• Fall 2018
  • Issue 12

Opportunity Road

First in a Series on Compassionate Conservitism

What Compassionate Conservatism Means Now: An Open Letter from the Editors


The Catalyst is launching the first of four consecutive editions on the meaning of compassionate conservatism in today’s world. This open letter from the members of this journal’s editorial board comes 15 years to the month that President Bush provided a clear delineation of his philosophy in a London address.

We believe in open societies ordered by moral conviction. We believe in private markets humanized by compassionate government. We believe in economies that reward effort, communities that protect the weak, and the duty of nations to respect the dignity and the rights of all.

Those words come from an address that President George W. Bush delivered at Whitehall in London on November 19, 2003. While he was speaking to the moment, the president’s statement of beliefs provides a clear description of the compassionate conservatism that he put at the center of his time in office in Washington as well as during his governorship in Texas. In fact, this creed is etched into the entrance to the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. 

As leaders of that policy institute, we believe these principles remain a compelling guide for our large, diverse nation. They are as important for America today as they were 15 years ago this month. The polarized period in which we live calls out for a renewal of our civic covenant, one that affirms a common purpose and recognizes that mutual respect is the means by which we keep our nation bound together.

We recognize that others will draw upon different principles as they envision our common purpose. We welcome those differences. The clash of ideas and values has been essential to our nation’s progress since the Republic’s founding. But we believe in compassionate conservatism for these reasons: 

Open societies are the signature of democracy.

Rooted in freedom, they uphold the dignity of each individual, recognizing that the right to speak freely, worship as one likes or not at all, and chart one's destiny are shared human aspirations. Open societies value women and men alike, and, in so doing, their emphasis on equality speaks to our being made in the image of the Divine. They compel us to do unto our neighbor as we would like them to do unto us. 

These are among the moral convictions that guide and shape open societies, which embrace the rule of law, equal liberties for every citizen, and the right to protest against injustices. Free societies are never assured, so their people must constantly guard against the encroachment of any form of tyranny. Yet when freedom reigns, a nation's people are afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams and realize a common purpose.

Private markets are a cornerstone of an open society, creating a vibrant economy that allows its citizens to reap the fruit of their labors.

A thriving private sector provides the small business owner, the farmer, the entrepreneur, the rising corporate star, and the newly-minted college graduate alike the chance to enjoy a life of purpose and prosperity. 

Just as the individual voter is the building block of democracy, the consumer is at the center of private, competitive markets. The producer must compete for the consumer’s favor, which empowers consumers and, ultimately, gives them authority over corporations and businesses. And just as free societies must be cultivated and defended, so too must markets be kept open and nurtured for all to compete.

The marketplace also is where innovation flourishes, whether that is the technological breakthroughs that birthed the digital economy, the fracking revolution that led to new sources of energy, or, longer ago, the development of modes of transportation that allowed Americans to become more mobile than ever imagined. The creativity unleashed through free markets and free trade will be ever more essential as we seek to master ecological challenges and the demands of a fast-growing global population.

A compassionate government is necessary because we cannot forsake those whom society might leave behind.

Such a government does not mean an all-seeing, all-knowing state. We have witnessed the perils of big brother in other nations. A compassionate government instead is a limited, effective institution that frees people to use their talents and gifts.

In some cases that might mean using the levers of the federal and state government to ensure children have access to quality schools that give them the skills to pursue their dreams. In some parts of the world, that will mean caring for those who suffer debilitating diseases like AIDS and cervical cancer so they might enjoy productive lives. For others, that means helping veterans receive the care and services they need to participate fully in the civilian world.

Economies that reward effort speak to the innate human desire to find meaningful work.

Whether in the factory, the office, the home, the farm, or any other essential part of our capitalist economy, policies that reward initiative will enable Americans to put their talents to work — in turn fueling our economy. 

Similarly, tax codes that let the entrepreneur profit from his or her relentless work will grow the capital our economy needs for future investment. By contrast, welfare programs that discourage work do neither the recipient nor the economy any good, just as government subsidies of the wealthy and secure retard productivity.

Communities that protect the weak create avenues of hope for people who have been oppressed, downtrodden, and forgotten.

Those avenues are often opened up through our towns and cities, our neighborhoods and boroughs, our houses of worship and civic associations. They might be found through the food pantry, the soup kitchen, the mental health facility. Wherever those avenues are discovered, a caring American will be waiting, offering the right hand of fellowship.

The national community also can create avenues of hope by combating discrimination, protecting against violence, and offering a safety net that keeps the least among us from being consigned to a life without means. These protections might require the work of Washington, but it also involves the compassion of the many philanthropies that help form our civil society.

As President Bush often said, governments can spend money, but it cannot change hearts and lives. That is best done by the “armies of compassion” that transform communities as well as our culture.

Nations have a duty to ensure the rights and dignity of all for a profound moral reason.

If one person’s rights and dignity are denied, all people’s rights and dignity are denied. Our nation endured a brutal civil war to learn that lesson, which we must constantly revisit and relearn. Bigotry in any form has no place in America.

But having learned the rights and dignity of all must be guaranteed at home, we cannot turn a blind eye when oppressors brutally trample upon them. Whether in North Korea, Burma, or even in places like Hungary, suppression of democratic institutions like an independent judiciary must be called out.

Nor can we ignore the realities and consequences of poverty, famine, and disease around the world. When refugees and immigrants seek shelter in our country, we need legal, humane ways of welcoming them. As we do, we should not forget how they make America a richer, more competitive nation.

Wounds that are allowed to fester in other nations can lead to destructive acts on our own soil, but they also limit the potential of human beings around the world to use the talents a merciful Creator has bestowed upon us all. The remedy is helping other nations develop through the power of markets, the spread of international trade, and the use of development assistance that spawns results.


We believe these ideals lead to free and just societies around the world, open markets that promote growth and opportunity, compassionate institutions that serve individuals, and a vigorous yet respectful American role in the world. As President Bush concluded in his address at Whitehall, "Whether one learns these ideals in County Durham or in West Texas, they instill mutual respect, and they inspire common purpose."