The Conservative Missionary Redux: What Jonah Goldberg Should Have Said
By Bryan Caplan
Jonah Goldberg tries to play missionary to his Socially Liberal Fiscal Conservative friends. He promisingly begins:
Dear Socially Liberal Fiscal-Conservative Friend…
[Y[ou know who you are. You’re the sort of person who says to his
conservative friends or co-workers something like, “I would totally vote
for Republicans if they could just give up on these crazy social
When you explain your votes for Barack Obama, you talk about how
Republicans used to be much more moderate and focused on important
things such as low taxes, fiscal discipline, and balanced budgets.
Before long, however, Jonah accuses his audience of insincerity:
[Y[ou think Republicans are acting crazy-pants on the debt
ceiling. You don’t really follow all of the details, but you can just
tell that the GOP is being “extreme,” thanks to those wacky tea
[A]s a “fiscal conservative,” what was so outrageous about
trying to cut pork — Fisheries in Alaska! Massive subsidies for Amtrak! —
from the Sandy disaster-relief bill? What was so nuts about looking for
offsets to pay for it?
…I’m going to be straight with you. I never had much respect for your political acumen before, but you’re a sucker.
You’re still spouting this nonsense about being fiscally conservative
while insisting that the GOP is the problem. You buy into the media’s
anti-Republican hysteria no matter what the facts are. Heck, you even
believe it when Obama suggests he’s like an Eisenhower Republican.
Then Jonah directly insults his audience:
I don’t want to go spelunking in that cranium of yours. I don’t know
why you think you’re a fiscal conservative. The simple fact is, you’re
not. The green-eye-shaded Republicans you claim to miss would be
scandalized by the mess we’re in, largely thanks to voters like you…
I don’t expect you to vote Republican, never mind admit you’re simply
a liberal. But please stop preening about your fiscal conservatism,
particularly as you condemn the GOP for not being fiscal conservatives,
even when they are the only fiscal conservatives in town.
This is frankly a puzzling piece. Does Jonah really think that hard-core fiscal conservatives who oppose social conservatism don’t exist? David Kirby and David Boaz have several data sets showing the opposite. If you want to get anecdotal, 90% of my close friends fit the Kirby-Boaz profile. Jonah’s letter seems perfectly designed to alienate all of these potential allies by questioning our sincerity instead of somehow addressing our real concerns.
What should he have said? To answer, let me revive my Conservative Missionary – a thoughtful conservative who wants to convert his critics rather than excommunicate them. He’d try something more like this:
Dear Socially Liberal Fiscal-Conservative Friend,
I understand why you find social conservatism off-putting. Even when social conservatives have the facts on their side, they exaggerate and scapegoat. Yes, if they were really serious about family values, they’d forget about gay marriage, and concentrate on serious social pathologies like single motherhood and divorce.
The good news, my friend, is that social conservatism has become a symbolic ideology. When was the last time social conservatives seriously tried to pass legislation that would have closed 5% of the gap between the society they want and the society we have? Even when Republicans control all three branches of government, social conservatives just preach to the choir and épater la mainstream media. Their latest crusade to stop gay marriage isn’t just demographically
doomed; it’s a tacit admission that they’re done trying to make
open homosexuality illegal.
Fiscal liberalism, in contrast, is anything but symbolic. Federal debt as a percentage of GDP now exceeds 100% – the highest level by far since World War II. The country’s rapid aging and rising health care costs mean that far worse is yet to come. The main problem with Republican leaders isn’t that they’re too extreme or uncompromising. The main problem, rather, is that even they reject austerity for the old-age programs where it’s especially urgent.
This is why I come hat in hand to you, my socially liberal, fiscally conservative friends. Conservatives need your support. We agree on the issue that really counts: America needs as much austerity as the public will stomach ASAP.
Liberals – not to mention social conservatives themselves – will use symbolic issues to divide us. But the truth is that in the modern United States, social liberalism prevails no matter who wins the elections. Not fully, but more or less. Fiscal conservatism, in contrast, has been all but dead for over a decade. Since Obama replaced Bush, the nation’s finances have gone from bad to mad. Everyone who understands our nation’s plight must unite now to prevent America from becoming another Greece.
Yours in Austerity,
The Conservative Missionary
P.S. If you want to discuss cutting 10 or 20% from the military budget, I’m ready to listen.