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Why Liberals Should Embrace (a Bit of) Social Conservatism

When it comes to climate change, liberals are correct. Yet they fail to see how the same arguments they use for climate action—acting in the face of uncertainty, limiting individual choice for the common good—can also be used to justify a bit of soft social conservatism.

For many liberals, no issue is more pressing than climate change. And there is nothing more disheartening than the specious arguments that conservatives use to justify climate inaction. For example, when liberals present reams of scientific data showing the gravity of climate change, conservatives counter with cherry-picked data of their own, and then argue that the mere existence of competing data means there is “scientific uncertainty” that justifies inaction. Conservatives may also argue that individuals have a personal right to consume carbon as they see fit. For liberals, the rejoinders are simple: the existence of some marginal uncertainty is no excuse for foot-dragging when climate science is quite clear overall, and individuals do not have the right to pollute the atmosphere we all depend on.

Spoiler alert: when it comes to climate change, liberals are correct. Yet they fail to see how the same arguments they use for climate action—acting in the face of uncertainty, limiting individual choice for the common good—can also be used to justify a bit of soft social conservatism.

Marriage: Acting in the Face of Uncertainty

Consider marriage. When social conservatives promote marriage and seek to end marriage penalties in the law, they come armed with reams of data showing that marriage has positive effects on personal and familial health. And liberals are the ones who tend to resist marriage promotion efforts, by using generally weak or cherry-picked data to cast doubt on marriage’s importance. Liberals may also quibble with the causal arrow of marriage, by arguing that successful couples opt in to marriage rather than that marriage causes relationship success.

At best, these liberal critiques are plausible. There may be some uncertainty about the precise link between marriage and human flourishing. But in a society where decreasing marriage rates have coincided neatly with increasing loneliness and deaths of despair, the existence of some marginal uncertainty is no reason to dismiss marriage’s importance or brush aside efforts to champion the institution. Consider the climate analogy: given the existential threat of climate change, liberals are willing to take bold action even in the face of some uncertainty. They recognize that the scientific case for climate action is strong, the risks of inaction are enormous, and complete scientific certainty is an impossible standard to achieve. It would be nice if liberals applied this same reasoning to marriage policy, recognizing that the case for marriage is strong, the risks of falling marriage rates are large, and this alone may justify serious marriage-promotion efforts.

 

Porn: Limiting Individual Choice for the Common Good

Next, consider porn. When social conservatives warn that rampant online porn is harming society and toxifying sexual relationships, liberals generally shrug. They argue that, as a matter of personal freedom, consenting adults can do and watch what they like. But if conservatives are right—if ubiquitous porn really does make it more difficult for real-world couples to engage in mutually-satisfying sex—then the “personal freedom” argument loses some force.

To use a concrete example: if the dating field for young heterosexual women is stacked with porn-fueled young men who gravitate towards choking, painful anal sex, and other porn mainstays that their female partners do not want—well, in that case, porn might negatively affect even people who choose not to watch it. Again, consider the climate analogy: liberals rightly argue that emitting carbon is not just a matter of personal choice, because one person’s emissions impose negative externalities on everyone else. If porn warps the overall romantic and sexual marketplace, then perhaps porn imposes negative externalities as well. And perhaps that is a reason for even liberals to be wary of it.

This does not mean we should turn into Victorian England, or Saudi Arabia, or 1950s America. But might liberals get behind some of the more modest measures that social conservatives have floated? Things like default browser settings that block porn absent express user action, or requiring porn sites to have special “xxx” suffixes that reduce the risk of inadvertent access? Thoughtful liberals who care about negative externalities might get behind these measures.

An Alliance between the Environmental Left and the Socially Conservative Right?

And here’s the kicker: If the past ten months have taught us nothing else, they’ve taught us that it’s almost impossible to take serious action on climate change if the conservative half of the country is opposed to such action. Maybe there’s no way to break this logjam, in which case we’re in deep trouble indeed.

But just for the sake of argument, suppose there are millions of socially conservative Americans who really do care about preserving the climate that they and their ancestors grew up with. Suppose they do not actually want punishing heat waves, brutal wildfires, or the loss of snow itself. And suppose the main reason they are not already on board with serious climate-change policy is that the issue of climate change is closely linked with a liberalism that treats social conservatives with suspicion, hostility, or contempt. If that is the case, then liberals might conceivably break the climate-change logjam by showing that they take social conservatives seriously and are willing to cede some ground on the issues that social conservatives hold most dear.

The most promising way to unite the environmentalist left with the socially conservative right is probably through the common language of natural and human ecosystems. From the dawn of the environmental movement to the climate-change battles of today, liberals have understood that we live in a natural ecosystem that is susceptible to all manner of pollution. Finding common ground with social conservatives may just require liberals to broaden their thinking and recognize that we live in a human ecosystem as well. And just as things like acid rain, toxic metals, and greenhouse gases can damage our natural ecosystem, things like rampant porn, drugs, and family dissolution can damage our human ecosystem. Thus, just as liberals push for limits on environmental pollutants to protect our natural ecosystem, they should be more open to protecting our human ecosystem against the excesses of social liberalism.

 

Some liberals have already taken steps towards this broader, socially conservative thinking. The center-left economist Raj Chetty, for example, has done tremendous work showing that a community rich in two-parent families creates a better environment for every child in that community. This is a clear recognition that the human ecosystem around us matters. And that is the first step toward protecting it.

But the recognition of ecosystems is a two-way street. Just as liberals should be willing to protect our human ecosystem against the excesses of social liberalism, social conservatives should be willing to protect our natural ecosystem against the excesses of free-market fundamentalism. After all, carbon dioxide levels are now (terrifyingly) at the highest level in millions of years. The resultslike heat-ravaged forests and dying coral reefsare a wound to our sacred natural patrimony. And given that we really do need to rein in greenhouse gases to stave off climate change’s worst effects, social conservatives should be open to taking this step, even if it means breaking ranks with their free-market fellows on the political right. In the end, there is nothing pro-family about a badly-damaged planet, particularly when climate anxiety is shaking some Americans’ faith in family and parenthood altogether.

If liberals and social conservatives can find their common language around ecosystems, then one could even imagine creative logrolling policies that give each side something they want. For example, imagine generous child subsidies funded dollar-for-dollar by strong carbon taxes. Or imagine other environmental levies whose revenues are funneled directly and ostentatiously towards socially conservative ends. Marriage counseling? Pregnancy-crisis centers? Public universities with a commitment to ideological diversity, including right-leaning voices? It is not hard to think of possibilities.

There is no guarantee that this sort of accommodationist strategy would be successful. But given the stakes involved, it is a strategy well worth considering.

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