Why I am no longer a libertarian

Ron Paul libertarianThe “libertarian moment” may have finally arrived. An essay about American libertarianism in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine argues that younger voters’ social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and dissatisfaction with the political establishment is becoming a wave that new libertarian politicians are on the verge of riding into political relevance.

Whether or not this is true, the essay makes for an accurate glimpse into the libertarian movement’s self-narrative: libertarians comparing themselves to rock stars, libertarians for legal weed and hip with the kids, libertarians as champions of liberty, libertarians unconstrained by petty partisanship.

But the essay doesn’t get to the heart of libertarianism, which is something more than rejecting Republican hawkishness and Democratic entitlement spending or being simultaneously opposed to bailouts and carbon taxes. The essence of libertarianism is not political, but inescapably philosophical. Below are the reasons I rejected that philosophy.

Personal freedom is libertarianism’s only value

Libertarians are obsessed with liberty, and they are generally eager to admit this about themselves. While most Westerners agree that personal freedom is desirable, libertarians make a bolder claim, and it is in some ways their only claim: individual liberty is the ultimate political good.

It’s an innocuous-sounding and deceptively elegant statement that can distract a casual listener from considering the necessarily corollaries. When libertarians tell you they “just” believe in individual freedom, they mean it. Any other political good—fairness, compassion, equality, democracy, tradition, goodwill, public health, brotherhood, order, peace, progress, solidarity, authority—is not a good in itself, but is measured in terms of its consistency with the overriding good of freedom. If liberty requires less democracy, libertarians are in favor. Order and peace are good, but not if they have to be won at the cost of someone’s freedom to do as they please. Even authority, to libertarians, has no real legitimacy except to the extent that it serves liberty.

But while liberty is indeed a good thing, it’s really not the only good thing. We live in a complicated world, and solutions to its problems are rarely sufficiently simple to withstand being summed up in a slogan.

Libertarian mantras to the contrary, heroin and consensual incest should probably remain illegal. A zero percent income tax rate is probably a naïve suggestion in a globalized, advanced society. There’s probably no free-market solution to climate change. There are hundreds more examples. The point is not that libertarians are wrong about these issues–it’s that they ignore, at everyone’s peril, every conceptual dimension of these issues except that of liberty versus tyranny.

Libertarians ultimately fall back on a very vulnerable claim

The liberty-only worldview of libertarians is nearly impossible to justify from any philosophical standpoint. Various libertarian theorists have tried to “prove” it—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe—but end up making spurious or absurd arguments. Rand makes fantastic leaps of logic from Aristotelian logical axioms to libertarian property rights that only seem plausible when wrapped in a narrative (Atlas Shrugged). Hoppe actually tries to say that because people speak to each other with civility, they are somehow proving that the non-aggression principle, a moral claim, is an objective truth.

Most libertarians who are awake to the moral indefensibility of this claim say that their arguments don’t really rely on it–that they have arrived at their elegant maxim by observation of the world. Pure freedom, they say, happens to lead to every other political good.

But this is an extraordinary claim to which I have never seen even an ordinary justification, let alone the extraordinary one that would be required (even geniuses like Milton Friedman ultimately have fallen short and often resorted to moralizing). I speak from experience in saying that libertarians who believe a truly free system will automatically give rise to all the other political goods listed above are almost certainly deceiving themselves, and are glossing over the many inconvenient subtleties with a sheen of moral certitude.

Libertarian fundamentalism, including free market fundamentalism, really doesn’t always work as a policy. The uncomfortable truth is that the libertarian method of political analysis is to identify the policy consistent with individual liberty, then to tell whatever narrative must be told to support that view. Ultimately, libertarians are slaves to an intoxicating but naïve intuition that negative liberty is the ultimate good.

They inevitably become amoral about anything consensual

Libertarians are accustomed to explaining to others that their private moral opposition to certain behaviors is separate from and irrelevant to their political attitude to those behaviors. They may morally oppose cocaine use, bestiality and the unrestricted sale of organs (for example) but they don’t coerce others into abiding by those subjective moral codes.

However, as I discovered personally, a laissez-faire public attitude on human behavior is often accompanied by moral apathy in private. This is probably because the libertarian ethic is itself a moral judgment; one that supersedes for its adherents any other.

This discovery is borne out by research connected with psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, which identifies six axes of human moral taste: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Everyone cares at least a little bit about each of the six moral goods, but the relative importance of each foundation varies quite cleanly by ideology. On tests of moral attitudes, both liberals and conservatives have been shown to have relatively broad palates of moral taste. Libertarian morality, on the other hand, is dominated by the liberty/oppression foundation. Libertarian social connections

In other words, libertarians do not have the same moral sense as the rest of us. While they oppose murder, rape and theft on the basis of liberty, many of them see acts like burning flags, eating one’s deceased dog or public nudity as morally neutral.

It’s worth mentioning for the sake of context that self-identified libertarians are overwhelmingly male and white and disproportionately agnostic or atheist. They tend to be younger and extraordinarily socially detached, and are likely to intellectually inhabit the internet instead of the real world.

Libertarians reduce complicated realities to simplistic models

If you’ve had conversations with libertarians about politics, you may have at times suspected they were speaking a different language. This is probably because they were. In order to deal with the world in such a way that libertarian theory makes sense, libertarians have reinvented the meanings of many ordinary words.

For example, to the dismay of most experts, libertarians insist on defining government as no more than a “monopoly on violence”. Sociologists think that marriage is an institution the identity of which is difficult to pin down, but to libertarians, it is clearly just a contract of union between two people. A law, to libertarians, is a “threat of force” without any greater significance.

Definitions like these are appealing because it’s very easy to reason toward libertarian conclusions on their basis. Since law is just a threat of violence, the government can easily be characterized as abusive and arbitrary. If marriage is just a contract, then it’s obvious the government should just “get out of the marriage business”. If the state is just a monopoly on violence, then isn’t it our enemy?

Libertarians thus conveniently sidestep the weightier questions of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion and law by defining them away.

It’s no error to simplify reality to a model for the sake of reasoning more easily about it—humans must do this to survive—but libertarians have insisted on a self-contained, internally consistent model within which they can give an easy answer to every question. So their reality is considerably simpler than anybody else’s. This leads to another problem:

Libertarians feel entitled to strong opinions on issues they know little about

Many non-libertarians are content to leave an issue aside or take a tentative stance when the relevant field of study is outside their intellectual comfort zone. Take monetary policy—most Republicans and Democrats defer to economic experts because handling the money supply is a genuinely daunting policy question, one about which even Nobel Prize winners disagree. Libertarian amateurs, however, dive headlong into these very deep policy waters. Ron Paul (a physician) wants to “end the Fed”, others want to return to a gold standard, and some want to privatize money altogether.

Whether they are ultimately right or wrong on monetary policy is beyond my ability to discern, but also beyond theirs: in justifying their radical opinions, these libertarians bypass a very large field of economic research and innovate convenient theoretical simplifications (like ignoring the differences among various parts of the money supply). As a result, when they make predictions, they’re often horribly wrong.

Libertarians overstep on more than monetary policy, of course. When a libertarian confidently promotes a brash, heterodox policy stance (say, legalizing prostitution, dismantling most government departments or getting out of the UN), you can be fairly confident that they’re mistaken. If they happen to end up being right, they were probably correct for the wrong reasons.


Admittedly, libertarians have made some important contributions to the broader political discussion. This is especially true when it comes to certain realms of economic theory, which can better bear than social theory libertarianism’s characteristic hyper-rationalism. For example, libertarians have arguably been empirically vindicated in their theory that minimum wage laws are ineffective and even harmful anti-poverty tools. Furthermore, liberty is an indispensable political good, as libertarians do well to remind us.

But libertarianism is not the answer to our broader societal question because it is not a real-world ideology. It’s ideally designed for collegiate theorizing or internet debating precisely because it is impersonal and abstract. My distaste for libertarianism is admittedly personal, because I was for a time deeply immersed in its glittering, imaginary world. As a result, I have sketched a portrait of the movement that is unfair to the more moderate thinkers among them. (However, most moderate libertarians don’t fit the profile of the prototype: either they are religious libertarians, or older than most, or just mislabeled socially moderate or dovish conservatives.) But if I’m treating libertarians harshly, I am ultimately doing so intentionally. There are many libertarians (maybe half of them) who really are as fanatical as I’m claiming, and of those who are not, many of them are at risk of becoming fanatics.

My escape from libertarianism was into conservatism, but my complaints against it are similar to those lodged by liberals and centrists. Reasonable thinkers across the political spectrum should be able to find a rare place of agreement on the issue. To quote modern liberalism’s patron saint (as I rarely do): “No, we aren’t going to have a libertarian moment,” Paul Krugman wrote in response to the NYT piece this week, “and that’s a good thing.”

Photo credit: “Ron Paul for President” by r0b0r0b, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

New Study: Gay marriage in Holland may have reduced marriage rates among … liberals?

For decades, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have been making a brazen claim. Extending marriage rights to gay couples, they say, will weaken the marriage institution.

In the near-absence of reliable data, their arguments have relied almost entirely on hypothesis. However, a new study, published earlier this year in the social science journal Demography, could offer same-sex marriage opponents some of the first empirical evidence in support of their theories. If the study’s findings are correct, same-sex marriage in the Netherlands decreased the opposite-sex marriage rate in all but the most conservative groups.

The Theory

It’s not unanimous, but growing majorities in developed nations are now on board with the idea that same-sex marriage is a good thing. As of 2013, around 80% of Scandinavians, 63% of Canadians and 55% of Britons support same-sex marriage, according to a global Ipsos survey. Recently, the tide of public opinion has even turned in the United States, where a recent poll has support as high as 59%.

For supporters, it’s not difficult to see why the public has come around. The philosophical and moral case for same-sex marriage is compelling, as this conservative will admit. Defenses can be made in the name of freedom (why should we force people who love each other not to marry?), equality (traditional marriage laws turn gays into second class citizens) and the public good (who would be harmed by gay couples marrying?).

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been caught flat-footed, perhaps even dumbfounded, as marriage laws move past them in ways that would have been inconceivable just thirty years ago. They are often unable to explain exactly why they oppose same-sex marriage but aver that it remains bad policy at best, and morally wrong at worst. The phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”, or an inability to explain one’s moral intuitions, is not unique to same-sex marriage opponents. The most common example: most Westerners (but not all) rightly oppose contracepted sex between siblings but are unable to articulate why they do. Getting stumped, then, does not make a person wrong, but it does mean that they will need to dig deeper to justify their beliefs.

Some advocates for the traditional definition of matrimony say they have done just that, catching a subtler vision of the marriage institution and promoting a corollary new case against same-sex marriage laws. Sherif Girgis, PhD candidate in philosophy and principal co-author of the 2012 book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense along with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, argues that there are two public visions of marriage. The “conjugal view” sees marriage as oriented toward procreation. The “revisionist view” calls marriage a union oriented toward love and commitment, with procreation and childrearing an elective option. (See here for a lengthier explanation.)

Girgis argues that only the former view explains why marriage should be a public institution, because it enforces norms that arise from sexual reproduction. The latter view, then, would make marriage functionally indistinguishable from non-marital romantic unions. He contends that in order to coherently support same-sex marriage, advocates have had to adopt for themselves and promote to the public the revisionist view. This, he thinks, constitutes a removal from the public square of the only institution geared toward procreation. The implication is that the old (to some, outdated) norms that historically sprung up around procreation, as well as the motive to marry, will fade along with the old view, more than they have already done.

Despite Girgis’ and his coauthors’ new defense of the traditional marriage definition and a small renaissance of secular opposition to same-sex marriage, many conservatives seem to have given up fighting in the face of a near-monolithic public consensus. And while Girgis’ reasoning is not unsound, there has been little hard evidence to support his broader conclusion that same-sex marriage laws would harm marriage itself.

What everyone, on both sides of the issue, should admit is that the same-sex marriage debate has taken place in an empirical vacuum. For better or worse, the conversation has been about same-sex marriage the moral question, not same-sex marriage the public policy. While no empirical study can or should settle the question on its own, everyone interested should take careful consideration of the data that do exist.

The new study

The paper in question, “The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands“, by Mircea Trandafir, was published in February of this year in the journal Demography. The author attempted to find the effect on the marriage rate of a 1998 domestic partnership law and 2001 same-sex marriage law in the Netherlands. Its conclusions have mostly escaped attention—partly because of a vague abstract.

The paper contains two statistical analyses. The first is a regression on aggregate (country-level) data that compares the Netherlands to a control group of OECD countries over a number of years, while the second is a time series analysis of individual-level data. In the abstract, the author writes that according to the first model, “neither law had significant effects on either the overall or different-sex marriage rate”. This is true at the 5% level, but it’s worth noting (in the context of the entire paper) that the effect of the same-sex marriage law on the marriage rate was significant at the 10% level—implying that there is only a 1 in 10 chance that Dutch marriage rates in the absence of the same-sex marriage law would have fallen as much as they did in reality. The overall trend from 1988 until 2005 is described in the paper:

As expected, the actual rates are relatively close to the synthetic marriage rate [control group rate] between 1988 and 1997, the period used to construct the synthetic control. After the introduction of registered partnership, the three rates are all higher than the synthetic marriage rate, but they all fall below the synthetic rate at some point after 2001, the year in which same-sex marriage was legalized.

According to this first, aggregate-level analysis, while there is not enough statistical power to conclude with certainty, it appears that marriage rates rose slightly as a result of the 1998 domestic partnership law but were depressed by the 2001 same-sex marriage law.

The second regression of the paper is perhaps more valuable—it uses individual-level data, which allows for greater analytic nuance. In the abstract, the author concluded: “The effects of the two laws are heterogeneous, with presumably more-liberal individuals (as defined by their residence or ethnicity) marrying less after passage of both laws and potentially more-conservative individuals marrying more after passage of each law.”

This finding is true, but represents only a part of the main results of the analysis—furthermore, important context is left out. “Potentially more-conservative individuals”, as defined by the author, represent less than 10% of the Dutch population, while “more liberal individuals” make up more than 80%.

Trandafir also claimed in his abstract that the results of the individual-level analysis “confirm the findings in the aggregate analysis”. It’s unclear what he means by this, since the individual level-analysis did not estimate the overall effect of the laws (only by gender), and only measured the overall marriage rate (as opposed to the different-sex marriage rate).

Trandafir made the decision not to perform a regression for men and women combined, because women tend to marry at a younger age than men. The findings of his analysis are that the same-sex marriage law had essentially zero effect on the male first marriage rate overall, but a statistically significant negative effect on the female first marriage rate (i.e. the age-specific rate of first marriages in a person’s lifetime).

But the story becomes more interesting. In the conservative Dutch Bible Belt, which represents around 4% of the Dutch population, the regional effect of the law was to strongly increase the marriage rate for both men and women. The same goes for the 3% of Dutch who are Turkish or Moroccan. But for the vast majority of the population—that is to say, for native Dutch and especially for residents of the four largest cities—the effect of marriage laws was significantly negative for both men and women.

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The regression is not directly interpretable quantitatively because of the complexity of the model; but for comparison, the effect on marriage rates of the law for women in the four largest cities, for example, was three times greater than the effect of actually living in the four largest cities. This suggests that the adjusted effect is large, since the marriage rate in the four largest cities is around 20% lower than in Holland overall (this is not to suggest that the law had a negative 60% effect, because the raw statistics are not controlled for demographic variables). The effect on the marriage rate for native Dutch men was a rate twice that of the year-to-year downward trend.

Somehow, it appears that the demographic groups most supportive of same-sex marriage—urbanites and native Dutch—are precisely the groups whose marriage rates declined in connection with the law. On the other hand, the conservative subcultures who were likely to oppose the 2001 law–Bible Belt residents, Turks and Moroccans–seem to have experienced a marriage rate renaissance as a result of it. Somewhere, Sherif Girgis is wide-eyed; his theory that the revisionist view of marriage undermines marriage seems to fit the data almost uncannily.

But the fact that makes these findings even more shocking is a bias in the data that causes the negative effect of the law to be underestimated, as the author admits: “identifying the spouse of all individuals is virtually impossible, and I am unable to distinguish between same-sex marriages and different-sex marriages. This induces a small upward bias in the estimate of the different-sex marriage rate after 2001.”

In other words, the gay marriage law did not just reduce the opposite-sex marriage rate, but the marriage rate overall. More explicitly, since we know that no same-sex marriages occurred prior to 2001, this means that, apart from the small conservative minority, the same-sex marriage law was associated with a drop in opposite-sex marriages that was larger than the rise in same-sex marriages.

The implications of these findings are stark. If this study is correct–and for the robustness of the methodology, it seems unlikely to be far off–then it is appropriate to suggest that same-sex marriage had the effect of decreasing the mainstream marriage rate among heterosexuals in the Netherlands, possibly by changing the way marriage was perceived.

There is a more hopeful story for advocates of civil unions, or marriages-in-all-but-name. In both the aggregate and individual analyses, domestic partnership laws had a neutral or small positive impact on the marriage rate, suggesting that it is not gay unions that have the potential to disrupt marriage culture, but the redefinition of marriage itself.


Caveats are in order after such claims. First, cultural differences between the Netherlands and other countries mean that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated. Indeed, in a 2009 state by state analysis in the US, the authors found that a state’s gay union policy had no significant effect on marriage rates (it should be noted that the study did not separate civil unions from same-sex marriage).

However, Girgis’ theory might well explain this particular discrepancy. American religious conservatives are not the tiny minority they are in Holland. In the Netherlands, there has long been massive majority support for same-sex marriage, which may help explain the significant effects found in the Trandafir paper. It could be the case that the more people support same-sex marriage, the greater downward effect the law has on marriage rates–a troubling policy conundrum.

The larger caveat: it bears reiteration that these findings do not themselves justify a particular position on same-sex marriage. There is much more to be said, and at the end of the day, public policy is not only an empirical question; it is a social, philosophical and moral one as well. However, science, philosophy and morality are often found to intersect in the same place once the dust kicked up in a whirlwind of controversy has settled. Time will tell what conclusion future generations will draw. When it comes to culture wars, history has been known to vindicate both winners and losers.

Photo credit: “King of the Netherlands” by Tom Jutte, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

Barack and Michelle ObamaRising rates of fatherlessness, a culture of promiscuity, and persistently high divorce rates are impoverishing millions of people. While marriage rates remain high in our society’s upper classes, the institution has all but collapsed among the poor, leaving in its wake an epidemic of broken homes and families deprived of social capital.

The debate over the social desirability of marriage burst into the public consciousness in 1992, when US Vice President Dan Quayle famously decried Murphy Brown, a sitcom career woman who was portrayed sympathetically during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Quayle lamented the message he believed the show was sending: marriage doesn’t really matter.

Quayle was mocked relentlessly for his comments. But the shots he fired into the cultural battlefield ignited a firestorm of opinion and debate about marriage and family values, and he was arguably vindicated by social science as well as the opinions of his successors in American government. All three US presidents since 1992 have taken care more than once to extol the necessity of fatherhood and marriage, as the proportion of US children born outside wedlock passes 40%, with much higher rates among racial minorities and the poor.

Even Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, commented in 2002, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have arrived at a consensus: the erosion of the marriage institution is hurting our society. As one example of this trend, the New York Times reports that as much as 40% of inequality growth in the US is explained by changing marriage patterns. Regrettably, there exists no consensus in the broader public consciousness that there is a problem, and no united front has appeared for shoring up the institution.

No consensus on marriage

Conservative observers, who are inclined to see poverty as a natural consequence of libertine sexuality, have jumped on the family values bandwagon. Liberals, who by all accounts care deeply about the poor, unfortunately have generally not, electing instead to talk about globalization, government policy, discrimination or other causes of poverty unrelated to marriage. An observant writer last year in the Atlantic asked, “why is it hard for liberals to talk about family values?”

White, college-educated liberals in particular are among the likeliest to marry but among the least likely to offer vocal support for the institution. They show a reluctance to “preach what they practice”, as Charles Murray describes the phenomenon.

There’s a mindset of complacency at play. For the wealthy and educated, the prospect of a single life is not a fearful one, financially speaking, so it’s easy to take marriage for granted. But for the uneducated and less advantaged, not marrying means a statistical near-certainty of life at or below the poverty line. Ironically, it is the complacent wealthy who usually marry, while the poor far too often do not.

Those who plan on a single life, however, are still in the minority: 28% of Millennials over 18 are married and a further 56% say they hope to be married at some point. But, astonishingly, only 29% believe that society is better off when marriage is made a priority. The modern philosophy seems to be, “sure, I want to get married, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

If this is the case, then maybe the answer to the Atlantic’s question—why is it so hard for liberals to talk about family values?—is a reluctance to appear judgmental. Charles Murray calls this attitude “ecumenical niceness”. This agreeability might just be dangerous, because social expectations, sanctions and norms, really do affect how people act, as a wide array of social scientific literature attests.

Liberals don’t bear full responsibility for the marriage crisis, however. Conservatives have a tendency to make marriage too materialistic. Marriage in the 1940s and 50s, for all of its virtue and vigor, was characterized by parents who spent surprisingly little time with their children, and who were concerned too much with the appeal of a new post-war middle class lifestyle. Traditional norms, while vital, do not themselves a happy family make.

Children raised in this culturally conservative environment became the next decade’s hippies and cultural revolutionaries. Their error was that in their crusade against their parents’ materialism they also rejected the traditional sexual and family norms that had given them the stability and well-being they continued to enjoy.

Norms matter

The norms and taboos that historically surrounded marriage often included the expectations that sex should wait for marriage, that a man who impregnates a woman will marry her, that married couples should have children, and that divorce is a matter of last resort. While not everyone bent to these expectations in decades past, most people did, and those who didn’t at least publicly endorsed them. Nowadays, these norms are labelled “stigma” at best, and openly rejected at worst.

However, these norms still exist in our upper class, if as unspoken best practices more than expectations. It’s the poor who have lost the norms almost completely in the midst of their public disavowal by the wealthy. Dan Quayle touched on the phenomenon in his notorious speech:

When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. … And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The inter-generational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.

Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.

Marriage without norms

Marriage normlessness has also created its own philosophical novelties. Somewhere between 1970 and now, in the relative absence of cultural taboos surrounding matrimony, many of us have lost part of the vision of marriage itself. Many anthropologists half a century ago would have told you that marriage is an institution whereby a woman’s children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of the woman and her husband. The identity of marriage involved, if not revolved around, its role as the fount of sex and family. The norms of permanence, loyalty, fertility and virginity all flowed from that essence.

But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.

This decade’s gay marriage debate has at worse reinforced, or at best revealed in its proponents, an unprecedented postmodern vision of matrimony, where marriage is not defined in terms of family at all, but only in terms of love and commitment (along with vestigial property and legal rights). As theologian Albert Mohler narrated last year: marriage was reimagined “in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity … Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal—for so long as these might last.”

No public definition of marriage has ever been perfect at any point in history. But some visions are better than others: if marriage is defined in terms of romance, fulfillment or commitment, there is little to prevent further radical changes to norms and rules.

In fact, some “polyamorous” activists have interpreted recent court decisions as applying to the situation of poly-oriented people. Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.

Raising our vision of marriage

If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization. Moderate but left-of-center psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt compares the decline of marriage to global warming as a political issue: both are real and significant dangers to humanity, but most of us see only one of these two asteroids hurtling toward us, to use his analogy.

So it’s with difficulty that we apprehend the challenge of rebuilding marriage culture, a challenge which requires the efforts of everyone who cares about poverty and societal stability, both liberals and conservatives, religious and irreligious. The challenge is neither to invent a culture entirely new (as liberals might suggest) nor to re-create the materialist 1950s (as conservatives often propose).

A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage. But it should also place a higher emphasis on child-rearing than on career or external pursuits, on the immaterial over the material. Gender roles need not be enforced for the sake of nostalgia, but sexual complementarity should be celebrated and upheld where biology makes it prudent.

Arriving at this kind of cultural consensus on marriage and family is vital for the well-being of future generations. The upper class in particular should begin to preach what many of them practice, and to admit that faithful, fruitful, permanent marriage is a good and desirable thing—not just for them but for everyone. All of us should have the courage to defend marriage and the norms that protect it. If we don’t, it will be an impoverished future generation who pays the price.

Photo credit: “Barack and Michelle exit the stage” by Luke Vargas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

Statistics tell stories, and this is something that Mormons know well. While many demographic indicators speak to the social health of Mormon culture, there are some that do not.

A well-known example: in 2009, a study found that Utah had the highest rate of online porn subscriptions of any state in the US. Latter-day Saints, who form a majority of Utah’s population, profess a belief in avoiding pornography.

New data, however, offer a conclusion opposite to the findings of the 2009 study, suggesting that Utah and other states with high Mormon populations have abnormally low rates of porn use.


The Mormon blogosphere (or “Bloggernacle”) lit up with commentary after the release of the famous original study, and the conclusions of the paper became a focal point of the growing discourse about sexuality among Mormons online. Many major blogs addressed the issue head on, as in posts here and here.

After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here. The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the religion’s teachings:

We all know LDS Church leaders have been emphasizing the dangers of pornography, especially to young men.  And yet, the statistics have shown that Utah has the highest rate of home online porn subscription.

Still, this seemingly contradictory pair of facts seems to suggest that there’s something compulsive going on with porn in the world of Mormonism.  Mormon communities are emphatic about chastity—because it is a commandment.  But Mormonism’s emphasis on chastity can impact the way Mormons feel about healthy sexuality, tinging it with shame, mystery, guilt, and unrealistic expectations. [link]

For five years the conversation on Mormonism and porn has been defined by this single data point, and psychological and sociological analyses of Mormon culture, like Brooks’, have rested upon it.

The paper’s accompanying fact that Idaho (25% Latter-day Saints) had the lowest rate of porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users in the US has only very rarely been cited. Also seldom reported is the fact that the data in the 2009 study was from an unnamed vendor, whose users may or may not be representative of the US population.

The New Data

Pornhub pageviews per capita

Annual pageviews per capita by state, Pornhub.com.

Last week, the third largest pornography website in the United States (Pornhub.com) released data on its annual pageviews per capita by state. A chart of pageviews by state is shown at right (a link to the analysis, which does not show explicit content, is here).

The chart as presented by Pornhub is limited in its applicability, because relevant demographic variables are left uncontrolled for, but the conclusion nevertheless appears favorable for Mormons. Utah’s pageviews per capita in 2013 were 40th in the US. Idaho and Wyoming, the other states with large Mormon populations, are even lower on the list, at 49th and 46th respectively.

In order to find a more meaningful interpretation of the data that would adjust for possible confounding variables, I went to the trouble of gathering the most recent demographic data I could find for each state, so I could perform a controlled regression. I included variables for GDP per capita, internet penetration per capita, male/female ratio, age distribution, race and each state’s marriage rate.

Using ordinary linear regression methods, I generated a difference between a state’s actual views per capita and the views that would be predicted based on demographic variables. In this analysis, Utah’s deviation from the views predicted by demographics was 45th in the United States, while Wyoming was 46th and Idaho came 50th.

In other words, when controlling for other variables, there is an even stronger suggestion than before that Mormon populations do not have abnormally high rates of porn use (at least as represented by Pornhub). We might even suggest that their rates of use are especially low.

I also decided to directly analyze the relationship between Mormonism and porn use (again, as measured by this particular metric). This is something the author of the 2009 study did not do. I included a variable for the percentage of a state’s population that is LDS, as measured by official LDS membership statistics and the most recent population projections based on census data.

The regression finds, roughly speaking, when controlling for the variables already mentioned, that a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 16% decrease in the amount of porn consumption.

This result is highly significant, even at the 0.001 level. In fact, “percentage of Latter-day Saints in population” had a higher statistical significance than any other single variable I included in the regression (the next most significant variable was internet penetration). The proportion of overall explained variation in the regression is 66%, and a test for overall significance is highly conclusive, suggesting that the model as estimated is meaningful and significant.

Why do the results appear so different for these two sets of data? It’s almost impossible to know. The author of the 2009 study did not reveal the identity of the “top ten” porn vendor who gave him credit card data, and he admitted that there was no way to evaluate whether the users of that vendor were representative of the porn industry in general. His data, which was gathered from 2006 to 2008, also did not measure consumption, but rather paid subscriptions. A possible explanation of the discrepancy is that Utah’s porn use is skewed toward paid pornography.

In fairness, we cannot be sure that Pornhub.com users are representative of the industry overall. However, in this case we are aware of the identity of the provider, which provides both paid and unpaid content.

Statistics tell stories, and the famous “Utah porn statistic” has told far more stories than it is worth. If critics of Mormon teachings on porn and sexuality would like to continue promoting the idea that a conservative sexual culture has backfired on itself, then they will have to confront a less convenient set of data.

Here is another narrative, that perhaps time and further analysis will prove: Mormons view less porn than others, and those conservative sexual teachings are working.

EDIT: In response to a request, I obtained recent Gallup data on religiosity by state, and added these variables to my regression, in order to separate the effects of religiosity in general and religious engagement by Mormons. The same general results persist: a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 17% decrease in porn pageviews. The p-value is once again very low, at 0.002. In deviations from projections including religiosity, Utah is ranked 38th, Idaho 50th, and Wyoming 46th. The differences from the earlier analysis are small and require no changes to the conclusions I suggested above.

Technical notes: I used Stata to perform the regressions mentioned. Data were collected from government sources wherever possible. The results were consistent even when using logarithmic variables for pageviews and GDP. I learned the relevant statistical methods as part of the completion of the econometric portion of my Honours economics degree. EDIT: Datafiles and my Stata do-file can be accessed here.

Minimizing Casualties in the Culture War

Brendan EichThe culture war continues to make its effects felt, as last week the CEO of a technology firm lost his job for taking part in the fighting six years ago. Brendan Eich’s departure from Mozilla is in itself no tragedy, but it may be true, as Conor Friedersdorf argued in The Atlantic, that the move represents an affront to the values of a pluralistic society, and will have a chilling effect on political discourse.

Whether or not this is the case, the impassioned, sometimes vengeful response of some vocal progressives to Eich’s misdeeds and subsequent displacement seem to reveal a societal short-sightedness about cultural change itself.

Last year I wrote that the present wave of social progressivism had moved quickly, and that it was unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Social conservatives feel as in the position of veteran employees under new management, chastised for being slow to give up on the old rules, and still feeling affection for the old boss.

A fact easily forgotten by ideologues of any affiliation, left or right, is that the current cultural consensus does not foresee its own advance, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek. The main implication of this fact is the near-certainty that in our lifetimes there will be more sea changes in public opinion—and on issues we have hardly yet considered.

If liberals do not move with the tide on these future issues, as they have with marriage laws, they will at some point be in the position of gay marriage’s current opponents. Conceiving of the future is difficult, so it is worth bringing up a few possible scenarios.

For example, given recent history, it is not ridiculous to speculate that in the next few decades public opinion on polyamorous marriage could reverse. Supporters of the cause have already begun making the comparison to gay marriage. And if changing academic perspectives are any hint, pedophilia may see itself transformed from perversion to orientation. A growing transgender rights movement could lead to far-reaching institutional changes that would alter the way we talk about gender. Religious exemptions can hardly be generally guaranteed.

Looking further down the road: If animal rights attitudes shift, common farming and ranching practices could be banned and meat-eaters could face moral censure. Alcohol could go the way of tobacco and lose its place as the last widely acceptable recreational drug. The abortion dialogue could continue to trend rightward, creating a pro-life status-quo.

The headlines are not difficult to dream up: “Polyamory rights group wins suit against religious group.” “Physicians directed to provide therapeutic virtual child porn for minor-attracted persons.” “Mosque loses fight to require gender identification.” “Governor seeks to bring past abortion providers to trial.”

These hypothetical examples sound absurd, and it may indeed be the case that they are—but if radical changes seem unthinkable it is worth considering that to those whose memory goes back more than two decades, so once would have the headline, “CEO opposed to same-sex marriage steps down amid controversy.”

But the likelihood (or rightness or wrongness) of these particular contingencies is not the point, if we accept that whatever the affiliation of today’s political observers, they could before too long find themselves forced to become a conspicuous enemy of public opinion.

For this reason, it would be wise for today’s cultural conquerors to act with magnanimity and grace toward their conquered, the way Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan have done. But in our electrically polarized political culture, theirs is not often the attitude that prevails. Sullivan laments, after hearing feedback from his readers, “only a small percentage of emailers are as disgusted as I am.”

Ross Douthat recently wrote an almost epitaphic letter to the officers of the marriage battle (he titled it The Terms of Our Surrender). Acknowledging that Christians and conservatives have not always acted with restraint when in the position of victor, he requested only that the winning side in this conflict “recognize its power”. To their credit, many intellectuals on that side are doing so.

But I would extend Douthat’s metaphor a little further and plead for a little more, given all of our shared history and unavoidable future. We live in a ceaselessly changing culture, and all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, could at one point find ourselves in a position like Brendan Eich’s, having made, say, a donation to a majority political cause a few years earlier.

When new battles place some of us on the unexpected defense, our moral territory in the culture war left all at once deserted by the forces of popular opinion, is it too much to ask that the victors offer the defeated, at least until the surrender has been negotiated, clemency for having defended the losing side?

Is There Still a Place for Social Conservatism?

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Social conservatism has been out of favor with Western academics for a long time, but more recently the disapproval of the traditional has become truly popular. With a few exceptions, public opinion has moved to the left on social issues over the last two generations, and most profoundly on those issues that relate to sexuality. (Social conservatism often implies certain views on culture, race and class, but it is usually characterized by its approach to sexual issues, at least in the last few decades.) Large majorities in most developed countries now embrace political positions that were almost undiscussed twenty years ago. It is worth asking whether social conservatism will persist, and whether it would do us any good if it did.

The scarcity of social conservatism in the intellectual world forces its sponsors to consider carefully their conviction to the worldview. Recently I came to terms with my identity as a social conservative, after a period of rejecting the label.

As a teenager, I had always taken the conservative view on social issues I had considered. I remember polling my high school social studies class as a fifteen year-old as part of an assignment, proud to find I was one of three students who opposed the impending change to marriage laws. I loved to argue with peers, and while I was good at it, I began to wish there were better defenses for my beliefs. On euthanasia, abortion and even prostitution I often felt compelled to defend traditions for which there were not at first appealing justifications. I began to suspect that perhaps intelligent people couldn’t be socially conservative.

So the feeling I had on deciding I was socially liberal, as I did when I was around eighteen, was of relief. I felt at ease, now able to set aside the opaque biases and prejudices of my old beliefs, and to embrace a morality that was more simply justified and explained. By abstracting away from reality a little, a whole new world of ethical reasoning opened up, where the limits of morality were only those that I (or “society”) arbitrarily placed upon it.

The intellectual leap to relativism was made easier by the fact that I had been surrounded by those ideals my whole life, having grown up in a place and time where progressive social values seemed to dominate popular theory (if not practice, as they tend not to do in suburban Canada).

This consensus, which has grown perhaps with the help of a new wave of libertarianism, has moved quickly, and as an ideology it is unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Statements on social issues by leaders of government in Canada only fifteen years ago would scandalize our new sensibilities. Nowadays there are belittling labels used to describe those whose social vision lags behind the avant-garde.

To understand the reasons for this shift, as well as to explain my personal reasons for returning to social conservatism, it is necessary to examine the culture war as a conflict not only of values, but of visions, to borrow a concept from writer Thomas Sowell. While values, or moral preferences, can certainly change, I am skeptical that they ever reverse themselves on a societal scale in any short period of time, as they at first appear to have done since the 1990s.

It would be difficult to dispute that most major ideologies, including conservatism and progressivism, ultimately value social welfare above most everything else. This is almost definitional to political ideologies. So while values clash at points, there must be a difference in the respective visions—in other words, as Sowell wrote in A Conflict of Visions, in each feeling or “sense of how the world works”. In the progressive vision, humans are most moral when generally free to invent their own moral philosophies, using their abilities to reason. In the conservative vision, people are not independently intelligent or sensible enough to do so, and would do better, as a rule, to bend to tradition, authority, and emergent social norms, and as an exception, to reason.

While liberals tend to think of humans as essentially unconstrained in their ability to intentionally move society forward, except to the extent that they allow society to restrict them, conservatives are more skeptical, crediting people only with the ability to be effective parts of a decentralized system, whose success is not purposed or created by anyone in particular. For this reason liberals seek morality in reason, and conservatives in wisdom. Importantly, liberals look for the causes of problems, while conservatives tend to seek the particular explanations for success.

My reconciliation with my social conservatism was not really a shift in values, as reflected by the fact that decisions in my personal life never really changed throughout the period of my movements in worldview. It was something subtler: the realizations (which I made in practice before in theory) that most of us require social norms and authority in order to act ethically, that we are not very good at moral reasoning, and that reality is more subtle than anyone’s individual capacity to understand.

This skepticism, however, made me more optimistic than less. Individuals do not have to be angels in order to be a part of collective triumph and social progress. Social norms can take the place of analytically expensive institutional or governmental policies. The constrained vision, the conservative worldview, means that our best hope for a virtuous society is in collectively doing the ordinary things we are already designed (but sometimes less inclined) to do: accepting personal responsibility, raising good families and offering meaningful service to people who are near us.

Accepting this newly old-fashioned vision of the world, where the health of a society depends on such particular things as familial stability, led me once more to appreciate the virtues of temperance, chastity and sacrifice that characterize social conservatism. Learning how to raise good families, for example, probably does not require anything special in the way of deductive reasoning. It is not a new concern. It is an old question to which we have answers in the way of an enormous body of tradition. We would probably do better to add to that body of wisdom incrementally, than to attempt to create new and universal moral theories by abstraction.

This cautiousness will be the role of social conservatism in the decades and centuries to come, in the Western intellectual universe. Social conservatism has existed, at least with respect to most of its particular prescriptions, for thousands of years. Because of this characteristic endurance, I will not be among those surprised when it does not evaporate in the face of progressivism, no matter what the character of progress currently happens to appear.

Carbon taxes in Canada: Was Stephane Dion Right?

Former Liberal Party Leader Stephane Dion was an inept politician, but a better policymaker.

Former Liberal Party Leader Stephane Dion was an inept politician, but a better policymaker.

Global climate change is a complicated study for scientists. Modern climate models evaluate enormous amounts of physical data and their forecasts require some of the world’s best supercomputers. The complexity of the issue certainly leads to imprecision, and climate scientists are unafraid to admit that. But like most complicated issues, climate change is a phenomenon that is scientifically approachable, despite the gaps in our collective understanding. Even allowing large margins of error, scientists agree that human industry has had the effect of warming up the world by changing the composition of the atmosphere. Their predictions over the last few decades have been borne out. Even at the lower bounds of estimation by scientists and evaluations by economists, the future is one where climate change will be noticeable and costly.

The famous 2006 Stern Review estimated that GDP in 2200 would be around 14% lower as a result of climate change, representing something like a 0.1 percentage point decrease in GDP growth per year over that time. This is trillions of dollars over the decades, lost to more frequent natural disasters, physical displacement from coastal areas and ultimately reduced crop yields resulting from scorching.

There is a minority of economists who would argue that, when discounted, the costs of global warming are not large, especially as a proportion of economic activity as a whole. However, the cost of mitigation is almost certainly less, as Nobel winner Kenneth Arrow argued in 2007, even at extremely high rates of future discounting. There is broad agreement in the developed world, at least academically, that the future costs of climate change justify enacting policies now to mitigate them.

As is the case with many technically complicated public policy concerns, a general consensus among scientists, economists and technocrats has not resulted in the accumulation of enough political capital to make meaningful changes, at least in Canada. Canada is a geographically huge, relatively cold place, and energy use per capita is very high. Our energy sector is highly developed and productive. It isn’t really our fault that we aren’t as inclined as Europeans to voluntarily raise the cost of energy, whether through carbon taxes or emissions trading. And not many of our elected leaders want to play the role of climate villain, asking us to make the sacrifices that would seem to weigh on our economy.

There was one politician who tried. It was really a courageous thing for Stéphane Dion (former federal leader of the Liberal Party) to begin talking about carbon taxes in June of 2008, while the North American economy slowed to a crawl and we feared job losses in the US would spill over the border. His naïve faith in the distracted public to support his scheme proved what most Canadians knew: he was an awful politician, even if he would make a good bureaucrat.

But Dion’s Green Shift, to his credit, was an entirely sensible plan from the standpoint of climate science or economics. It involved a phased-in tax on carbon dioxide emissions, rising from $10/tonne to $40/tonne over the course of a few years. Gasoline itself would have been exempt, already having its own tax. Other energy-related costs would have gone up slightly. An average household might have expected to spend an extra $500 or so on energy each year as a result. To compensate this, Dion’s plan would have reduced marginal tax rates on the bottom three income brackets. By most estimates these tax cuts would have more than compensated for any extra energy expenditures; a family of four with an income of $60,000 would have saved $1,300. The net costs of the law would have been borne mostly by producers.

While the plan was lambasted, there was really nothing radical about it. The NDP at the time had proposed a European-style cap-and-trade system (probably because it would allow them a greater feeling of the control they craved than would a broad tax-based approach). Nobody was proposing anything as unproductive as blocking the construction of oil pipelines, as has become an issue in the United States.

The Liberals were practically reading their policy from an economics textbook. The most efficient taxes are those that correct for market failures. Anthropogenic climate change is perhaps the most profound market failure of which we’re aware. A Pigouvian tax on carbon would have the effect of partially building the costs of the long-term effects of carbon emissions into market prices. And while Dion might have coopted the corrective tax as a new revenue stream, he instead advocated broad-based tax rate reductions that most economists would support.

A carbon tax in Canada would not go very far to change the global path of climate change over the next century. It might be nearly as valuable as a moral signal to the world as it would be an emissions reduction tool. While I am always skeptical of government as a solution to the world’s big problems (hunger, disease and poverty have been better addressed by markets), I recognize the value of corrections to our tax code in the face of genuinely vague, but certainly real and looming shocks to our economy that will come as a result of climate change. It would be unwise for conservatives like myself not to embrace a reasonable federal policy of emission reductions along with compensating reductions in income tax rates—even if it was the Liberals’ idea.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on August 20, 2013.

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