It’s amazing how quickly I’ve seen the god-awful resurgence of social conservatism. Somehow the fact of the combination of social conservative Santorum undercutting Romney at every chance, social conservative Akin and Mourdock undercutting the whole party with their mentally handicapped statements, and more instances of voter fraud than I know what do with, all led to the downfall of Romney…the social conservatives have taken from this that just running on economics doesn’t work and we need to focus on social issues. It must be interesting to live in the Bizarro universe where social conservatives being part of the reason we lost is a reason why we should focus on social conservatism—but I don’t live in that world, I live in reality.
(…stay with me here it’s going to take a little while to get back to social conservatism…)
And in reality we have this economic principle called Ricardo’s Law or the Law of Comparative Advantage. While the best explanation of this law is found in P.J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics (best books on economics ever) I’ll quickly sum it up here. If you can do two things for a living, let’s say be a carpenter or write computer code you should do what you do better….even if you’re above average in both. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at both, when you split your time between two things you’ll end up producing less, even though in either field you’d produce more than anyone else could. Just trust me that the math works out that everyone should do what they’re best at to create the highest yield of goods.*
When you split your time between two things you always get less of things you’re looking for. Focus on what will give you the highest yield of what you’re looking for and only that.
So what does this have to do with social conservatism?
Well, most social conservatives in the Republican Party are probably also fiscal conservatives (certainly not all, Rick Santorum for instance never met a tax, a regulation, or moment of crony capitalism that he didn’t love) but for the most part the vast majority of social conservatives are fiscal conservatives. Now basic level common sense might seem to suggest that, as a party (ignoring that the party is actually made up of social conservatives, moderates, and liberals) we should try a dual attack of both social conservatism and fiscal conservatism and thus try to get the most voters to come in.
And this is one of those rare times where science/math/economics actually don’t converge with what may seem like common sense.
We can focus on two narratives (that are not always in agreement) trying to pick the most voters, or we can devote all of our time and money into one narrative, which if we apply Ricardo’s law to this situation, and find even greater results than working on both. (Yes it’s always dangerous to apply principles from one field to another, but if you stay with me here you’ll see it does work).
So which narrative should we focus on?
Well let’s look at social conservatism first. First off social conservatism holds a very small appeal (only 18% want abortion completely outlawed, and only 44% consider themselves Pro-life , and the majority of people also favor gay marriage). Further, while you can make excellent arguments for the corrosive effects of low marriage rates on society or this or that point, the issues of social conservatism will, probably more than any other field of public debate, come down to deal entirely with emotion and faith. You can’t argue emotion or faith. You can have the grandest proof in the world, with all the stats and figures and charts you could ever want…still won’t have any effect on emotion and faith. Would any argument convince you to be in favor of abortion? I doubt it. Why do you think the other side will be different? Listen to the stories of people who changed their minds on this issue, it’s not because of some argument, it was because of some personal, emotional experience. Arguments of the social conservative kind only rally those who already believe, the do not attract more voters.
Next let’s assume, by some miracle you win with that argument and that argument only. And just looking at, say abortion, let’s say somehow Roe v. Wade is overturned by a new court (and the problem with that is that conservative judges hate overturning precedent, they hate it, so the likelihood is very low)…guess what, it’s still not going to matter. Why? Because the federal government, while it may have to power to prevent laws, it can’t outlaw things that don’t cross state lines—thus without Roe it just becomes another state’s rights issues. And guess what you may win a few states in the South and a few in the midwest, but with 52% saying they support abortion to some degree and another 28% want it legal in all cases, you would be lucky to get 20 states to outlaw abortion…and they won’t be the states where most of the abortions are occurring already. So for all that work, it will pretty much be the same as it is now. The results are similar for just about every other social issue you can think of. To have the federal government do ANYTHING directly about social issues would require us to ignore the 9th and 10th Amendments (which as good conservatives, we never could).
And let’s just ignore how many people the social conservatism pushes away.
Few votes, few results for a lot of time and effort.
Doesn’t seem like a good result.
Now what if we just made the case fiscal conservatism. Well if you just made the argument for fiscal conservatism (taking a good, conservative, social issues are at best a state’s rights argument and have no place in a federal election) what happens with votes. We gain the real libertarians (ignoring the anti-war leftists who have invaded the party) and moderates who are primarily fiscal conservatives and social moderates. Figure a 6 point gain in the voting for conservatives.
Would wining be the only advantage? No. If you got conservatives in both houses of Congress and in the White House…and I do mean conservatives not wishy-washy RINOs like McCain and Bush…and what will happen. Well the economy will boom as regulation, bureaucracy, red tape and taxes go down. This part we know.
And what else? Welfare will also get reformed, shrunken and possibly sent entirely to the states. And then a funny thing happens. As taxes are no longer written in such complicated ways as to discourage marriage, as welfare no longer incentivizes single parenthood to a brood you can’t afford, strangely enough people will start turning to more socially conservative practices in their own lives. When you take away the incentives to stay single and remove the disincentives to marriage more people will get married. When you take away the incentives to be pregnant for as long as possible before getting a government-funded abortion strangely fewer women will have abortions. When you don’t reward having enough children that you could start your own sports league people will have fewer people having litters they can’t afford. People at all levels of society are terrible at long term planning, but they’re also very good at understanding short-term consequences and rewards. If we remove the perverted set of incentives put in place by the New Deal, the Great Society and Obama you will not only have economic prosperity you will have far, far more people acting in the pattern that social conservatives praise.
And as icing on the cake, as numerous studies have shown, married people are more likely to be conservative as they have less of a need for a government to take care of them, so fiscal conservatism will breed socially conservative practices which will create more fiscal conservatives.
Social Conservatism does not lead to economic growth (France is very opposed to gay marriage, all the economic good it does them, dozens of nations are socially conservative, it does nothing for them).
Fiscal conservatism leads to people making the choices that social conservatives like because it makes good economic sense.
And the only people the economic conservatism is likely going to offend is a few wacky social conservatives who, in addition to social issues think the government should also be in charge of financial ones. A small minority in the Republican Party indeed.
And here’s the point of why I brought up Ricardo’s law. Making the social conservative argument only alienates people, and gains nothing long term…it only helps the left. So any mixture of the two arguments actually works against the goals of social conservatives.
Scream to the heavens all you want about abortion.** It won’t help you win. But discuss how low taxes and low regulation can help the poor, how less bureaucracy can increase opportunity, and how capitalism increases equality not the other way around and you can actually win people. And in that win you create the habits that you actually wanted to see in people.
*Yes this doesn’t take into account things like the needs and wants of the economy, or that in reality you should do what makes you happiest, not what gets you the most money (although that’s really just Ricardo’s Law looking at ethical goods not monetary ones), and a lot of other variables. Economics has a great term for this, “all things being equal,” if all other variables are controlled for you should do what you do best at, and only that.
** Just give up on gay rights. It’s going to happen. There’s nothing to stop it. On the other hand without liberal funding in education and other various forms of funding the crazy extreme of homosexuals will no longer have the pulpit, and the vast majority of gays who are as boring as the rest of us will take over.