Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Of bedrooms and boardrooms: sex, money and the limits of freedom

(This post was originally published as an article in 2016 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)

A common criticism levelled at those on the political right is that there is a contradiction between on the one hand their preference for maximal freedom in the economic sphere, and on the other a more restrictive attitude to personal freedoms. As the Democrat Josh Lyman says to a Republican adversary in the liberal-leaning TV show The West Wing, “I like you guys that want to reduce the size of government, make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.”

It’s a good line, but is it anything more than that?

There is actually a strong logic behind the combination of social conservatism and liberal economics, and it is this: if you want a relatively limited state then you need strong families that produce law-abiding, hard-working individuals who look after each other and believe in self-reliance. You need a robust civil society and a population that values self-control, deferred gratification, and restraint. That wise old bird GK Chesterton wrote that “if men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they will be governed by the ten thousand commandments”.


If we do not impose internal constraints on our behaviour, then the government will do it for us – indeed it will have to, because there are vast costs to a morally chaotic society. A 2011 estimate suggested that family breakdown and the consequences of "sexual liberation" cost the UK as much as £100bn annually, if the costs of crime, courts, policing, welfare and so on are taken into account. Even if this estimate is much too high, even if it overstates the case by three or four times, we are still looking at tens of billions of pounds. Chesterton’s point is also demonstrated by the elaborate “affirmative consent” codes being introduced on US university campuses. Instead of the simple clarity of the traditional morality—abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterwards—we have muddled and contradictory verbiage, introducing suspicion and conflict into male-female relationships where there should be joy and the thrill of developing romance.

It’s also worth noting that Lyman’s comment cuts both ways. If it is illogical in principle to favour laissez-faire economics but strict personal morality, then surely it must be equally illogical to favour a more controlled economy but a libertarian personal morality? One is reminded of another common progressive rhetorical trick, which questions the consistency of anti-abortion people who favour the death penalty; it may be true that this position is inherently inconsistent (though I’m not sure), but is it not equally or even more inconsistent to be pro-abortion but anti-death penalty? It is true too that progressives’ commitment to getting the government “out of the bedroom” can sometimes seem a little patchy: the Obama administration, for example, fought long and expensive legal battles to force employers to provide contraception to their workers under healthcare plans, and here in the UK liberals are very attached to state funding of abortion and contraception.

Besides which, as a matter of fact, many social conservatives are sceptical of free markets and “small state” economic liberalism, for the very same reasons they are sceptical of social liberalism, i.e. free markets can be extremely difficult and unforgiving places for those who, for whatever reason, find it hard to flourish in them. It is not difficult to think of examples. Many people—often through no fault of their own—do not have the kind of skills that are valuable in modern advanced economies and so can never earn enough money to ensure a secure lifestyle. Some have poor judgment, or poor impulse-control, and so find it hard to do things like live within a budget or save adequately for a rainy day. Others have physical or mental disabilities which limit their participation in the economy. Market adjustments, of which economists talk so glibly, can be brutal even for workers who are not in any of the above categories.

In short, not everyone is equally well-placed to benefit from economic freedom, and for many people economic freedom is actively damaging to their own interests, with the result that the state needs to take an important role in regulating behaviour, especially the behaviour of the powerful, and creating norms and expectations about how people should behave toward each other in the economic sphere. It does not take a huge leap of imagination to see how this might also be true of sexual freedom. Making poor decisions about your sexual life can be life-changingly disastrous, but not everyone is equally well-placed to avoid these bad decisions and not everyone is equally well-placed to recover from the consequences. Some people, e.g. those who possess the various traits that make up sexual attractiveness and are able to make good decisions, are much more powerful players than others.

Being abandoned to bring up three children by an unreliable partner is bad for any woman; but an intelligent, well-educated woman with good earning potential and a large and supportive network of family and friends is much better placed to make a fresh start than a woman of less ability with few qualifications and little social capital. It is the latter kind of woman for whom the old “repressive” sexual and social morality was in many ways highly beneficial. It limited her sexual exposure to predatory, commitment-phobic men; by making divorce legally difficult and socially stigmatised it made stable relationship formation more easy. The widespread expectation of lifelong fidelity also freed both sexes—but especially women—from the necessity of having to be constantly concerned with maintaining an unrealistic level of sexual attractiveness (the freedom to deprioritise the maintenance of sexual attractiveness is an under-discussed benefit of a society where lifelong monogamy and sexual restraint are the norm). As CS Lewis put it in the last essay he ever published, “a society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women.”

The old dispensation was not perfect, by any means. It created its own miseries and damaged lives. Nevertheless, it is hard to look at the casualties of sexual “liberation” and not conclude that we have replaced an imperfect sexual culture with a ruinous one. It seems far from obvious to me that the sexual liberalism of the last half century has increased net happiness or contentment in Britain. How many people are left miserable because they buy into the seductive promise that you can play the field in young adulthood without worrying about long-term commitment, and then suddenly find themselves in their mid-thirties with no lifelong partner on the horizon and so much time, energy and idealism exhausted?

Romantic relationships between humans are moulded and menaced by powerful forces—love, desire, fear, jealousy, infidelity—and the constraints, both internal and external, by which those relationships are managed need to be equally powerful. Women in particular have been sold a crock by the sexual revolution, because it has made it far easier for men to get sex without commitment and discard women when it suits them. As conservatives always pointed out, and as we are now having confirmed by high-profile investigations into historical sex offences, sexual exploitation by men was embedded in almost every part of the Sixties/Seventies counterculture, from hippy communes to rock bands. Free love turned out to be neither free nor very loving.

All cultures provide “scripts” for how people ought to live their lives, a web of expectations, attitudes and norms. Our current script for sex makes individual choice (personal whim, really) its god and pretends that the only moral issue in sexual relationships is consent. This is entirely hopeless. And those broadly on the left should recognise this hopelessness because they rightly identify the inadequacy of the “consent alone” script when it is applied to the field of political economy and public policy.

Just as economic libertarians tend to overestimate the extent to which all employer-employee and buyer-seller relationships are entered on terms of equality and free choice, sexual libertarians tend to do the same for personal relationships. The very availability of certain choices shapes people’s desires and expectations, supply creating demand as well as fulfilling it, and there are serious conflicts created by the unthinking conflation of sexual freedom and sexual equality, just as economic freedom and economic equality are often directly opposed, and form the two poles around which nearly all debates about politics and economics ultimately revolve.

The French Revolution may have been the first occasion on which radicals glibly proclaimed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” without any apparent reflection on the eternal conflict between those ideals, but sadly it was not the last.

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