The Conflict in Modern Conservatism Once Again-Becker
Posner and I decided to post again this week on the conservative movement because of the great interest in our discussion last week. I will try to respond to some of the thoughtful comments and criticisms, and clarify some of my claims.
I claimed in that post that the current Republican Party is trying to incorporate two inconsistent sets of beliefs: one is the support of competition and generally freer markets, and the other is the advocacy of interventionist policies on various social issues, such as gays in military, stem cell research, or in international affairs. Both these positions are often linked together as "conservative", but they involve contradictory views of government. I argued for a consistent conservative position that supports individual choices, and opposes big government. To be sure, government intervention may be required when individuals make decisions that impose sizable external costs (or benefits) on others that are not incorporated into their decisions. On this approach, however, the harmful (or beneficial) effects on others must be considerable before government actions would be justified because governments are generally so inefficient.
A blog by the excellent development economist William Easterly
(http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/05/confused_american_liberals_and.html) suggests a different definition of conservative beliefs, as do some of those who posted on our blog. Easterly argues that the true definition of a conservative is someone who respects traditions and existing institutions, and who wants to limit change. Although that is a common definition of the essence of conservatism, I do not believe it is a consistent or sensible one. I do agree that considerable respect for what has survived and thrived in the past is warranted, and my anti-big government conservative would certainly respect institutions that have performed well for a long time. However, conditions do change, sometimes in crucial ways, and a sensible conservative philosophy would recognize the necessity of changing one's views when this happens, even when that goes against venerable traditions.
To take one example, until the latter part of 19th century, married women in England were not allowed to own personal property, including money, in their own name, Even though they had a long history in England and many other countries, such laws were discriminatory and undesirable. Note that some other countries, notably Islamic countries, did not have such laws. Another example: laws against divorce may have made sense in an environment where women did not work and had many children since women would have faced serious financial difficulties if their husbands divorced them (I say "may have" because laws might have protected women's rights to financial support if divorce had been allowed). For these reasons the great philosopher, David Hume, who was a strong supporter of freedom of choice, argued for laws against divorce. However, anti-divorce laws make little sense in the modern world when many married women work to earn a living, and they have few children. Therefore, a true conservative that generally opposes government involvement in private decisions would fully support laws that make divorce quite easy to obtain by both men and women.
Many comments on my discussion centered on the issue of abortion, and that is an especially difficult issue for someone who believes in individual rights. For there is an obvious conflict between the rights of women to control their bodies and their motherhood, and the rights of fetuses that might be far enough along in their development to be considered human beings. This is a very prominent example of the general difficulty of determining where to draw the line when the rights of children conflict with the rights of their parents. I do not claim to have a definitive resolution of this conflict in the case of abortion, or in some other parent-child conflicts. But I come down on the side of women's rights to make decisions about their body, except in very late term abortions where fetuses can survive outside a woman's body, and therefore can be considered real children.
Abortions often allow women to have children at later dates when they are better prepared emotionally and in other ways to have children. In effect, abortions in these cases would allow women to substitute children who would be born later, and would be better taken care of, for the fetuses that are aborted now. That seems to me to be a tradeoff worth making. Moreover, laws banning abortion would be difficult to enforce against wealthy women since they would be able to get abortions illegally under reasonably good conditions, including by going abroad. Poor women who want abortions would suffer the most from enforcement of an anti-abortion law, as they are the ones who mainly suffer from laws against the use of drugs and many other types of laws.
Conservatives are not isolationists on international affairs since they recognize that the interests of a country like the US are affected by what happens in other countries. This is clear in Reagan's successful efforts to wear down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or in more contemporary efforts to anticipate terrorist attacks planned in other countries. However, just as with the use of government powers on purely domestic issues, conservatives would recognize that governmental foreign actions are usually very inefficient (as in conducting wars), and are often driven by special interests. A conservative philosophy would limit governmental international interventions to cases where the risks from not taking actions are very large, and the interventions reasonably straightforward.