In the current election cycle, social conservatism seems to have lost no matter who ends up being elected president. After all, of the possible future presidents, who is poised to defend social conservatism?
Hillary Clinton? Obviously not. Clinton promotes child dismemberment and is wholly on board with the LGBT agenda and all its projects: forcing women and girls to share a restroom with men who believe they are women, using the force of law to destroy the lives of bakers who refuse to use their skills to celebrate same-sex weddings, peddling a mistaken vision of marriage, and further destroying the sexual norms that make marriage possible.
“Libertarian” candidate Gary Johnson? Hardly. Johnson has demonstrated that there is not a libertarian bone in his body, claiming as he does that bakers who object to baking a cake for a same-sex wedding ought to be punished by the state. In fact, Johnson ludicrously claimed that a Jewish baker ought to be forced to bake a cake for a Nazi celebration should a Nazi ask him to do so. Johnson, when he is not busy drugging himself, asserts that he is wholly on board the abortion bandwagon. His position on abortion is, unfortunately, almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s.
What about Donald Trump? There are some reasons to be somewhat optimistic. Trump does give lip service to the pro-life cause, and the Republican Party’s platform is, surprisingly, still socially conservative. Alas, Trump’s record on abortion and same-sex marriage is, well, spotty. This leads social conservatives like me to believe that Trump is either not socially conservative or that he simply does not care about the topic. All things considered, Trump is better than Clinton and Johnson on this matter, but that isn’t saying much.
Yet it is troubling that so many “fiscally-but-not-socially-conservative” young Trump supporters have begun to repeat a common refrain: “Social conservatism is dead—only religious nuts care about it. It’s not popular with the public and so is politically disadvantageous. We have to forge a conservatism that appeals to the future, one that abandons social conservatism.”
Now, I don’t know whether social conservatism will be politically viable in the future. One thing is clear, however: we must work to ensure that social conservatism has a political future in America, for social conservatism is indispensable to the project of conservatism.
What Is Social Conservatism?
So what is social conservatism? Social conservatism, I submit, consists of (1) the recognition of the family as the most important unit of the polity and (2) the project of securing the social conditions that make strong families possible.
The social conservative understands, often instinctively, that the primacy of the family unit makes the existence of the state possible. Adults who are ready to engage in political activity do not just spontaneously come to be, after all; men must have their intellectual, moral, and social capacities and characters formed before they are ready to participate in a political endeavor.
The social conservative observes that nature has providentially provided such an environment for the formation of a virtuous people who are ready to participate in (or establish) a political project: the family, where the child can depend on the love of his or her mother and father (and on the love between his mother and father) for his or her formation into a virtuous person. The child’s mother and father do more than this, however: they provide a representative of the two halves of humanity, man and woman, for the child to come to know and have a relationship with. In this way, the child can learn how to form relationships with persons of either sex and how to conduct him- or herself in marriage and relate to his or her spouse later in life.
To the social conservative, it is clear that abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism all constitute threats to the family, and hence to society. Abortion violently and intentionally kills an unborn child and viscerally destroys the relationship between the mother and her child. Same-sex marriage tells a lie about marriage and quickly leads to the erosion of the norms of sexual exclusivity, permanence, and monogamy that are proper to the union that is at the heart of family life. And transgenderism tells a lie about the sexed embodiedness of the human person upon which marriage depends.
Why Social Conservatism Is Indispensable for Fiscal Conservatism
The fiscally-but-not-socially-conservative person (I’ll call him an “FC” for short), however, fails to see how social conservatism is a condition that is necessary for a flourishing economic environment in a number of ways. Consider a transaction of any sort. In a transaction, something—often, though not always, money—is offered in exchange for some good or service that the purchaser seeks to obtain and that the seller seeks to provide. The economic system that the FC favors will be a system that is constituted by many of these transactions, each one relating to another to create a web of transactions we call an economy. Yet a condition of all of these transactions occurring is that the persons participating in the transactions—both the purchasers and the sellers—will keep their end of the deal and that they will conduct their transactions fairly. Without this assurance, such an economic system could not get off the ground.
In other words, the transactions that make up an economic system presuppose the existence of virtuous persons who are disposed to engage in them well. Marriage is not irrelevant to this project—on the contrary, it is the means by which human beings are raised into virtuous persons who have the rational, social, and ethical virtues that allow them to engage in such transactions.
One might object: “Couldn’t a system of punishments and rewards enforced by the state be as effective in prompting citizens to engage in lawful and proper transactions?” Of course, attaching punishments to unwanted transactional conduct will deter some persons from engaging in transactions unfairly. And surely attaching benefits to engaging in transactions fairly will provide an incentive to do so.
Yet this alone will not suffice. After all, what is desired in an economic system is that the persons who engage in the transactions will be already disposed to engage in them well even in the absence of deterrents imposed by law against improperly engaging in transactions, just as it is desirable—and conducive to the common good—for citizens to be disposed to engage lawfully and morally even in the absence of deterrents attached to actions that are immoral (like murder). Penalties and benefits, then, should be best understood as complementary policies that provide additional reasons to engage in transactions well, not as stand-alone systems that can by themselves replace the rearing of children in accordance with virtue.
There are more ways in which social conservatism is indispensable for conservatism and in which failing to protect the family undermines fiscal conservatism. Consider, for example, the fact that the United States now spends approximately 99 billion dollars each year on fatherlessness. Consider too the social and economic costs that have resulted as a consequence of the attacks on the family.
Take the now-famous Moynihan report. In 1965, liberal Harvard political scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan was astonished to find that about 25 percent of African-American children were born out of wedlock. Moynihan was deeply worried about this finding because he knew exactly what being born out of wedlock means for a child. Decades of social science confirm what common sense has always taught us: that children born out of wedlock are disadvantaged in every way. They are more likely to be physically and mentally ill, more likely to be poor and unhappy, more likely to have trouble in school and with education generally, more likely to be abused sexually, more likely themselves to abuse others sexually, more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs, and more likely to engage in criminal activity and to have a disdain for authority.
This, in turn, invariably increases the size and scope of the power of the state. The state must expand to replace fathers who have abandoned their families by providing for single mothers. It must increase its public-health efforts to provide for children whose single parents cannot pay for private healthcare and to treat victims of violence committed by those who have been raised in an environment that has failed to equip them for a robust and peaceful social life. It must create and maintain adoption agencies to care for children whose parents are unfit or absent. It must commit more funds to police departments to address crime that results from families breaking apart (or failing to form in the first place), and hence failing to instill virtue in children. It must commit funds to the creation of prisons where criminals are to be kept. The list goes on and on.
The economic costs of abandoning social conservatism, then, run quite high—in addition to all of the unquantifiable social costs of broken families, deaths, broken relationships, and ruined lives. It is no surprise that leftists, committed to consolidating power in the state, have sought to undermine the family: they realize—better than many fiscal conservatives do—that a flourishing marriage culture is required for free markets and limited governments to exist.
There is also another huge problem with abandoning social conservatism. Europe is learning this painful lesson right now. When marriage culture is weakened, birth rates plummet, which in turn motivates a country to look to foreigners—who are often unwilling to assimilate themselves into the country’s culture and society—to replace the labor that the aging citizens of a childless country can no longer provide.
What, then, will a future conservative movement bereft of a commitment to social conservatism look like? It will look very much like the leftist movement, just with lower taxes. It will, as blogger Matt Walsh notes, be nothing more than leftism with a better accountant. But lower taxes won’t do much to bring the West back from the brink. If we want to do that, we must reject the policies and principles that are destroying the family and eroding the sexual norms that make it possible.