cheap compassion

The Kennedy Legacy

Luci Baines Johnson:

Senator Kennedy was our family’s cherished friend and the defender of the flame for social justice our parents believed in – decent health care, education, and civil rights for every American. He could have had a life of self service; he chose a life of public service.

Jeff Jacoby:

Born into riches and influence, he could have lived a life of ease, indulging his appetites and paying scant attention to those less fortunate. He chose a different life, and became a towering advocate for the deprived, the disabled, and the dispossessed. I didn’t always like his answers, but I honor him for caring so greatly about the questions.

Don Boudreaux:

While Kennedy didn’t choose a life of ease, he did something much worse: he chose a life of power. That choice satisfied an appetite that is far grosser, baser, and more anti-social than are any of the more private appetites that many rich people often choose to satisfy.

Americans would have been much better off had Ted Kennedy spent his wealth exclusively, say, on the pursuit of sexual experiences and the building of palatial private homes in which to cavort, or to take drugs, or to engage in whatever private dissipations his wealth afforded him.

Instead, Mr. Kennedy spent much of his wealth and time pursuing power over others (and of the garish ‘glory’ that accompanies such power). He did waste his life satisfying unsavory appetites; unfortunately, the appetites he satisfied were satisfied not only at his expense, but at the expense of the rest of us. Mr. Kennedy’s constant feeding of his appetite for power wasted away other people’s prosperity and liberties.

I am squarely with Boudreaux.

As for Kennedy’s “public service” and “caring,” which might be called altruistic, I say this:

There is no essential difference between altruism . . . and the pursuit of self-interest. . . . In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.*

Americans — poor and rich alike — have paid, and paid dearly, for the assuagement of Edward Kennedy’s ego.

That notwithstanding, Kennedy will be remembered, for the most part, as a “compassionate” politician. But his “compassion” was purchased with our liberty and prosperity.

Related reading: “Red Ted” (at Classical Values), “The Dark Side of Ted Kennedy’s Legacy” (at Carpe Diem), and “Kennedy’s Big Government Paternalism” (at Real Clear Politics).

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* I do not mean to disparage acts that have beneficial consequences, merely the assumptions that (a) behavior labeled “altruistic” is unselfish and (b) motivation is more important than result. For more on the second point, see this post.