Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ya can't get there from here: social conservatism and libertarianism

Imagine you have been driving west on Interstate 80. It’s been a long drive and for hours you and this station wagon have pretty much kept up with each other. You’ve lost track of them and decide to stop at the next rest stop to stretch your legs. As you pull in there’s the station wagon. You park and get out and walk around a bit. You see the driver of the station wagon. He nods in your direction and says “hello.”

You acknowledge it and out of politeness ask where he and his family are headed. He surprises you by saying, “Chicago.” For a moment you have to wonder if you got on the highway going in the wrong direction without noticing. But you know you went through Elko, Nevada not long ago and Winnemucca is not far ahead.

Puzzled you ask, “Are you sure you want to go to Chicago.”

“Sure,” says the man. “What’s wrong with Chicago? I like Chicago. Is it because you don’t like Chicago? Why shouldn’t I go to Chicago?”

“Sorry, that’s not what I mean. You are headed west not east.”

“So. A man’s free to travel any direction he wants, isn’t he? First you hate Chicago and now you question my right to travel. What’s wrong with you? And to think I was just being friendly.” In a huff he storms off, gets in his car and heads in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not that you are questioning his right to go to Chicago or want to deny him the right to travel in any direction he pleases. You are like the mythic New Englander who is asked for directions to a local town, and replies: “Ya can’t get there from here.”

And that’s my reply to libertarians who claim to be social conservatives, who perhaps more accurately, my reply to social conservatives who claim to be libertarians. You can’t get there from here.

It isn’t that they don’t have a right to be socially conservative. Nor is it that they don’t have a right to advocate socially conservative viewpoints. It’s just that the route they are embracing is headed west when they are trying to go east.

Consider two main positions of libertarianism, or classical liberalism: free markets and individual liberty. Both are driving forces for change. Individuals, when free to choose for themselves will often choose to live in ways contrary to the social consensus. And the free market gives them the wealth to pursue those goals. In addition the profit-motive inspires entrepreneurs to ignore the social consensus in search of profit. Whether it be gay bars, abortions, sexually explicit DVDs, or even pot and alcohol, potential profits drive entrepreneurs to provide these “forbidden” goods. And, if the social consensus is strong, and there is still a demand, people will pay premium prices for the forbidden driving up profits and encouraging more and more people to break the consensus.

Consider another way that capitalism has undermined socially conservative values. Conservative jurist Richard Posner, in Sex and Reason, notes, “traditional sexual morality is founded on women’s dependence upon men.” As capitalism progressed more and more women entered the job market, for various reasons. That meant that women were more and more economically independent of men and Posner says, “as that dependence lessens, the traditional morality weakens.” “Women need and receive less male protection as their childbearing role diminishes and their market opportunities grow.” Single women are rewarded in the marketplace. Contrary to modern myths single women earn on par with single men. Married women drag down the average because they work a lot less.

Being single is rewarded in the modern economic system. So more people remain single. But they don’t remain celibate. And many of the women, though single, choose motherhood as well. Part of the reason for the growth of unwed mothers is that fewer and fewer women need rely on men to support them.

Capitalism allows people to pursue values contrary to the social consensus and it rewards entrepreneurs who help people pursue those values. Lord Samuel Brittan, a former advisor to Lady Thatcher, put it this way, approvingly: “"The important point, however, is that both the political and economic philosophy and the capitalist practices of a century ago set in motion a train of events and ideas which eventually undermined the status-ridden conventional society of the time and brought into being the more tolerant England of today."

Numerous social conservatives, on the Right and the Left, have recognized that liberalism and capitalism are forces for change. And change is the enemy of social conservatives values.

It isn’t that the social conservative can’t be a libertarian. It’s just that they can’t go in the libertarian direction and achieve socially conservative ends. A social conservative agenda requires stagnation, not change. Liberal capitalism rewards innovation and change.

Like the New Englander, I would have say to those who want social conservative goals, by heading in a libertarian direction, that: Ya can’t get there from here.

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