The Wasteland of Leftist Compassion

Compassion is one of the greatest of human virtues. But effective compassion comes with an obligation to do more than what merely feels and sounds good. Public policies motivated by compassion must also consider the full complexity of the challenge—the unintended consequences and the reality of human nature—and strike a balance between what is desired and what is possible. Often the most beneficial expressions of compassion appear harsh and punitive, yet in offering more lasting and comprehensive solutions, do more to alleviate human suffering.

Without taking a balanced and holistic approach to compassion, special interests hijack public policy and reap perpetual profits working on problems that never go away. For them, ineffective compassion is good business. But it leaves behind a wasteland.

If envy and resentment are the currency of the Left—driving, as it does, their attacks on privilege and their demands for equity—then compassion is the gold that backs their currency. Emotional appeals to voters and politicians demanding displays of compassion are the means by which the Left claims the moral high ground. And in those appeals, and the misguided policies that result, entire industries are created—industries populated by individuals whose careers depend on perpetuating the fraud.

In many cases, the consequences of unbalanced compassion are obvious, as anyone can see if they visit the coastal cities of California. It was compassion that motivated state legislators to decriminalize hard drug addiction, now dubbed “substance use disorder.” Compassion was the moral justification to empty California’s prisons and downgrade property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. 

Compassion compelled politicians and judges to rewrite laws that kept mentally ill people safely off the streets.

Compassion was the bludgeon that beat down objections to the disastrous “housing first” rule, which denies funding for drug treatment or job training until free housing—with no conditions for entry—are provided to homeless people. And “compassion” pressured local and state authorities to forego inexpensive shelters in favor of more “equitable” apartment complexes, brand new and located in expensive neighborhoods, at a cost of over $500,000 per unit.

None of this is compassionate, of course. The result of these failed policies are hundreds of thousands of homeless Americans, prey for criminals, desperate for drugs, many of them psychotic, waiting for free housing that costs so much that nothing like an adequate number gets built. They wait, untreated, unaccountable, and dying on the streets. The cities they’ve overrun are often financially ruined, as billions are squandered on compassion-driven policies that merely make the problems of crime and homelessness worse. Entire neighborhoods have become unsanitary and unsafe.

Destroying Rural Landscapes and Livelihoods

Misguided compassion isn’t limited to a few blue cities, however. It has also been weaponized to destroy rural America. Again, California provides a cautionary example. Through manipulative appeals to compassion for wildlife and trees, politicians have been pressured into regulating California’s annual timber harvest down to less than one-quarter of what it was as recently as the 1990s. At the same time, and for similar compassionate reasons, Californians have become extremely adept at extinguishing wildfires, while making it nearly impossible to do controlled burns, mechanical thinning of undergrowth, or graze livestock in the forests—all things known to minimize the likelihood of wildfires.

Here again the consequences of unmoored, compassion-driven policy are devastating. California’s forests are tinderboxes, with trees that are on average at least five times as dense as they’ve been for millennia, along with overgrown underbrush that small, natural fires used to keep in check. When superfires rage through these forests they leave behind a level of destruction with no precedent in history. Naturally, the impulse for those who helped cause it is to blame climate change. But the real culprit is misguided compassion that leads to policy decisions that have precisely the opposite effect of what was intended.

Compassion ran amok is also at work in California’s rivers. The reason native salmon remain endangered has little to do with dams and reservoirs blocking their passage to spawning grounds. Every year, nine fish hatcheries operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with a few more operated by federal agencies, harvest salmon eggs and hatch millions of salmon fry. Once they get big enough, the young salmon are released into the rivers where striped bass, a voracious nonnative species, eat them. But for some reason, these officials believe striped bass also require compassion.

This is misguided compassion at its worst. It is a no-win scenario. Instead of declaring open season on striped bass, whereby anglers would quickly reduce their population to levels no longer constituting a genocidal threat to salmon, or accepting the demise of the salmon, wildlife biologists in California are exploring ways to redesign and micromanage riparian environments to facilitate salmon and bass living together. Altering aquatic vegetation, and carefully timing stream and river volume and temperature, are ways the biologists are attempting this compassionate ecological compromise. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t working. But it has created a lot of jobs.

In the meantime, despite decades of failure, the compassionate strategy requires more water to run through California’s rivers during storms. Of the water that remains in reservoir storage, releases are timed around concerns like increased river flow and lower river temperature rather than the water needs of Californians. One may wonder how this affects California’s farmers. That’s a good question. Farms are systematically eliminated as millions of acres of irrigated farmland come out of production to “save” the salmon.

Inviting Lawless Anarchy—Nowhere is Exempt

The worst compassionate overreach of all can be found in the story of what’s happening in California’s far north, where cartels have taken over most of the drug industry. A recent interview on California Insider with investigative reporter Jorge Ventura, “How Cartels Successfully Take Over Northern California,” offered a troubling peek into what’s happening in the state’s far north. It should come as no surprise that international drug cartels, with billion-dollar budgets and armies of hired killers, can overwhelm the resources of rural police and sheriff departments. But it is nonetheless surprising to see it happening in one of the most pristine corners of America.

In the name of compassion, the international border with Mexico has been thrown wide open, making it easy for cartels to import workers—dubbed “trimmigrants” because they’re put to work trimming marijuana buds. Mexican, Chinese, and Laotian gangs have set up operations in California’s northernmost counties. The Laotian story offers yet another twist on out-of-control compassion, because their leaders have cleverly purchased land on which to grow marijuana. Illegal cultivation on private land was compassionately recategorized a misdemeanor in California, whereas growing illegally on public land (such as in national forests) remains a felony.

Laotian gangs have brought with them thousands of workers and have illegally subdivided private parcels to house them. They have engaged in multiple title transfers to make it difficult to track down the property owners and enforce zoning regulations and code violations. These tactics, again, overwhelm the resources of a rural county’s code enforcement department, which may only employ one or two people. And when one county attempted to stop the gangs from illegally transporting water to irrigate their marijuana plants, the Laotians alleged the water was for their community, accused the county of racism, and with the help of a high-priced San Francisco-based attorney, got the charges dismissed.

In California’s far north, compassionate environmentalists deny water to law-abiding farmers while drug gangs steal it. These gangs include people of color, so compassion demands forbearance. Compassion for wildlife and trees prevents ranching or logging, depopulating the region of its productive ranchers and loggers. Compassion even drives out legal marijuana farmers. Yet illicit operations thrive. A recent comment by the inimitable character Beth on the series “Yellowstone” says it all: “They want the land. That’s all you have to understand.”

The environmentalist movement has also been taken over by special interests who want the land. Once the cartels have driven out the productive residents of California’s far north, environmentalists will then deal with the cartels. Policies this cynical are practically treasonous. But what else explains the failure of state and federal authorities to end this anarchy?

Compassionate policies are meaningless or harmful if they aren’t validated by results and accountability. There are compassionate solutions to homelessness, just as there are compassionate solutions to wildlife management. But they require hard choices, and they require compassion for everyone. There are the homeless, but also there are all those people who live and work among the homeless whose taxes pay for homeless programs. There are the animals and fishes, but also there are loggers and ranchers and farmers, and millions of people who rely on them.

Compassion is not compassion when it is manipulated to fulfill a corporate socialist agenda of turning America’s cities into high-tech pens for human livestock and depopulating rural areas. Every law, and every expenditure, promoted in the name of “compassion” must first be evaluated in this context. There are humane solutions to housing challenges and realistic solutions to environmental challenges. Finding them is hard and selling them to voters is even harder. But that is what true compassion requires.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

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