Social Conservatism vs. Economic Conservatism

Conservative Family
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One thing that many conservatives seem unaware of is the presence of a very serious tension between social and economic conservatism. Social conservatism involves opposing radical social changes that alter the structures of power and relationships. Economic conservatism involves defending market capitalism.

The latter, however, tends to undermine the former.

An Important Distinction

Publius wrote a few years ago:

My friend Feddie over at Southern Appeal wrote a post this week lamenting the rampant individualism and the "me culture" that he sees with respect to various social issues in America today. Obviously, I disagree with many of his views on the merits, but that's not the point today. The point is that Feddie, like many other social conservatives, is most certainly not a libertarian with respect to social issues.
His argument is that social libertarianism is amoral and lacks the values necessary for a healthy society: "Sadly, most Americans have bought into the idea that nothing matters more than their personal happiness. But embracing this form of radical individualism has a profound effect on society: It creates a culture of death and despair."

I suspect that you'd get basically the same response from just about any other social conservative. Usually, the response would be couched in religious terms as well, though I suppose one could frame it in a secular way as well.

Whether you agree with it or not, I think that it would be possible to frame the argument in a way that's consistent and reasonable -- i.e., not self-contradictory, not self-serving, and not hypocritical. A problem occurs, though, once we move beyond the narrow confines of this argument and ask a very interesting question: why is this only applied to social relationships and never to economic relationships?

Fine. But here's my question. Why isn't that exact same logic applied in the economic sphere as well? You know who Feddie sounds like when he talks like this? Karl Marx. Marx viewed Western liberalism (classical liberalism - meaning libertarianism, not Ted Kennedy) as morally bankrupt as well.
The freedoms of Western liberalism were inherently amoral because it was content to let people "freely" starve and live horrible lives under the control of the more powerful. Marx wanted to impose a value-laden order upon an amoral economic libertarianism. It's the exact same logic that Feddie was applying, except that Marx applied it to the economic realm rather than the social realm.

So we have a situation where social conservatives want to impose a value system on social relationships instead of having a "free market" where people are free to do what they will, but they freak out if anyone suggests imposing a value system on the economic "free market" because people should be free to do what they will.

Why Such a Difference?

Why one set of standards for social relationships and another for economic relationships? A more fundamental question might be: why is that distinction even made -- why are social and economic relationships treated as if they are so fundamentally different? Granted, there are some differences, but are the differences really enough to warrant such a sharp division? Isn't is more a continuum?

I think that most conservatives are blaming the wrong victim. They look around and lament the decline of the moral order, the decline of the community, the decline of the family, and the increase of various social ills from drug use to teen pregnancy.
The problem, though, is they blame it on the wrong man. They blame it on the moral decline caused by 1960s, or Hollywood, or rap music, or college professors, or ending school prayer, or the lack of the Ten Commandments. To them (and this is critical), the real problem is some abstract notion of a "decline" in "moral values," however that concept is defined.
But that's the wrong man, my friends. The real culprit is free-market capitalism. So much of what conservatives see as the breakdown of traditional social orders were caused by concrete economic forces, and not by some abstract decline of the even more abstract concept of moral values.
Look at what Jonah [Goldberg] said - "Markets topple established customs, they raze settled communities and erase whole ways of life." That's got to be true, right? What do you think is causing the worldwide fundamentalist backlash? Values? What does that even mean? No, it's caused by the concrete stresses of globalization. The markets are changing the world order and scaring the hell out of people - whether through technology or immigration or economic dislocation.

It's possible to look around and find lots of things to lament when it comes to the state of American values and social relationships -- but the blame for this situation cannot be laid at the feet of a cabal of liberal elites. There's no back room of sinister liberal figures plotting on how they can undermine traditional morality. There is, though, lots of back rooms of corporate leaders working on what sorts of goods (physical or not) they can "sell" to the public in order to make a profit.

Overall, this overwhelming drive to sell and buy takes a serious toll on traditional social structures. The drive to find the "next big thing" to sell to millions of Americans is not a "conservative value" in the social sense. The drive to keep buying newer and better things, conspicuous consumption, and so forth are not "conservative values" in the social sense.

They are produced by market capitalism and they have social costs -- costs that social conservatives should be concerned about. But when was the last time you saw a social conservative at least bring up the issue? When was the last time you saw a social conservative offer a serious critique of how capitalist economics affects traditional practices, relationships, businesses, communities, etc.?

You only seem to see such things from liberals. The reason why is also the answer to the questions I asked above: the value system which social conservatives want to impose on social relationships has an outcome which is similar to the elimination of any value system on economic relationships: an enhancement, expansion, and reinforcement of private power of a few over others without any external checks.

Publius says that he is a Democrat because he thinks the Democratic Party is most likely to take action to relieve such economic stresses that cause problems:

[T]hink of how much better life would be for so many people if everyone had health care? What if no parent ever had to worry about lacking the money to pay for their child's injury or illness?
This concrete measure would do so much more than putting up a plaque of the Ten Commandments in a classroom (which would have approximately .0000000000000000000001% effect on people's lives).

In a sense, he's arguing that the Democratic Party will do more in defense of social conservatives' most basic principles (even if not their immediate agenda) than will the Republican Party. He's arguing that (for example) taking away economic stresses that burden families is more important to the defense of strong families than outlawing gay marriage.

The Problem With Social Conservativism

He has a good point. What will do more to make families stronger, more stable, and more capable of supporting society: reliable and decent health care or a constitutional ban on gay marriage? Living wages or a monument to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn?

Doesn't sound like a tough choice to me.

But the goal of social conservatives is not to make "families" stronger, it's to make the power of patriarchal men over their families stronger. It's not to make marriages stronger, it's to make the power of husbands over wives stronger.

The goal, in other words, is to expand, enhance, and reinforce the private power of white Christian men over everyone else in whatever relationships they have, social or economic.

In the social sphere, this means imposing a "value system" that comes from traditional, patriarchal religion, whether via the government or by other means but without the government being allowed to intervene on behalf of those who object. In the economic sphere, it means removing the interference of liberal, democratic government so those who already have (economic) power can use it as they want without regard to the interests of others.