Bryan Caplan  

The Conservative Missionary Redux: What Jonah Goldberg Should Have Said

Acemoglu and Robinson on Globa... The ObamaCare-Induced Shift to...
Jonah Goldberg tries to play missionary to his Socially Liberal Fiscal Conservative friends.  He promisingly begins:
Dear Socially Liberal Fiscal-Conservative Friend...

[Y[ou know who you are. You're the sort of person who says to his conservative friends or co-workers something like, "I would totally vote for Republicans if they could just give up on these crazy social issues."

When you explain your votes for Barack Obama, you talk about how Republicans used to be much more moderate and focused on important things such as low taxes, fiscal discipline, and balanced budgets.
Before long, however, Jonah accuses his audience of insincerity:

[Y[ou think Republicans are acting crazy-pants on the debt ceiling. You don't really follow all of the details, but you can just tell that the GOP is being "extreme," thanks to those wacky tea partiers.

[A]s a "fiscal conservative," what was so outrageous about trying to cut pork -- Fisheries in Alaska! Massive subsidies for Amtrak! -- from the Sandy disaster-relief bill? What was so nuts about looking for offsets to pay for it?

...I'm going to be straight with you. I never had much respect for your political acumen before, but you're a sucker.

You're still spouting this nonsense about being fiscally conservative while insisting that the GOP is the problem. You buy into the media's anti-Republican hysteria no matter what the facts are. Heck, you even believe it when Obama suggests he's like an Eisenhower Republican.

Then Jonah directly insults his audience:
I don't want to go spelunking in that cranium of yours. I don't know why you think you're a fiscal conservative. The simple fact is, you're not. The green-eye-shaded Republicans you claim to miss would be scandalized by the mess we're in, largely thanks to voters like you...

I don't expect you to vote Republican, never mind admit you're simply a liberal. But please stop preening about your fiscal conservatism, particularly as you condemn the GOP for not being fiscal conservatives, even when they are the only fiscal conservatives in town.

This is frankly a puzzling piece.  Does Jonah really think that hard-core fiscal conservatives who oppose social conservatism don't exist?  David Kirby and David Boaz have several data sets showing the opposite.  If you want to get anecdotal, 90% of my close friends fit the Kirby-Boaz profile.  Jonah's letter seems perfectly designed to alienate all of these potential allies by questioning our sincerity instead of somehow addressing our real concerns.

What should he have said?  To answer, let me revive my Conservative Missionary - a thoughtful conservative who wants to convert his critics rather than excommunicate them.  He'd try something more like this:

Dear Socially Liberal Fiscal-Conservative Friend,

I understand why you find social conservatism off-putting.  Even when social conservatives have the facts on their side, they exaggerate and scapegoat.  Yes, if they were really serious about family values, they'd forget about gay marriage, and concentrate on serious social pathologies like single motherhood and divorce. 

The good news, my friend, is that social conservatism has become a symbolic ideology.  When was the last time social conservatives seriously tried to pass legislation that would have closed 5% of the gap between the society they want and the society we have?  Even when Republicans control all three branches of government, social conservatives just preach to the choir and ├ępater la mainstream media.  Their latest crusade to stop gay marriage isn't just demographically doomed; it's a tacit admission that they're done trying to make open homosexuality illegal. 

Fiscal liberalism, in contrast, is anything but symbolic.  Federal debt as a percentage of GDP now exceeds 100% - the highest level by far since World War II.  The country's rapid aging and rising health care costs mean that far worse is yet to come.  The main problem with Republican leaders isn't that they're too extreme or uncompromising.  The main problem, rather, is that even they reject austerity for the old-age programs where it's especially urgent.

This is why I come hat in hand to you, my socially liberal, fiscally conservative friends.  Conservatives need your support.  We agree on the issue that really counts: America needs as much austerity as the public will stomach ASAP. 

Liberals - not to mention social conservatives themselves - will use symbolic issues to divide us.  But the truth is that in the modern United States, social liberalism prevails no matter who wins the elections.  Not fully, but more or less.  Fiscal conservatism, in contrast, has been all but dead for over a decade.  Since Obama replaced Bush, the nation's finances have gone from bad to mad.  Everyone who understands our nation's plight must unite now to prevent America from becoming another Greece.

Yours in Austerity,

The Conservative Missionary

P.S. If you want to discuss cutting 10 or 20% from the military budget, I'm ready to listen.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (27 to date)
infovore writes:

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John Thacker writes:

There are such voters, and include you and I and our friends. However, the paper you link mentions the following:

In 2004 libertarians swung away from Bush, anticipating the Democratic victories of 2006. In 2008, according to new data in this paper, libertarians voted against Barack Obama.

So we see that libertarians went away from Bush even as Bush increased his vote, went away from Obama as Obama won by a large margin, and went away from Obama even more in 2012 as Obama also increase his vote.

But draws this dubious conclusion:

Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters.

Based on the fact of midterm elections going poorly for the Presidential candidates.

Another, equally valid way of noting things is to note that Presidential candidates who had libertarians swing heavily away from them all win, presumably because they're countered by anti-libertarian voters.

Libertarian leaning voters are high information voters, and thus correlated with turnout in low turnout off-cycle elections, and thus libertarians can work to swing in the winning direction in both 2006 (for Ds) and 2010 (for Rs).

However, in the high turnout years with lots of low information Feeling (v. Thinking) voters, libertarian leaning voters are overwhelmed by anti-libertarian Fiscally Liberal Socially Conservative voters of both parties, and moving in a libertarian direction is a vote and election loser.

From an electoral perspective, if for every one libertarian leaning voter there are 1.5 or 2 anti-libertarian voters with strictly opposite preferences, then essentially the libertarian voters do not exist and politicians will actively seek to pander the other way.

Hence, there are few stable coalitions for a Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal voter or politician, especially one that must also run in Presidential election years.

Salem writes:

"This is frankly a puzzling piece."

There is nothing puzzling about it. This piece is on NRO. Despite the intro, it is not actually aimed at people who say "I would totally vote for Republicans if they could just give up on these crazy social issues," because those people don't read NRO. It is aimed at dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and tells them exactly what they want to hear - that they have the true political virtue, that the media is biased against them, and that people who disagree are insincere and/or stupid.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Salem: I don't think Bryan is all that puzzled. "This is frankly a puzzling piece" is a charitable way of saying "as far as I can make out, this is a terrible piece, but I will avoid name-calling in order to be polite, and on the off-chance I might be missing something."

Adam S. writes:

I agree - we should cut our military budget 10-20% immediately. I was in the Army for 5 years and after what I saw, f they gave me the job of saving money I could EASILY have made it happen.

Unfortunately, military spending accounts for only 20% of our budget. It's an easy target for sure, especially for a social liberal (I'm not a fan of the wars), but it's a scapegoat. With SS and Medicare/Medicaid accounting for %45 it becomes clear we have other issues to address in addition to military spending.

Anthony writes:

What do you want Republicans to do about "social pathologies like single motherhood and divorce", exactly? (Or what do you imagine that these socially liberal/fiscally conservative folks would want them to do?) It's not like Republicans have been expressing that they think these are really great social developments.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Ah, the comments thread: "For too many libertarians, politics is not an opportunity to get things done, but just an opportunity to preen and remind everyone and themselves of their own ideological purity."

Brad D writes:

Americans today are not convinced that debt in excess of 100% of GDP is bad.

Where's the evidence this is bad? No signal from the bond markets this is bad.

Until the public sees the fruit of our borrowing, absolutely nothing will change.

The soc-lib, fis-con will continue to vote for Dems. Period.

Nainpreet Judge writes:

Fiscal Conservatism, I believe is one of the most efficient ways that any free market economy can succeed. And United States of America being, a "free market" economy, fiscal conservatism should be on the forefront of every politicians mind, when corporations are taxed failing (meaning actually taxed, and that so on a fair rate) can we see the American economy and Job market flourish. The more the economy is regulated, the more it will go into the red. For example, look at Sweden, their left leaning liberal policies did not do the Swedish economy any justice, but the American people are hell bent over liberal conservatism due to social issues. If we have a society that thrives, on a humane level, then and then only can we see prosperity; so it is crucial for conservatives to develop some liberal ideology facing social issues, because after all mandating a persons life has little to no effect on the economy

Eric Hosemann writes:

To borrow a well worn Goldberg rejoinder: "Meh." This is a love/hate letter to a straw man. Who is this socially liberal fiscal conservative of which he speaks? Is he talking about libertarians? Could their be a libertarian as chock-full of fantasy about any politician's chances for reducing spending, least of all Obama? No way. I think Bryan is being his usual charitable self and giving Goldberg more credit than he deserves.

Shane L writes:

"Jonah's letter seems perfectly designed to alienate all of these potential allies by questioning our sincerity instead of somehow addressing our real concerns."

Exactly! I would have thought that a useful way to persuade someone to change their political identification is to convince them that they are already in agreement with most of their values. Hence, perhaps, I see people share quotes on Facebook along the lines of: "feminism is the radical notion that women are people". Nearly everyone thinks that "women are people", so this very broad depiction of feminism could make people identify with the movement. (While detailed policy debates might alienate potential allies with much more specific calls to action.) To attract members, it probably makes sense to make them feel that they already identify with you.

However perhaps Goldberg is not trying to attract libertarians. Rather he may be seeking to deter social conservatives from drifting towards libertarianism. By exaggerating the identity differences between the two he might be able to persuade sympathetic Republicans to reject their interests in libertarianism.

rapscallion writes:

Your letter is addressed to people who are indeed fiscally conservative and socially liberal, whereas his seems to be targeted towards people who are not really fiscally conservative at all.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Goldberg didn't mean it to be taken that seriously. I suspect he's really just writing to a few friends whom he finds annoying.

Mark M writes:

It appears his letter is aimed at socially liberal, fiscal conservatives who voted for the President. I don't think he is doubting whether socially liberal fiscal conservatives (SLFC) exist, I just think he is doubting that one who calls themselves a SLFC that votes for President Obama is actually a SLFC.

Steven Kopits writes:

Fiscal and social conservatism are two different ideologies.

Fiscal conservative (classical liberal) is to principal and social conservative is to agent.

Bostonian writes:

Social conservatives believe having children out of wedlock is wrong. (And yes it was strange for a socially conservative VP candidate to flaunt her illegitimate grandchild at a political convention.) If this rule is not respected, fiscal conservatism is unsustainable, because there will be many female-headed households that need government support and will vote for it. I do think social conservatives should stop trying to ban abortion, which they are not going to accomplish anyway.

Colin Fraizer writes:

I'm confused by Prof. Caplan's puzzlement.

Contra @Salem, this piece is not aimed at people who actually are fiscally conservative, but socially liberal, but at the people who *claim* to be, but aren't.

Almost *all* intelligent liberals I meet toe the same line. It sounds a lot better than, "All that economics stuff seems confusing and is probably just socially constructed nonsense. I really _want_ healthcare to be free and trains and windmills to be the answer to our problems and I don't want someone explaining to me why my deep, deep feelings fail to deliver material benefits for humanity."

In my experience, intelligent liberals (not just "my team" liberals) are either:
- Profoundly ignorant (not unintelligent); OR
- Fundamentally dishonest about their actual goals.

Colin Fraizer writes:


As a libertarian who is often lumped with "social conservatives", I want to point out that there is lots of room to the "right" of Obama-style liberalism that isn't very socially conservative.

1. One can certainly believe that the state has some obligation to protect children from death or to balance the desires of women against the presumed desire of children to live. [I oppose late-term abortion for this reason.]

2. One can favor the right of same-sex couples (or n-ary groups) to "marry" but more firmly oppose efforts to read that preference into the Constitution. Our written constitution protects gays more than it hurts them by not guaranteeing that right. [Like many libertarians, I favor separation of marriage and state. Most liberals seem to want to let their (slight) minority define marriage and force everyone to accept their definition.]

d writes:

"I'm socially liberal but fiscally conservative" is the political equivalent of "I'm spiritual but not religious" -- a bumper sticker phrase that has trickled deep into popular culture and is said by people, tons of them, who don't know anything about libertarianism -- or anything at all, really. It's just something people say, particularly young people. When I read the piece, that's who I envisioned him talking about.

Otherwise I agree with what everyone else has said.

Seth writes:

I believe your respective pieces are directed at two different audiences.

His is directed at folks who claim to be fiscally conservative, but really are not. I know plenty of these people.

Your's is directed at folks who say they are fiscally conservative/socially liberal, but place a higher priority on social issues, even in times when social issues aren't in jeopardy. I know plenty of these folks as well.

Caryatis writes:

I very much doubt social liberals are going to be won over by an anti-divorce and anti-single-motherhood stance.

regularjoeski writes:

"socially liberal fiscally conservative" is just a signalling label. If one truly is SLFC than you would just say "I am libertarian". SLFC is really signalling that they understand that the cool kids require them to vote straight liberal while also signalling that they are not stupid. It allows them to justify voting straight democratic to themselves. "I would vote against unlimited spending but gay marriage/abortion is more important than taxes or jobs". The other choice would be to vote with the "icky" kids(republicans) or the nerd/even more icky kids/socially I wouldn't be caught dead with them kids(libertarians).

Jeff writes:

I agree with Colin. Goldberg is, in essence, complaining about the kinds of people who hypocritically endorse one set of policies because they think it raises their status, but don't actually vote as if they believe their own rhetoric. Bryan is endorsing another set of people entirely.

RA writes:
But the truth is that in the modern United States, social liberalism prevails no matter who wins the elections. Not fully, but more or less.

Not necesarrily. Republicans have managed to cut off funding for planned parenthood at the state level, and every state that's passed gay marriage through the legislature has done so with a democratic majority. If those are your issues, then I don't think it's rational to simply say social liberalism wins no matter what.

In the long run, though, I think that if TVs, movies, etc. promote social liberalism it'll win. But in the long run we're all dead, and a social conservative could get what we wants through elections for the next decade or so.

Philo writes:

Only 10 or 20%?

Big Mac writes:

Obama only won by 270K votes in the swing states. Obama lost 7M voters from 2008. Yet, Romney barely squeaks past McCain's 2008 vote count.

Contrary to the MSM and the Dems, it was not Obama's brilliant campaign strategy, great campaign analytics or outstanding GOTV effort. It was the fact that too many voters who "should" have voted to keep Obama out did not.

Goldberg seemed to be looking for someone to blame. while, somewhat poorly, was attempting to make the case to those who stayed at home that they made a mistake (the same people he is blaming).

He misses the mark though. He looks at only one of the two groups that stayed home, and he lumps libertarians together as one.

One group were the "purists". They didn't vote because they thought Romney "was not conservative enough"

The other group (Goldberg's target) were those socially liberal leaning libertarians.

The other libertarians (who emphasized fiscal conservatism) voted Libertarian anyway, OR for Romney to attempt to block Obama.

What many libertarians (of both emphasis) failed to realize is the urgency of where we sit economically. They may largely agree that Obama is bad for the economy, but don't fathom the magnitude of how close we are to an event horizon fiscally.

I believed that they could have moved to the Romney camp in this election. Social issues become "irrelevant" once an economic calamity arrives. The only way to stop Obama was a Romney vote.

They blew it. Romney and the GOP just did not make the case, or were not credible based on Romney's history and an inconsistent message.

Incidentally, that is the same problem that kept the "purists" home.

Mark Bahner writes:
I agree - we should cut our military budget 10-20% immediately. I was in the Army for 5 years and after what I saw, f they gave me the job of saving money I could EASILY have made it happen.

Of the 700 billion we spend on the military, I'd cut at least 500 billion.

Mark Bahner writes:
What many libertarians (of both emphasis) failed to realize is the urgency of where we sit economically. They may largely agree that Obama is bad for the economy, but don't fathom the magnitude of how close we are to an event horizon fiscally.

I don't see where Romney would have gone any slower. Cutting spending on Planned Parenthood (while signficantly increasing it on the military) isn't going to balance the budget.

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