Where are all the socially conservative economists, social scientists?

19 Dec

Good article from Ross Douthat:

In a foray with some relevance to my last post on the social science surrounding premarital sex, Bryan Caplan wonders about what he calls “the curious absence of socially conservative economics.” Noting that “academic economists range from liberal to libertarian,” he asks: “What can we learn from conservative economics’ failure to launch?” One possibility, he allows, is that social conservatism simply doesn’t have any solid economic arguments behind it, but that “has an obvious problem: Rationalizing social conservatism using Econ 101 is child’s play.  Just close your eyes, tap your heels three times, and say ‘Negative externalities.’” (From risky sex, drug and alcohol use, family breakdown, etc.) And yet, Caplan says, “almost no social conservative bothers to make [economic] arguments. Why don’t they?”

Here are a few (of many) possible answers. The first is that social conservatives actually do make such arguments, even if the phrase “negative externalities” isn’t deployed with quite the frequency Caplan would like. Look at any prominent document on family structure, for instance, from The Moynihan Report down through Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s famous “Dan Quayle Was Right” to the “marriage gap” arguments of today, and you’ll find an intense focus on the socioeconomic costs of the trends the writers are describing and/or deploring. Indeed, the entire corpus of socially-conservative intellectual efforts, from 1970s-era neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus and James Q. Wilson down to the present era, is shot through with arguments that are, if not purely economic, at least heavily informed by economic questions.

Right now, whether you’re reading Jonathan Last on demography or Kay Hymowitz on young manhood or Brad Wilcox on marriage and middle America or Mark Regnerus on the market for premarital sex, the case for social conservatism is reliably — perhaps even too reliably, I fear, in some of my own work — framed in the language of costs and benefits, mobility and opportunity, education and income and life outcomes. (And likewise on issues that fall within the socially-conservative penumbra, like immigration, crime, and drugs.)

But note that very few of the writers and intellectuals I’ve just mentioned are practicing economists: They’re political scientists, sociologists, journalists, and so forth. (Arguably the most influential socially-conservative champion of free market economics in the last generation, Michael Novak, earned degrees in theology and philosophy, not economics itself.) So maybe the question is, why don’t social conservatives become economists? Probably it has something to do with their frequent religio-philosophical commitments: Social conservatives are not uniformly religious, but they tend to be religion-friendly in ways that make an uneasy fit with the homo economicus assumptions that undergird so much of the work of the economics profession, left and right.

Social conservatives can argue in the language of those assumptions, just as they can argue in the language of philosophical utilitarianism — but they still are more likely to be drawn to philosophy or history or theology (or journalism) than to the dismal science itself. Which is why it’s also not surprising that to the extent that there is a specifically socially-conservative perspective on economics — namely, the set of ideas, loosely categorizable as “distributism,” that links Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to “crunchy” cult figures like E.F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry to alternative-right conservatives like Allan Carlson and John Médaille — it’s one that prides itself on rejecting some of the assumptions of the field, and that tends to be extremely marginal as a result.

Interjection: I’d add Wilhelm Roepke and John Mueller (economists)

And then for social conservatives who are explicitly religious, there’s always the awareness that economic arguments are, at best, asymptotic to their deepest convictions on questions like sexuality, marriage, human personhood and human rights. As I noted in yesterday’s post, the sociological case for sexual restraint rests on aggregates, patterns, trends: There is no social science research in existence that can actually vindicate the idea that certain behavior is always wrong, that you should never cheat or fornicate or lust after somebody else’s spouse, that no man should put asunder what God has joined together. For that, as with many of the questions up for the debate in the culture wars, you need philosophy, revelation, or both.

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