Elephants on the Brain
The GOP shouldn't throw religious conservatives under the bus to win elections.


Jennifer Roback Morse

Ryan Sager says the Republican coalition is self-destructing. Is he right? Who or what is to blame?

Ryan Sager’s The Elephant in the Room opens a much-needed discussion of the future of the Republican party’s coalition of social conservatives and libertarians. According to the book’s press release, “the Bush brand of ‘big-government, big-religion’ conservatism and the GOP’s corruption by power is tearing the Republican party in two….Republicans must tack back toward their small government roots… They must get a grip on out-of-control spending and step back from the brink of religious extremism.”

But the evidence of the book does not support this conclusion. The key to interpreting Sager’s argument is to ask whether he has identified one problem or two. Is the party in trouble because it has become a big-government party, which includes both too much spending and too much intrusion into people’s private lives? Or does Sager mean that the religious Right is somehow the source of the party’s spending addiction?

No reasonable person can blame the religious Right for the Medicare prescription-drug plan or the expansion of education spending under the No Child Left Behind act. These policy initiatives were Bush’s attempt to introduce the ownership society as the new, big idea implementing compassionate conservatism. Social conservatives had nothing to do with these policies morphing into big-government, big-spending policies with little or no socially redeeming conservative value.

Some in the Bush administration believed, rightly or wrongly, that the prescription-drug plan was the price they had to pay to implement medical-savings accounts. Special-interest groups scuttled significant portions of No Child Left Behind with strategically placed lawsuits. These episodes are tribute to the power of special interest groups and the inherent difficulty of trying to reduce the size of government.

No, I think Sager has identified two different problems. The GOP’s checkbook problem is distinct from the influence, for good or ill, of the religious Right. But he doesn’t have anything new to say about how to derail the momentum of the Growth of Government Freight Train.

The “new Fusionism” he proposes does not offer anything to social conservatives. He does not seem to take a single one of their issues seriously. He seems to say that the only way to win is for social conservatives to abandon the issues that matter to them, and become plain vanilla fiscal conservatives. I somehow doubt that they are going to do that. His proposal amounts to taking the religious Right for granted, since they won’t vote for the party of the pagan Left.

I think there is another way to slice this pie: Republicans can offer libertarian arguments for social-conservative positions. We should do this for two reasons. One, it helps to focus the attention of the social conservatives on arguments and issues most likely to resonate with other voters. Second, libertarian reasons for social-conservative positions make these policies at least understandable and hopefully even palatable for libertarians.

When I wrote Love and Economics in 2001, I hoped to convince my libertarian and fiscal conservative friends that they needed to pay more attention to the family. Since the family creates the next generation, the future of any society depends on what mothers and fathers do. Even while they are performing this quintessentially private task, mothers and fathers are also providing an essential public good, for which there is no adequate substitute. Family breakdown has been extremely expensive, not just to the individuals who suffer from it, but to the public sector as well.

Health care, mental health care, and educational remediation are all services taxpayers provide disproportionately to over-extended unmarried parents. The rise in prison population is connected with the poor socialization young fatherless males so often receive. And the most egregious invasions of personal privacy in America are not perpetrated by Justice Department wiretaps or the religious Right peaking into people’s bedrooms. The most outrageous intrusions into people’s personal lives are perpetrated by the family courts, who regulate in minute detail the behavior of unmarried parents who can’t or won’t cooperate with each other.

Family courts regulate how much money a non-custodial parent must spend on his child, how much time he gets to spend with him, and whether public events like Little League games “count” toward the non-custodial parents’ allotted time. Some divorce decrees even specify which parent gets to spend Christmas Day with their child and at what time that parent has to hand the child over to the other parent. We accept this intrusive and expensive nonsense with a shrug, because we have given up on marriage, the most basic unit of social cooperation in any society.

I did not expect instant and complete agreement from my libertarian colleagues, but I did at least hope to initiate a conversation on the subject. Much to my disappointment, my libertarian and economist friends seemed uninterested. Perhaps the subtitle of my book Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work put them off.

Anyhow, much to my surprise, I spent the next five years talking to social conservatives, going to their conferences and speaking on Christian talk radio. When I wrote Love and Economics, it had never entered my mind to appeal to this audience. I literally didn’t know who they were. But they appreciated the fact that I was making their case in a way they had never heard before. I appreciated the fact that they’d talk to me.

I suppose some people now consider me a social conservative, even though I never intended to be any such thing. I still consider myself a minimum-government libertarian, who has thought through the implications of the family for the size of government. I have come to the conclusion that you simply can’t have a minimum government without a robust institution of marriage. It is a little bit like trying to have a prosperous society without property rights. It sounds good on paper in a leftist tract, or on a university blackboard somewhere. But it simply can’t happen in any real world we have ever known.

The family issues will never have the same resonance for libertarians as they do for religious conservatives. That’s true by definition: that’s what it means to be a libertarian or a social conservative. But I don’t agree with Ryan Sager that the Republican party should throw the religious Right under the bus to win elections. Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians need to take each other’s issues seriously enough to start talking to each other. If The Elephant in the Room, mistaken though it is, becomes the vehicle for starting that discussion, no one will be more delighted than I.

Jennifer Roback Morse taught economics at Yale and George Mason Universities for 15 years. She is now senior research fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. She is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work and more recently, Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.

<title>The Elephant in the Room, by Ryan Sager</title>