One of the stories out of this year's CPAC convention concerned what we might call "post-Reagan conservatives" calling for a step back from social issues for the next few years-especially for 2012. In Mitch Daniel's terminology, it might be time for a "truce" in the battle for traditional marriage and abortion limits, in order to focus on our impending economic collapse.
That position makes a lot of sense on the surface, and Gov. Daniels is an admirable model for getting one's fiscal house in order. The problem is, it's all one house-fiscal policy affects social, and vice versa. For something so self-evident, the depth of obtuseness among both liberals and conservatives is striking.
Take one social problem that's been a hot button since the 1960s: generational poverty. On the left, it's taboo to suggest that cultural attitudes affect income level. To point out a correlation between culture and poverty is "blaming the victim," pure and simple. This conclusion has two benefits for doctrinaire liberals: It allows them to paint conservatives as smug and uncaring, while setting up government policy ("structural change") as the only possible solution.
Attitudes do evolve, and last summer there were some signs that the liberal American Academy of Political and Social Science was shifting its perceptions a bit. "Reconsidering Culture and Poverty," a symposium published in the AAPSS Annals, announced a generation of scholars determined to take a new look at the data. "'Culture of Poverty' Makes a Comeback," announced The New York Times, causing conservatives to perk up and pay attention. But not so fast: It turns out that "Culture of Poverty" means different things to different folks. The AAPSS report recommended that cultural attitudes among the poor should be taken seriously, but mainly in order to debunk certain conservative "myths."
For example, rising illegitimacy rates might suggest a lack of regard for marriage. Not so, according to the AAPSS, citing one study in which researchers interviewed over a hundred low-income single mothers and found that most "held marriage in such a high esteem that they were reluctant to marry until they believed that both they and their partners were emotionally and financially prepared. Unfortunately, many of the women had little confidence that their partners would ever become 'marriage material,' such that waiting until marriage would have placed them at a high risk of never becoming mothers." In other words, these women held such a high view of marriage they believed themselves, or their partners, unfit for it-but apparently not unfit for parenthood. Who knew?
Nothing in the report suggests that this view of marriage is flawed. Instead it's used as a peg for the AAPSS argument that conservatives don't know as much as they think they do, and it's time for liberals to capture the "culture vs. structure" argument regarding the causes of poverty.
But here's the rub for conservatives: the same cavalier attitude toward marriage, parenthood, and individual responsibility that contributed to generational poverty in the United States has also led to a hemorrhage of red ink in the federal government.
Theologian Francis Schaeffer famously illustrated the distinction between private and public virtues that developed from the Enlightenment: The former supposedly belong to the upper story of human conscience, where individuals decide their own transcendent "values." The lower story is the public square, where science and policy determine standards for everyone. It seems a workable arrangement as long as no one realizes that degenerating individual standards will sow degeneration at large.
Traditional marriage is vital to a prosperous society. A high value on human life is crucial to a caring society. If one party treats these basic truths as negotiable, the other had better not. Conservatives have-very imperfectly-held the high ground on basic truths for the last few decades, even though some have always wanted to abandon the social upstairs in order to shore up the fiscal downstairs. But "upstairs" principles also make up the foundation. If a temporary abandonment becomes permanent, the house will fall.
Email Janie B. Cheaney