focus should be on which policies and programs are right or wrong and why, not on how they came about or who created them.  I say that because I see no reason to believe local authorities do any better, or often even any different, than federal ones, and there is every reason, based on both history, human nature, and scale of problems and resources, to believe they do worse in certain kinds of cases I will explain subsequently.  

High stakes testing, for example, is implemented at state and local levels too.  I do not know whether state and local officials care more about their constituents than federal officials do or not, but I see no evidence that they do or that however much caring state and local officials do therefore creates or fosters better policies.  Each relatively affluent suburb of Birmingham has its own school system and school board, with many citizens active in the direction of the board and the schools.  Yet they do not always make good policies.   (Even loving parents who care about their children do not necessarily do what is best or even right for the children educationally or otherwise.)  So if the problem is high stakes testing or some other specific policy, program, or actions, then address that, do not argue it won’t occur under local control or that caring people wouldn’t have it.  The state of Alabama, for example implemented high stakes testing in the form of a state high school graduation exit exam.  It had serious problems, and since has been abandoned.  The problems with it were not with where and how it originated, but with what it contained, its format, how it was graded and used, how it influenced what was taught and not taught and the manner in which it was taught. Local parents were not immune to thinking it either a good idea or at worst a harmless one, since their students were going to pass it.  See “The Alabama  High School Curriculum and Exit Exam”.  Arnn is right that such exams can be problematic, but that is for certain problems which need to be understood in regard to education in general so as not to arise in other forms, practices, and  policies, no matter who creates them.

Or just look at local businesses and government offices.  People in power in government agencies or private institutions, no matter whether at the state, local or federal level, do not tend to have sufficient empathy and compassion.  “Your call is important to us, so please do not hang up ... [even though you have to wait a long, long time or even though we may never answer, because while, yes your money is important to us, you yourself and your needs are not important enough to us to have sufficient service for you.]”  I live in a small municipality and it is consistently almost impossible to get a human being on the phone or to call you back in some of the departments in city government.   Other departments are extremely responsive and helpful.  Size is not the issue, but the competence and conscientiousness of the specific people and supervisors involved.  A new mayor and city council were installed in office more than two months ago, as of this writing, and even their contact information is not yet available on the city’s website.  No phone numbers, no email addresses.  So much for the greater accountability, caring, and responsiveness of local government.  Of course, obviously you can more likely have personal contact with your local mayor than you can with the President or even your governor, because there are more constituents for the latter two than the former and governors and Presidents do not have time to meet with many of them.  But federal agencies have state and local offices in many cases, and those are as more or less responsive to you as is any local government office or business, depending on the quality of the personnel.

It is also the case that in some large institutions, you can achieve more satisfying results than in smaller ones because in smaller institutions there is no alternative to the first person or two that ignores your problem or denies your requests.  In larger institutions, you can at least sometimes go up the ladder until you find someone with the power, willingness, capability, and knowledge to help you.

Or consider the fact that various local television news stations have a service on behalf of viewers who enlist their help dealing with inadequate businesses and government responsiveness to problems.  They contact the business or government agency to make them aware their responses and actions or inactions will be spotlighted on the news, but it seems that should be unnecessary under Dr. Arnn’s view of the virtues of conservative and small, local government.  Unfortunately it is still necessary.  Small or local government is not necessarily more responsive, more caring, more honest, or more competent than large or centralized government.  The same is true with business; the differences in quality of customer care varies from business to business, regardless of their size.  Some large companies have excellent customer care while other do not.  Some small companies have excellent quality care while others do not.  Small ‘niche’ businesses that specialize in one or a few things may offer services or products  a large company does not, but some large companies offer services or products that small businesses cannot.  The amount and kind of services available are often about the size of an institution and the population size of the area they serve, but quality of customer care and responsiveness is not about the size or proximity of the business or government.

Arnn goes on to say:

“The chairman of our education program at Hillsdale College has written a series of standards that states might adopt for K-12 education. For each grade, they take up about half a page. But if a child can do the things on that half a page, the child has learned a lot. Here is a way for higher levels of government to be sure that any money they give to lower levels is well spent in education. It involves hardly any management of details. That is the constitutional model, the model that comes from our Founding.”

“To follow this practice would liberalize the system. It would mean that there would be plenty of bad charter schools, just as there are plenty of bad schools now. But it would also mean that there would be a proliferation of good ones.”

But even if the Hillsdale model of educational standards is a good one, there is no reason to believe it, or anything like it, will be that widely adopted or properly implemented.  And if it is a good one, why shouldn’t the Department of Education require its implementation everywhere, replacing the regulations Arnn says are too numerous and too complex to work with.  Surely it is not the centralization of the federal government but any bad policies or requirements or regulations they have that is the problem, and if the Hillsdale educational plan is much better, then why would it not be good for the federal government to require its implementation everywhere unless an equally good or better one is available.

Even at the local level today, there are numerous inner city schools taught by local teachers who do not teach very well because they are often not knowledgeable enough about teaching their subject matter, caring enough about the success of their student, or capable of motivating or inspiring them to learn.  And even if caring could be equated with competence, the fact parents and local school boards might care about their own children’s education doesn’t mean they care about other children’s education, particularly the education of minorities or women.  At the state level, the “separate but equal” days in the South for public schools were only separate, not equal; and minority schools in the North in de facto segregated cities did not fare as well as they should have either.  And, since caring does not equate with or necessarily cause competence anyway,  the bad charter schools could be worse than the bad schools now, or at least just as bad, no matter how much the teachers, administrators, or parents care about the students.  

There is a structural reason that for certain problems, state and local control can be, and often is, worse than some form of central control or at least coordination.  Getting a majority of legislators to act will be more difficult at state and local levels when problems not only do not afflict a majority of people but where the people who are affected are relatively few -- particularly for rare, so-called orphan conditions -- and do not reach a threshold number in total to make it feasible to solve or prevent the problem, if it is even recognized as a problem that could and should be solved.  Only at a regional or national level are there in such cases sufficient people affected to make some problems noticeable enough to show their significance; and only at those levels are there likely sufficient resources to be able to address them.  When there is not a majority or large enough minority number to be affected, the problems tend not to be considered important enough to deal with by people who are not compassionate and empathetic, because there is no political reason for them to act.  

The fact that any cause has to be visibly supported by large numbers of people to get legislators or businesspeople in general to notice and address it is a sad commentary on their level of empathy and compassion.  Compassionate, understanding people see that the suffering of any individual is important and needs to be addressed and ameliorated or remedied when possible and feasible.  It should not take large numbers of people to show you that a problem is a problem that needs your attention.  But when people are callous, it is at least good that large numbers can sometimes show them they need to do something.  So large numbers and majorities have their use when on the side of right, even if that is not the best way the system should have to work.  And, of course, the Bill of Rights and other sections of the original Constitution of the United States make it clear that simple majorities by themselves are not always on the side of right and do not justify violating the rights or ignoring the needs of smaller groups or individuals.  (See Constitutional Safeguards For Majority Rule.)  

Moreover, even when significant numbers of people are affected, the significance is sometimes masked by a diluted distribution of them.  For example, automobile accidents in the United States kill more than 30,000 people each year, but they do not receive the kind of attention a plane crash does that kills far fewer people, just all at one place and time.  Even less attention is paid to deaths from medical errors which kill 250,000 people each year in the United States, meaning on average nearly 5000 people per week and some 8 times the number of fatalities from automobile accidents.  A Johns Hopkins report, published in the medical journal BMJ, according to NPR, says:

“On the CDC's official list, that would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths.

“Medical mistakes that can lead to death range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to mix-ups with the doses or types of medications patients receive.

“But no one knows the exact toll taken by medical errors. In significant part, that's because the coding system used by CDC to record death certificate data doesn't capture things like communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors and poor judgment that cost lives, the study says.”

So even serious problems that affect a large number of people can go relatively unnoticed when the people affected are widely dispersed and the causes not readily apparent or easily contributed to false ones. That is worse for serious problems that affect relatively few people when they too are widely dispersed and/or generally mistakenly considered to be at fault for their own harm or troubles, or when the harms that occur are considered normal and not really the result of a problem which needs to be recognized and solved.

So although I do not dispute or doubt the problem of overzealous regulation or its seriousness,  I want to point out the problems with Dr. Arnn’s supposedly conservative remedy of local control necessarily or likely being better.  Strangulation of progress by too copious and/or misguided overregulation of process overzealously applied is a serious problem.  But equally as serious are the problems regulation is meant to prevent.  The ‘conservative’ solution put forth by Dr. Arnn reduces regulation but not the harmful consequences of the original problems, many of which arise from lack of knowledge and understanding, lack of caring, and/or lack of awareness or proper concern for the potential amount of devastation, all of which can and do occur at local and state levels as well as the federal one -- and sometimes even are more likely to occur at the local level or state level.

Potential Devastation

The industrial and digital ‘revolutions’ have given rise to the power of both intentional and accidental mass destruction and harm on scales neither possible nor likely imaginable at the time the Constitution was written.  It is one thing to allow people and businesses to have great freedom and autonomy without oversight or regulation when relatively little, even though individually serious, harm can ensue from it; quite another to allow it when it can easily result in significant, irreparable harm for many people.  Freedom and autonomy are important, but do not outweigh or override the need to prevent great harm, particularly on a potentially large scale.  They do not even override or outweigh the need to prevent known planned harms to one or a few individuals from being carried out.

Legislatures cannot anticipate nor even keep up with the knowledge necessary to try to prevent modern industrial/digital harm, so it is reasonable for them to delegate the task to experts in the form of regulating agencies.  Getting rid of regulators and their agencies won’t get rid of the potential harms mass production and distribution can cause if left to local governments operating politically or to free markets based merely on a financial profit motive.  The need in a complex world for expert knowledge (and for some form of motivation for compliance with good practices that doesn’t rely on just the perceived self-interest of all players) to prevent significant harm and devastation is not a creation of liberals or liberalism.  Conservatives (and liberals alike) believe that defense (whether in the form of military for external threats from abroad or police for threats from criminals within society) is a legitimate role of government, but defense from internal industrial and social harm, especially large scale harm, is just as important as military and police protection.  Regulation to prevent (mass) harm and to provide the grounds to punish it, is a legitimate function of government, I think, and prior prevention of harm is preferable to prosecution after it.  


On the second evening of the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan said “Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference. It’s understanding that by the true measure we are all neighbors and countrymen, called, each one of us, to know what is right and kind and just, and to go and do likewise."  And “On July 4th, 1853, the first chairman of the Board [of Trustees of Hillsdale College in Michigan], Edmund Fairfield, who was also at the time the president of the College, offered this definition of freedom during his speech to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for the first college building in Hillsdale:  ‘Unrestrained freedom is anarchy. Restrained only by force and arms, is despotism; self-restrained is Republicanism. Wherever there is wanting the intelligence and virtue requisite for the latter, Republicanism expires.’” (

The rule of law is precarious and sometimes pointless without the role of empathy, compassion, and moral decency.  And since empathy, compassion, and moral decency, or as Fairfield put it “intelligence and virtue” are too often absent altogether or in short supply, the rule of law is thus always precarious and sometimes pointless.  Witness Congress and Wall Street even when they obey the law and their own rules.  Loopholes and inadequate prior preventions of unanticipated possible acts  abound.  But decency and morality do not have loopholes and do not require prior anticipation to prevent bad acts, as long as what makes them bad or wrong can be discovered before it is too late to stop or reverse them.  Decent people act the way they do from belief about what is right, not from adherence to laws or fear of consequences for breaking them.  That is not to say decent people cannot and do not sometimes disagree about what is right or that they never make unintentional mistakes, but typically that is in difficult, complex, or borderline cases.  And even then they try to understand each other and care about knowing what the right thing is.  So I understand Dr. Arnn’s position that decent, knowledgeable people do not need, and should not be burdened by, excessive law and regulation.  But even otherwise decent people too often lack awareness of the suffering and needs of others or the potential harms to others their actions might cause,  particularly those not ‘like’ them; and even decent, intelligent people too often lack knowledge of the best ways to prevent, remedy, or ameliorate suffering and to meet or reduce the  needs of others when they are recognized.

Empathy and compassion are typically both important and are not the same thing.  There are different meanings for empathy and I am using it here in perhaps its simplest form of understanding that someone else is suffering and its relative intensity or degree, even if you don’t feel the anguish yourself or know exactly how it feels.  You can still understand another person’s physical pain without feeling it yourself or knowing exactly how they feel.  Many men feel terrible about their wife going through the pain of delivering a baby without knowing specifically how it feels.  They can tell it is severe.  With regard to mental suffering over some terrible loss, you can tell another is feeling bereft, angry, despairing, disconsolate, heartbroken, mournful, and desolate, without having to feel or to have felt it yourself to that same degree.  When someone has suffered a terrible loss, often they will attack anyone who says “I understand how you must be feeling” with the response “You haven’t gone through what I have, so you can’t possibly know how I feel.”  That is an unfair response and it misunderstands empathy to be the exact sharing or precise understanding of the anguish instead of simply realizing and appreciating the depth of it.  It is unreasonable to expect or require sympathy to stem only from exact understanding of a feeling, particularly when from day to day and circumstance to circumstance our own feelings of our sorrow, despair, and anguish change, and we cannot always remember how we felt in the past or anticipate how we will feel in the future.  Someone else doesn’t have to be us, or go through exactly what we are going through, to understand us.  

But understanding someone else’s plight without compassion -- without caring enough to at least try to remedy it or prevent it or its recurrence, or assuage the suffering of its consequences -- is of no help to them either, particularly if one has the power to prevent it or remedy it.  In too many cases, those who have gone through a difficult situation and survived it actually empathize less with a current sufferer because they think if they can get past it or even find good in it, you ought to also.  These are the kind of people who tend to say things like “It will make a man out of you,” “the hardest steels go through the hottest fire,” “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or “everybody has gone through this; quit complaining.”

And it typically requires at least some empathy, in the at least minimal sense of understanding another person’s fears or suffering, to be able to prevent, alleviate, or remedy them (without having to be forced to simply by concern for one’s own political, legal, or financial benefit).  Compassion (even self-serving, financially, legally, or politically motivated ‘compassion’) without sufficient knowledge of the problem, is susceptible to empty gestures and inadequate or meaningless laws.  When coyotes in one western state were on the endangered species list, they began to become so prevalent that they were killing more and more sheep and other livestock, and farmers wanted to be permitted to shoot them.  At a meeting of farmers and legislators about this, an enthusiastic young activist from an animal rights group lobbied for a more ‘humane’ approach -- letting their group set traps for the coyotes and they would catch and neuter the males to keep the population down.  One of the grizzled old farmers listened attentively and politely and then, after being recognized to speak, said “Son, I don’t think you are adequately appreciating our problem.  We are trying to prevent the coyotes from eating our sheep, not from mating with them.”  (He said it more colorfully, but this will do for here.)  While the activist cared about the farmer’s dilemma and the long range problem, he did not recognize the immediate problem that his offered solution did not sufficiently address.

I recently moved into a new subdivision of a small municipality in the Birmingham area, and there were houses for sale in this subdivision that were at the bottom of fairly high, steep hills.  It seemed to me that people who bought houses at the bottom of hills were idiots undeserving of help, but intelligent people moved into those homes after being given false or at least mistaken assurances by the developer that more than adequate drainage measures were in place.  After attending some planning and zoning board meetings for a different matter, and having talked with a knowledgeable and forthright member of that board who was also a city councilman, I now I think cities need to make sure houses are not built at the bottom of hills unless truly adequate measures are put in place to prevent flooding of the yards and houses -- and by truly adequate measures, I do not mean runoff trenches that are difficult to access and maintain and which become overgrown with vegetation that prevents the runoff, causing flooding.  Home buyers do not have the expertise to assess the quality of drainage, especially when given false assurances by a builder selling the home.  The main point of regulations should be to prevent harms before they might occur, not just provide grounds to punish their perpetrators after they are caused.   And insofar as that takes particular expertise, in this case engineering expertise, and the planning and zoning board has consulting engineers, they should assume the responsibility to make sure homes are adequately protected from flooding after normal rainfalls.

But as it stands in this municipality, the planning and zoning board enforces existing city laws in issuing construction permits and rezoning property, and they are sensitive to protests of local residents as well.  That leaves a serious vacuum for their decisions permitting construction that violate common sense applied to specific engineering expertise but which do not violate existing law and that current residents do not know will be problematic and thus do not protest prior to project approval.   Since the planning and zoning board with consultation from its engineers should know these decisions would have generated protests had the residents known the facts, and will in fact generate justified resentment and protest after the fact when it is too late to do anything about it, it is my view they should therefore deny constructions of that sort without sufficient modification to prevent the problems; and that they at least should make sure that current and prospective residents are aware of the likely problems if construction were to be permitted as designed and submitted to them.  

I am in the process of trying to get the planning and zoning board and the city council to see it should be an additional mission of theirs not only to be sensitive to actual protests of new developments, but to be more proactive in anticipating highly likely protests that would arise after the damage is done.  But I am not confident they will see that.  They currently, for example, allow blasting on new construction sites located near existing homes and they allow deep excavations of land adjacent to existing property, turning yards into near-precipices at the edge of long steep slopes.  It is my contention that humane, empathetic board members, with access to the engineering knowledge, who are sensitive to the needs of residents of a community would not do that.  But I don’t expect the city administration or the members of the planning and zoning board -- no matter how local they all are -- to accept my view in the face of economic growth and development of the municipality.  I expect utilitarianism to trump fairness.

Local/state/smaller group control makes it easier to ignore orphan conditions because insufficient people can bring problem to the attention of those who need numbers to do what they cannot either empathize with or be compassionate about it.  Where deference to the political or economic or even just the sheer power of numbers has to make up for lack of understanding, compassion and empathy, insufficient numbers of those harmed places them in peril.  (When people are attacked in isolated small groups intentionally, it is the philosophy of dividing to conquer, but local governments bring a natural division simply on their own and that can be just as harmful to those who suffer, essentially in isolation, from ‘orphan’ conditions).  

Prior to the mid 1950’s when polio was feared by all, much research was funded, especially by donations to the March of Dimes.  But that does not happen with diseases (or other issues) that affect few, unless the few are concentrated in small area.  Zika virus and mosquitoes seems to be an example with regard to Congress versus Florida.  Florida did the best they could in spot spraying for Zika mosquitoes, but the Congress would not appropriate money for more.  That is an example where local or state government is more sensitive to a problem, but unable to deal with it sufficiently.   But slavery or Jim Crow seems to be counter-example with regard to states versus country as a whole.  It all seems to depend on whether people feel vulnerable to the condition or not, when there is little or no empathy or compassion for those who are vulnerable.  White people in the early South did not have to fear being made slaves; and in the later South they did not have to fear Jim Crow laws.  Throughout history men did not have to fear becoming subject to laws that relegated women to second class citizenship. Consciousness-raising is important but is difficult to do with people who are not compassionate or understanding or who lack empathy.  

So insofar as people in any second class or minority situation cannot count on either the wisdom or the empathy of legislators, they have to have sufficient absolute numbers to generate a political response.  That often requires centralized federal attention, not local, state, or even regional attention, because only at the federal level are the numbers large enough to achieve the attention of those who would care about them.  It is not just the absolute magnitude of the number of people harmed but that magnitude relative to the number of people who would see it as wrong and needing remedy.  E.g., the magnitude of the number of slaves in slave states was the same as its magnitude throughout the country insofar as there were not slaves elsewhere, but the proportion of the number of slaves to the number of people who thought slavery was wrong was greater in the country as a whole than it was in the slave states.  

Unfortunately, as is usually the case (and as it is in calling for deregulation), those who correctly see something to be a serious problem that needs remedy, do not see the harm (to others, or even sometimes also to themselves) that is prevented by the problem they want to eliminate.  And they thus cause a different problem by the manner in which they eliminate the one they see.  In regard to slavery, slaves were the way Southern plantation owners and large businesses had grown dependent on to turn a profit or even just earn a living.  That didn’t justify slavery of course, but it justified seeking an alternative to slavery (and to slave wages for impoverished freed slaves) which would not then cause serious economic problems for business and agriculture, and thus for most people, blacks and whites, in the slave states.

It does little good overall to eliminate a problem that causes an equal or larger problem for others or sometimes even for all, as when war to eliminate a ruthless, evil dictator only ends up balkanizing a country or region because there was no understanding of the larger problem that dictator prevented and that most likely let him/her achieve power in the first place.  Whenever problem A solves or prevents problem B, ending problem A, without recognizing and appreciating the seriousness of problem B and trying to remedy it as well,  just lets problem B surface or resurface.  As of this writing (prior to President Trump’s inauguration, Congress is determined to repeal the Affordable Care Act they call “Obamacare”, but have no replacement for the 20-something million people who will lose their health care insurance, and they have no replacement that will apparently save the significant amount of money which will then have to be spent on medical care that the Affordable Health Care supposedly saves.

However, notice that while the (relative) magnitude of the number of slaves (to the number of people who thought slavery abhorrent) worked to fight and end slavery, it did not work with regard to trying to eradicate Zika and has had problems in regard to accepting the philosophy of bailouts of major cities or large, important institutions at risk of bankruptcy, even when some of those bailouts went through and helped the beneficiaries.   Without sufficient empathy, compassion, and understanding, even large numbers of those who suffer from a problem will not evoke action to end it.

That being realized by some people, there are principles and ideas that try to generate empathy.  The  Golden Rule tries to do that by having you imagine yourself in the other person’s circumstances and how you would like to be treated.  Same with the expression “Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.”  And philosopher John Rawls had a ‘veil of ignorance’ principle by which lawmakers and citizens are asked to create laws as if they would not yet know what their position would be in society -- perhaps as if they were not yet born or conceived.  These are all thought to make people more understanding of the needs of others, but they often fail for two reasons, besides the fact that some people cannot see something from outside their own perspective, self, or circumstances at all:

1) what people want for themselves is not always right.  E.g., how would you want to be treated if you were a convicted brutal serial killer -- probably not with either prison or execution.  But that doesn’t make prison or execution wrong for brutal serial killers.

And there can even be bad arguments based on wrongful empathy even when the conclusion sought is a correct one, but not because of empathy.   On one episode of Law and Order in a case about a defendant being tried for the killing of a doctor who performed abortions, and where the defense argued that the killing was morally justified to prevent more killing (of babies), prosecutor Jack McCoy told the members of the jury that if they find the defendant not guilty, they had better hope that someday he doesn’t find some moral fault with them.  But that is not at issue, because they also had better hope they are never legally executed or even put in prison either, but that doesn’t make legal executions or imprisonment of a guilty person who deserves it wrong, even if s/he doesn’t want to suffer it and even if you wouldn’t want to suffer it if you did what s/he did.  Whether it was wrong or not for the defendant to have killed the doctor should not depend on whether he might kill you.  Whether it was justified or not should not depend on whether he might, whether justifiably or not, kill you, or think you deserve to die.  McCoy’s argument is tantamount to saying that someone being tried for murder because he killed someone in self-defense should be found guilty or otherwise you had better hope he never thinks you are trying to kill him.

But 2) the Golden Rule and other methods for encouraging morality based on empathy alone fail when mistaken deference to a wrong principle outweighs empathetic understanding, as when Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum could not understand why someone like Anita Hill would not have risked her job standing up to Clarence Thomas’ alleged harassment of her, since he said that even if he lost his job and everything, he could get myself a new job and recoup what he had lost.  President Reagan said the same kind of thing about their being sufficient opportunity in the country for anyone to become successful.  They mistakenly think because they now know how to work the system and have the resources and friendships to do that, the system is fair and anyone can do it.  So if you ask them if they were born to the single mother of a black high school dropout, could they reasonably succeed, they would think they could.  I think that while it is possible they could, the odds would be seriously against it.  They cannot really relate to the situation or they think that no further assistance should be necessary or important.  It is not totally unlike Mitt Romney’s seriously intended advice to those lacking the money to go to college to borrow it from their parents, as if everyone could do that and every parent had the money to lend.   It does no good to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation if you mistakenly think it would not be a serious problem for you then.

Rationales for regulation are important, not who determines the regulations.  But some people are more likely to have fuller awareness and understanding of the problem than others.  In the Arnn article, he uses Hillsdale College to illustrate his points because Hillsdale College has been exemplary in many ways without being required to by regulations that would have caused them unnecessary problems.

But the college was founded in 1844, when slavery in the South was in full force and they sought to change that, even by many students enlisting with the Union to fight in the Civil War.  It seems pretty clear that the college at its inception was aware that states rights by themselves and local control by itself did not yield moral results.  States and local governments in the South did not eliminate slavery on their own.  The quotation from Edmund Fairfield above recognizes that limitation.  And since social progress is not a given, Paul Ryan’s point shows it is thwarted when the circle of concern and protection do not widen, and when respect and empathy do not overtake blindness and indifference.

Admirably, Hillsdale has opposed discrimination from the beginning:

“Though established by Freewill Baptists, Hillsdale has been officially non-denominational since its inception. It was the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination based on race, religion, or sex, and became an early force for the abolition of slavery. It was also the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women.” (from  

And many of its students fought for the Union in the Civil War.  However, its example in these areas did not end discrimination elsewhere.  So it cannot be used to illustrate a model of governance of a country.

Plus, there is a potential problem or at least anomaly that seems worth pointing out, that I will try to do fairly here.

From the college’s website:

Hillsdale’s modern rise to prominence occurred in the 1970s. On the pretext that some of its students were receiving federal loans, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare attempted to interfere with the College’s internal affairs, including a demand that Hillsdale begin counting its students by race. Hillsdale’s trustees responded with two toughly worded resolutions: One, the College would continue its policy of non-discrimination. Two, “with the help of God,” it would “resist, by all legal means, any encroachments on its independence.”

Following almost a decade of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against Hillsdale in 1984. By this time, the College had announced that rather than complying with unconstitutional federal regulation, it would instruct its students that they could no longer bring federal taxpayer money to Hillsdale. Instead, the College would replace that aid with private contributions.

[Part of that should probably be stated on their website as ‘...rather than complying with what it argued was unconstitutional federal regulation,...’]

I do understand that the HEW’s requirements can be unfairly and unreasonably intrusive, and yet also ineffective in preventing discrimination, so I am not contesting Hillsdale’s opposing them in court or avoiding them by no longer accepting federal taxpayer money or allowing students to use federal funds to pay for attending, as long as they are still adequately helping those students.  And the college did try to solve the discrimination problem by better, voluntary means instead of just remedying the problems HEW regulations caused and then ignoring the problems they were intended to address.  

However, the pictures on the college’s website, particularly the group photo of the Hillsdale College Board of Trustees

does not inspire confidence that the needs of minorities and women will be understood and met by Hillsdale or other colleges that would act in the same way.  The board of trustees is all white, almost all male, and mostly older.  And though I would not claim that older white men cannot best understand and meet the educational needs of female and minority students or that women and minorities by virtue of their sex or race are wiser and more fair, more inclusion of women and non-whites would seem more likely to provide an important perspective at least.  The photo brought to mind humorist Dave Barry’s cynical and sarcastic characterization of the United States Senate at the time he made it: “White Male Millionaires Working for You."  And even if Hilldale’s board of trustees are perfectly wise, compassionate, knowledgeable people, I don’t think that every college board of trustees with the same race, age, and gender composition would be, even if the smartest and nicest white males comprised them.  

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