Bryan Caplan  

Some Explanations for the Curious Absence of Socially Conservative Economics

Economics in One Meme: Growing... Why I Read Paul Krugman...
Ross Douthat provides an array of explanations for the curious absence of socially conservative economics.  His top stories:

1. There's more socially conservative economics than meets the eye.
The first is that social conservatives actually do make such arguments, even if the phrase "negative externalities" isn't deployed with quite the frequency Caplan would like... Indeed, the entire corpus of socially-conservative intellectual efforts, from 1970s-era neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus and James Q. Wilson down to the present era, is shot through with arguments that are, if not purely economic, at least heavily informed by economic questions.
2. Belief in homo economicus conflicts with religious conviction.
But note that very few of the writers and intellectuals I've just mentioned are practicing economists: They're political scientists, sociologists, journalists, and so forth... So maybe the question is, why don't social conservatives become economists? Probably it has something to do with their frequent religio-philosophical commitments: Social conservatives are not uniformly religious, but they tend to be religion-friendly in ways that make an uneasy fit with the homo economicus assumptions that undergird so much of the work of the economics profession, left and right.
3. Academic stigma.
The simplest explanation for "the curious absence of socially conservative economics" the same reason that there aren't many social conservatives in any academic field: Because social conservatism is considered uniquely socially disreputable in elite culture, in ways that libertarianism and economic conservatism are not. (A thousand conversations: "Are you a Republican?" "Yes, but socially liberal, fiscally conservative, don't worry!")
All good points, but Ross' response makes me realize that I should have given the original puzzle more context.  The absence of socially conservative economics is odd because - unlike all the other disciplines Ross names - economics has intellectual rules that weigh heavily in social conservatives' favor - especially textbook analysis of economic efficiency.

Efficiency analysis rejects the view that policy decisions are merely a matter of distribution - of who gets their way and who doesn't.  Instead, efficiency analysis insists that - distribution aside - some outcomes are more efficient than others.  How do economists measure efficiency?  Simple: They count anything that anyone is willing to pay for. 

Take illegal drugs.  Efficiency analysis tells us to estimate the willingness to pay of everyone who gives a damn one way or the other.  So in addition to the preferences of potential users, we must - at minimum - count the preferences of potential users' parents.  If your parents' willingness to pay to stop you from using drugs exceeds your willingness to pay to use drugs, it is inefficient for you to get your way.

Non-economists could of course simply reject efficiency as the supreme normative standard.  That's what I do.  But most economists are very reluctant to explicitly adopt any other normative standard.  This in gives social conservatives a great intellectual opportunity: Economics is a high-status academic game with established rules that genuinely allow social conservatives to win.  Hence my puzzlement for the absence of socially conservative economics.

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Sam writes:


Economics is a high-status academic game with established rules that genuinely allow social conservatives to win.

Yes, but winning that game won't raise the status of social conservatives in any of the groups they care about. Arguably even by playing the academic game, a social conservative loses substantial status in their church/neighborhood/family groups.

James Oswald writes:

Future headline in the WSJ: "GMU Economist recommends taking illegal drugs"

David writes:

I think it has something to do with the lack of attraction of the economics worldview (taken in a very broad sense) with the traditionalist/social conservative worldview. My sense is that economics as a field of study is attractive to people who believe that human social arrangements are entirely or at least very largely explicable by means of reasoned analysis. However, a traditionalist is likely to believe that human social organizations are the product of divine revelation (or at least of historical accident) and that their causes and effects are obscure and mysterious, and therefore not especially suitable for explication through reasoned analysis using the tools of social science, including the science of economics. Therefore, to the extent that traditionalists/social conservatives participate in the "social sciences" at all, I think they're likely to be in history or law, where a respect for contingency and tradition are a better fit.

To put it another way, I've never met an intellectually conservative economist--all economists, from liberals to libertarians, agree with the root radical doctrine, which is that remaking the world in accord with the results of their analysis is a moral necessity, even though they agree on nothing else. And that is not a socially conservative worldview, even if a particular economist's specific policy recommendations might happen from time to time to agree with those advocated by a social conservative.

Dan S writes:

There is definitely a very interesting brand of very socially conservative intellectual type out there, both on the internet and in real life. They tend to not be the economist type, but are very interested in and knowledgeable about straight history, philosophy and the history of philosophy, debates within the church, both current and historical, ancient Greece and Rome (which is kind of weird since they're often very Christian), and a healthy dose of political theory. They are very fringe in my opinion because while most of us have gotten used to the French Revolution and the decline of monarchs in the west, they seem to treat turning back the clock on these trends as a major issue today.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Anchoring the economics of social conservatism in arbitrary preferences about the behavior of others even when their behavior has little or no other impact on oneself, is a road to nowhere.

It's a road to nowhere because of... information and transaction costs.

To achieve socially conservative goals through economics, we must follow Coase and price the preferences. Social conservatives must pay social liberals enough to induce them to act conservatively (or social liberals must pay for the right to act liberally). How would this be priced?

The answer is, it would not be, because the information and transaction costs are too high. Instead, almost everywhere it is found, social conservatism, like socialism, is imposed by force. Liberal actors are forced to pay to act liberally, or must act conservatively if the price is too high, but social conservatives face only the cost of enforcement of the law. This is not an economic outcome, it is a political one, indistinguishable from a mere tyranny of the majority.

However, socially conservative behavior IS seen without being imposed by force, because there IS an economic argument for social conservatism, which does not involve imposing preferences on others. Although America's elites espouse social liberalism as public policy, to a large extent their own behavior is socially conservative. Why? Because they value the private gains from socially conservative behavior: stabler families, higher incomes, greater reported happiness. Nevertheless, they espouse socially liberal public policies because they recognize that only the individuals involved can weigh these gains against the private costs of such behavior (inflexibility of personal relationships, immobility, lower leisure time, routine boredom with life, higher probability of regrets, etc.); and because they recognize that individuals may responsibly and optimally choose some, but not all aspects of socially conservative behavior; and, finally, because they recognize that some experimentation is necessary if we are to find even better ways to achieve desirable goals.

And why do we not see social conservatives talking up the private value of socially conservative behavior? Mostly, I imagine, because people already understand the point: most people know that, for the middle class, truthfulness, reliability, team orientation, education and diligence are usually important on the path to success and happiness.

Nathan Smith writes:

Maybe social conservatism is something economists just haven't got around to yet.

Does the "rational agent" who gets on the highest possible indifference curve, subject to a budget constraint, represent an individual or a household? Either interpretation is tenable, but the choice matters.

If households, we are assuming that households have unified interests. Sociobiology gives us reason to believe this: in a faithfully monogamous married couple, there is a union of genetic interests, which essentially extends to young children under their authority as well.

But of course, sociobiology also gives us reason not to believe it: the sexes have all sorts of ways to deceive and exploit each other, men seducing and abandoning women, women cuckolding husbands. So marriage is fragile if not hedged around with strong safeguards of law and social stigma.

If we interpret the "rational agents" as individuals, the trouble is that so much of an individual's happiness depends on human interactions that can't be bought directly in markets, though money may affect one's access to them indirectly.

Households, in the sense of intact biological families, are more self-sufficient happiness-wise than individuals are, since they meet more of individuals' needs than individuals can on their own. For that reason, they may be more likely than individuals to act like rational agents. But only in the best case. They can also go sorely awry.

Marriage is a market *ex ante* and a game *ex post.* Marriage *ex post* is a prisoner's dilemma game that mankind used to be winning, but since the 1960s has been increasingly losing. Divorce is up, illegitimacy is down, and the evidence that this is a bad thing mounts, and mounts, and mounts. Trying to understand poverty without understanding the breakdown of marriage is like trying to sail without taking account of the weather.

Economists have the tools to recognize that the Sexual Revolution was a huge mistake, as they hade, all along, the tools to recognize that socialist revolutions were a huge mistake. But with respect to sexual liberation as with respect to socialism, they chose to spend a few decades going along with what's cool, rather than saying what's true. Let's hope the tide begins to turn.

My recent book, The Verdict of Reason: Why Gay Marriage Cannot Be the Real Thing and Should Not Be Recognized in Law, is an attempt to steer social science back in the right direction.

I have some ideas here. One socially conservative economist who comes to mind is Hans Hermann Hoppe (that's how I interpret him, anyways).

LD Bottorff writes:

Mr. Boyle.
Social conservatism is imposed by force? Please engage in a thought experiment with me.
A social conservative wants to rent out a room, but prefers to only rent to heterosexual males. As the room is on his property and a rental agreement should be a mutually agreed to and beneficial arrangement, this does not seem to involve the use of force.
If this social conservative attempts to advertise his desire to enter into such an arrangement, who will use the force of law to prevent it? Social conservatives? Social liberals?
I think both social conservatives and social liberals are prone to desire to impose their views through force. I would prefer that both sides pay the private price of their personal preferences.

GM writes:

It seems to me that Jennifer Roback Morse would fall into the category of socially conservative economist -- but she brings more that just economics into her analysis.

Steve Sailer writes:

After America won the Cold War, Pat Buchanan responded to the radically new international situation by proposing an interconnected series of economic and foreign policies to promote peace and prosperity for Americans, rather in the model of the successful East Asian mode.

William F. Buckley immediately declared him an anti-Semite.

NZ writes:

@Steve Sailer: So did the neocons, who, incidentally, aren't to be confused with conservatives when considering a lack of conservative economics.

@Bryan Caplan: Do you mean to say that support for drug prohibition is a fundamentally conservative position? Because it isn't--certainly not in the past, and not really even now.

Jameson writes:

"But most economists are very reluctant to explicitly adopt any other normative standard."

You may be overestimating how much the relevant normative standards in academic work are explicit.

terrymac writes:

I am having great trouble distinguishing between this "socially conservative economics" and "liberal nanny-state economics."

If it makes economic sense to use force of law to impose the preferences of some parents on those who would use drugs - as well as the preferences of drug dealers who prefer a handy method to shut down competition, and prison crony capitalists to increase their wealth - how is this to be distinguished from the preferences of liberals to constrain the drinking of Big Gulps, or consumption of trans fats, and so forth and so on?

From here, it all looks like nanny-state interventionism - and shoddy economics. It looks like a phony claim that the political process is somehow superior, economically, to the voluntary choices made by producers and consumers.

This isn't socially conservative free-market economics; it's socially conservative economic interventionism, or fascism, to borrow the label defined by Mussolini.

Social conservatives would do better to point out the ways in which economic interventionism harms families. If few social conservatives do this, perhaps it is because they are too easily tempted by the lure of authoritarian power. They're part of the problem, not the solution.

Google up "what has government done to our families" ( to see what a social conservative might say about economic interventionism, were he not so keen to use force to impose his values upon others.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"or social liberals must pay for the right to act liberally"

It is more or less what Irving Kristol wrote in "the case for censorship":

"therefore see no reason why we should not be able to distinguish repressive censorship from liberal censorship of the written and spoken word. In Britain, until a few years ago, you could perform almost any play you wished--but certain plays, judged to be obscene, had to be performed in private theatrical clubs. In the United States, all of us who grew up using, public libraries are familiar with the circumstances under which certain books could be circulated only to adults, while still other books had to be read in the library. In both cases, a small minority that was willing to make a serious effort to see an obscene play or book could do so. But the impact of obscenity was circumscribed, and the quality of public life was only marginally affected."

[broken character fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Although America's elites espouse social liberalism as public policy, to a large extent their own behavior is socially conservative"

I doubt that the concept "socially conservative in his own behavior" makes sense; "social conservatism" is a theory about what values should prevail in society (note the "social" in "social conservative"); then, if you are a hard-working, monogamous, long-term married person but if you think that this is only a question of personal taste, you are a social liberal, not a social conservative; and the opposite is also true: if you are a unemployable junky with 4 illegitimate children, each one of a different mother, and if you think that this is wrong, that you are a sinner and the guilt of your moral depravation is in the "permissive society", than you are a social conservative.

In essence, the difference between social liberals and social conservatives is that the first think that people are fundamentally good (or, at least, not much bad) and could "naturally" live virtuous lives, and the seconds believe that human nature is doomed (in the case of religious conservatives, because of the Original Sin), and the habit of obeying to social rules is the only thing that stands between us and the barbarism. If anything, makes sense that are exactly the people who live apparently "conservative" private lives who are the main supporters of social liberalism: because are exactly these persons that are more prone to believe in the positive view of humane nature. An example - Jane lives in a world of happy families, where divorce is rare; Jamila lives in a world where divorce, cohabitation, etc, are rampant; who is more prone to think that "if a couple divorces, probably they have good reasons to do that and we should not judge them" and who is more prone to think that "society had become to much permissive; tho old days where divorced women and single mothers were ostracized by society could be cruel, but more cruel is the present social chaos"? I think that is my much probably that Jane will have the first opinion and Jamila the second.

Thomas Boye writes:

LD Bottoroff - I was being careless in what I wrote, and thank you for flagging that. My intention was to say that social conservatism, where imposed, is imposed by force rather than through efforts to achieve Coasean pricing solutions. Also, I did not mean to suggest that this was true only of social conservatism. Your example, of legal imposition of Progressive values, is a good one, and my comments (and their disapproving tone) apply equally to this kind of thing. Indeed, the imposition of specific views on "tolerance" by force is deeply intolerant, and almost certainly counterproductive, both of which seem entirely lost on Progressives.

terrymac makes a related point.

Miguel Madeira - I like your thinking about who would be more likely to be a social conservative vs social liberal, in terms of who is more or less likely to believe in inherent human goodness/evil. I do think you have a point there: those who see better behavior are more likely to believe in human goodness, and vice versa. Curiously, both "impose by law" social conservatives AND Progressives appear to be believers in Original Sin.

You raise the question of whether "social conservative" is a term that can be applied to the behavior of an individual who believes in liberalism as a political policy, while personally choosing to behave in the manner recommended by social conservatives. Having a name for such people might be useful, but we don't have one. Calling them "liberals" would not communicate their views, of course, nor would calling them "conservatives" without the "social" part (their fiscal views may not be conservative). And, I think everyone immediately understands the concept of someone who acts in a socially conservative manner, while being a liberal on policy.

You point out that a social conservative believes those values should prevail in society, and I wouldn't dispute that. However, a social conservative may believe that those values are effective for the individual even if they do not prevail in society; and a social conservative may believe that those values "should prevail" through an evolutionary process of proving "most fit" in the great social experiment; and can believe both of those things without believing either that those values are always and everywhere right for everyone, or that a specific interpretation of those values should be imposed on everyone by force.

Finally, as a general observation, let's not forget that there are values that are imposed by force, and that have near-universal support: laws against fraud, theft (at least by individuals), and violent attack. By virtue of being almost undisputed, these values are not uniquely "socially conservative" values. As a corollary, if a value is "socially conservative" it must be under material dispute in society, making its imposition by force questionable.

pyroseed13 writes:

I would challenge how we are defining "social conservatism" here. Are drug and gambling prohibitions socially conservatives positions, even though many liberals support them? Most so-called socially conservative positions fall under the banner of "paternalism." In that case, it is not accurate to say that there are no "socially conservative" economists given that many liberal economists embrace paternalism on certain issues.

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