Capitalism and Traditional Values
In their recent book Red Families v. Blue Families, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone link Blue America’s permissive sexual mores to its economic success. Well-paying jobs today typically require a high level of education; in turn, obtaining that graduate degree in law or social work often means delaying fertility. While Red America’s abstinence-only mindset has done little to curtail teen pregnancy and unwed parenting, Blue America has taken a different, more successful approach: accepting premarital sex, but limiting its effects through contraception and abortion.
The paradoxical upshot of Blue America’s economic success is that it ends up realizing the traditional marriage ideal (career-marriage-childrearing, in that order) far better than does Red America. But how can it be that Blue America achieves an ideal that it isn’t even aiming for, while Red America misses the mark? Consider, for a moment, the even more paradoxical relationship between capitalism and traditional religious and moral values. (I have Catholic values in mind, but the statement holds true for other traditions as well.) On the one hand, there is a strong tension between the two, a tension that tends to work against Red America. Traditional values take into account the interests and preferences of families and communities and not merely those of the individual; capitalism views society as a collection of self-interested individuals. Traditional values acknowledge the importance of economics, but subordinate it to other goods, such as the environment, religion, the arts, the family, and the community; capitalism can conceive of no higher good than profits.
Social conservatism tends to overlap with economic liberalism insofar as it favors traditional values in these respects. At the same time, the abstinence-only schemes of Red America are far more antithetical to capitalism than the wealth redistribution schemes of Blue America. As noted above, capitalism increasingly relies on highly skilled workers, which Red America is failing to produce; Blue America, by contrast, tends to produce highly skilled workers and, through wealth redistribution, the broad-based middle class necessary to keep up demand for consumer and other goods. (Keynesian capitalism is the only functional form of capitalism.) In order for Red America’s brand of social conservatism to function, we would need to move away from capitalism toward agrarianism — a point Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and other social conservatives clearly understand.
Despite being in important respects at odds with traditional values, capitalism nevertheless generates great wealth, which creates the economic stability necessary for traditional values to be realized in Blue America (for the privileged few, at least). Crime is less tempting when you know where your next meal is coming from. Divorce seems less appealing when you are not constantly bickering about money. At the same time as it lends support to traditional values, capitalism relies on them for its survival. Or, to be more precise, capitalism co-opts traditional values selectively — making sure that workers learn not to steal from cash registers, but not about the evils of usury and avarice, for example. (Of course, this co-opting need not happen by conscious design.)
Ultimately, what capitalism has produced is two Americas: a Blue America whose prosperity depends upon the values it professes to have outgrown, and a Red America that preaches traditional values but wholeheartedly embraces the economic Darwinism that preys upon them.
Such ideological incoherence cannot last forever. In his column today, Ross Douthat cites a study by the National Marriage Project suggesting “it’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.” Elites are slowly beginning to realize that economic prosperity and the traditional family structure are mutually reinforcing, while poorer Americans have begun to throw in the towel on an ideal that (like so much else) they simply cannot afford.
In order for traditional values to become something more than just another luxury for the wealthy, we’ll need widespread prosperity and a commitment to strengthening families — which does not, incidentally, have anything to do with opposing contraception or gay marriage. I’d settle for the welfare state, though the distributist ideal of widespread ownership of the means of production would be far better.