Bryan Caplan  

Boaz Teaches Virtue to Social Conservatives

PRINT
Top Ten Economic Contractions?... Me on WGN, Chicago...
Cato's David Boaz tries to show social conservatives the path of virtue:

Those are reasonable concerns, but they have little or no relationship to abortion or gay marriage. Abortion may be a moral crime, but it isn't the cause of high government spending or intergenerational poverty. And gay people making the emotional and financial commitments of marriage is not the cause of family breakdown or welfare spending.

When Huckabee says that "a breakdown of the basic family structure" is causing poverty -- and thus a demand for higher government spending -- he knows that he's really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers, and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime...

Boaz continues:

Why all the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the problems of "breakdown of the basic family structure" and "the high cost of a dysfunctional society"? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn't go over very well with even the social-conservative constituency. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs.

In short, gays have every right to reply to social conservatives by non-ironically quoting The Untouchables' Al Capone:

Somebody steals from me, I'm gonna say you stole. Not talk to him for spitting on the sidewalk. Understand? Now, I have done nothing to harm these people but they are angered with me, so what do they do, doctor up some income tax, for which they have no case. To speak to me like me, no, to harass a peaceful man. I pray to god if I ever had a grievance I'd have a little more self respect.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (11 to date)
Justin Martyr writes:

I read that post but saw it as another attempt by libertarians to affiliate with progressives by shaming a perceived common enemy. I'm not sure this will result in tangible policy goals for libertarians, but will result in higher status. Onto my disagreements.

First, Boaz cites polls from 1994 and today. But both eras were times with Democrats in control, and periods in which gay issues were topical. 1994 was about the time when Clinton tried to let gays into the military. It was also when we saw the first throes of the gay marriage movement, which is why Clinton triangulated his way to DOMA a couple years later.

Secondly, social conservatives are basically defensive in the culture wars. We've never brought up an issue with a longstanding liberal consensus and tried to overturn. So we can hardly be blamed for responding when the left opens up a new front.

Third, I don't want to get too deep into the statistics (but will if necessary), the Barna-esque analysis of Christians are not that reliable. Christians do divorce and have children out of wedlock, but they have lower rates of both of these. I do not think the charge of hypocrisy can be sustained against Christians as a group.

Fourth, I'd be interested in seeing a poll asking Christian conservatives what they'd rather change: abortion, single motherhood, divorce, or gay marriage. I'd like to change all four, in that order, and I suspect I'm pretty typical.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Huckabee is a very likable person but this kind of talk could hit him where it hurts. He knows as well as anyone that among the poor (or not so poor) social conservatives, a real breakdown in family structure occurs when couples routinely divorce (or never marry in the first place) so as to take advantage of what welfare is possible, especially in terms of health care. It is a lousy choice to have to make but the government incentives lead people there all too often.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The issue is that no one is forcing Christians to not marry, to marry gay people, or to have abortions. However the government is forcing taxes and regulation on all of us.

That is why it is unfortunate that combo social conservative/economic conservatives can't just voluntarily live their own Sharia law existence themselves, drop the need to legislate their religion on others, and help all of us escape from the involuntary attacks on our economic freedom.

Salem writes:

I agree with Justin Martyr, and the key point is this:

"social conservatives are basically defensive in the culture wars"
The reason social conservatives are talking about gay marriage is because of the current moves to impose it by judicial fiat. It is not an issue conservatives dreamed up. Yes, perhaps it is tangential to the issue of societal breakdown - getting rid of gay marriage will not in itself solve society's problems. But it is a clear step in the wrong direction. I think it is deeply unfair to say that conservatives are "picking on" a victim group when it is precisely this group that has raised the issue.

Certainly the issues of divorce and unwed motherhood are "hard." But it is precisely because these issues are hard that conservatives do not claim to have panaceas to fix them. In fact you'd hardly be a conservative if you thought the government could wave a magic wand to fix people's marriages. What most of us would like is to stop the government making things worse (through tax, benefits, laws, etc), so that hopefully society can heal. But when people do that, libertarians and liberals join forces with nasty ad hominems like that article. It's unfortunate.

agnostic writes:

"Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs."

Completely clueless. If social conservatives were speaking out against gay marriage because gays are a smaller and more defenseless target than other potential groups, why are conservatives picking on gays now when they've never been stronger, vs. mostly ignoring gays when they were unorganized politically?

Remember, it wasn't until the late '80s that ACT UP put together any kind of "gay movement." No one took notice of the Stonewall Riots back when they happened (search the NYT or Harvard Crimson online).

There was plenty of talk about the breakdown of the family, divorce, etc., back in the '60s and '70s, meanwhile there was no gay movement. Now there is less talk about the former topics, meanwhile the gay movement has never been stronger.

Boaz got it backwards, which is why no one will bother listening to his advice.

Where does this foolish view come from anyway, that politicians or ideologues or the mob persecute some group out of a desire to humiliate them, sadism, etc.? They always do it because of their perception of an increasing threat from the group.

Early Modern Europeans really did believe there was a out-of-control witch epidemic; picking on defenseless groups was not the motivation. Conservatives only start targeting gays when gays show themselves to be an increasingly stronger threat to the formers' values.

Evan writes:

@Justin Martyr and agnostic

You are mistaken in that social conservatives have only recently begun to attack the gay movement after it became strong. There have been anti-sodomy laws and other such moral outrages on the books for centuries. What has changed hasn't been that gays haven't been being attacked by social conservatives, what has changed is that they recently begun fighting back in the political arena. The social conservatives previously never needed to vocally speak about gays before then because there was such a huge consensus on the subject that the gays were too terrified to challenge it outright, they simply hunkered down and tried to escape the state's abuse. The reason social conservatives talk about why homosexuality is wrong today is that in the past few ever had the courage to openly question its wrongness.

The modern social conservative anger at gays can best be summed up by the old French saying that roughly translates as "This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself." There might be other areas where the social conservatives are on the defensive in the culture wars, but this isn't one of them. Their anger is the anger of an occupying army or a secret police force that have begun to suffer resistance from the local populace.

Also agnostic, even if modern Europeans really believed in witches, that doesn't excuse their behavior. The reason witches were targeted was for their purported devil worship first and for any harm they did second. Someone could still be hung for witchcraft even if the "spells" they supposedly cast were all harmless.

Justin Martyr writes:

Hi Evan,

Your criticism does not work. There have also been laws against fornication.

Evan writes:

Isn't that like saying "segregation wasn't targeted towards blacks because there were also laws targeted towards Asians and Hispanics"? Two wrongs don't make a right, doing something bad to a second group doesn't make doing something bad to a first group morally better in some way. Also, I don't think fornicators ever had to choose between prison and chemical castration (although I grant that the cases of this I heard about were in Britain, not the US). Finally, anti-sodomy and fornication laws were often selectively enforced to target gays.

If gays were not a special target for social conservatives, rather than merely another branch of fornicators, why is there a prominent gay movement, but not a prominent fornicator's movement?

Justin Martyr writes:

Hi Evan,

I think you've moved the goalposts. I mentioned fornication laws to undercut your argument that gays have been the historical target of social conservatives.

To answer your question, there is a prominent fornicator's movement. But since heterosexuals are the majority in society, they are not going to create a self-aware identity group. Instead they are simply going to fight against social norms of abstinence. And that is precisely what we've seen. Intellectuals since the Enlightenment have opposed Judeo-Christian sexual morality.

I am willing to make concessions for a pluralistic society. I'm fine with legal sodomy and fornication. (Ideally there would be widespread consensus that they are bad, like "hard" drugs and we'd make the illegal so they can be the focal points for social norms). But those behaviors are quite unhealthy. And at least in the case of fornication, it also carries substantial externalities. Arguably, the only reason why we care about social status - why there is such a thing as social status - is motivated by the tournament economics of the sexual marketplace. See also: any work of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology.

Stan Greer writes:

If my dad leaves my Mom and me to marry another man, he is doing much more harm to me than he would by, say, stealing $1000 that my grandma intended to give to me.

Libertarians like Boaz have a very crabbed vision of how people can harm one another. There are very serious ways to hurt people besides taking their property or physically harming them. It is not unreasonable for the law to attempt to prevent, or at least limit, such harmful behavior.

I now invited all the advocates of moral laissez faire who read this blog to berate me as a hateful, intolerant jerk.

Stan Greer

Chris Koresko writes:

How would Boaz respond to my argument that legalization of gay marriage is not really legalization in the sense of ceasing to coercively oppose private behavior, but is rather the application of government coercion to force private parties to recognize same-sex couples as married?

Would a principled libertarian support legalization of marijuana if that meant requiring anyone who sells tobacco to sell marijuana alongside it? I think that's a good analogy to the gay-marriage thing.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top