George W. Bush is viewed widely by Republicans as the person who will save their party and lead it back to the White House. But will he? Or will Bush and his supporters actually undermine the future of the Republican Party — and of economic freedom?

Bush advocates an ideology he calls “compassionate conservatism.” This appeasing term was coined by Bush as a feeble attempt to deflect criticism of the GOP for favoring less government. It is a reprise of the theme of his father, whose notion of how to fight the liberalism of his Democratic opponent in 1988 was to declare that the Republicans’ goal was not individualism and capitalism, but a “kinder and gentler nation.”

Following in his father’s timid footsteps, Bush seeks to avoid appearing overly wedded to capitalism by declaring himself a champion of compassion. His motive, as described by an Associated Press report, is “to maintain core GOP values without turning away moderate Republican and Democratic voters.”

But what are those “core values”?

In 1994, the Republicans stood, at least nominally, for a free market. Their “Contract with America” was an attempt to reduce government’s role in our lives. At that time, the GOP leadership spoke of privatizing Social Security, of making significant tax cuts, of initiating school voucher programs. These examples are united by a principle: the right of an individual to spend his money as he sees fit. Because of their commitment to less government control and more freedom, the Republicans won major victories at the polls in 1994.

But they soon abandoned this principle. When the Democrats launched a moral counterattack, accusing their foes of “mean-spiritedness” and of victimizing the poor, the Republicans quickly retreated. Rather than upholding an individual’s moral right to his own wealth — rather than arguing that someone’s poverty does not justify sacrificing another’s prosperity — the Republicans launched a hand-wringing capitulation to the proponents of the welfare state. “We don’t really want to cut social welfare programs,” they stated contritely. “We merely wish to reduce fraud and waste.”

Bush and fellow Republicans have now accepted the moral premise of the Democrats: that you have an unchosen obligation to support anyone whose needs are greater than your own. The “compassionate” Republicans — there is now even something called Center for Effective Compassion — are scrambling to show how generous they can be in giving away the wealth that you have produced.

The respective “core values” of the two parties are becoming indistinguishable. The Republicans may prefer that your money be spent on the state rather than the federal level. They may prefer redistributing your money to promote religious, rather than secular, schools, or to promote “family values” rather than condom giveaways. But, at root, “compassionate conservatism” is simply liberalism with a different name.

What has happened to an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness? Freedom requires the individual’s sovereign right to pursue his own goals and to refuse to be a servant to the needs of society. But the Republicans are moving further and further from such ideals. They not only are refusing to oppose the Democrats’ efforts to expand the role of government but are actively joining that campaign.

“Compassionate conservatism” is in essence nothing more than the theory — and the practice — of the welfare state. If what the conservatives want to “conserve” is the capitalist system, how can redistribution programs be the means?

Bush and the Republican exponents of this “compassionate conservatism” are frightened appeasers, scurrying to avoid being labeled heartless for supporting capitalism and freedom. But where is the “compassion” for those who have to pay for all these handouts? Where is the concern for the productive individual whose taxes are financing the Republicans’ compassion? Where is the concern for justice — for defending the rights of those who have earned the wealth, rather than subordinating them to the needs of those who haven’t?

What once distinguished Republicans was their commitment to limited government. The politics of “compassion,” however, is the politics of liberalism and statism. If Republicans want to secure both their future and the future of freedom in America, they must learn to stop being afraid to take a firm stand for capitalism and individual rights.

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Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written numerous books, including his novel, A Dearth of Eagles, recently published and available from Amazon.