Religious conservatives should hope Hillary wins

Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.

But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.

Here are two reasons.

The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.

The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.

In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.

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Hillary Clinton delivers a policy speech at Georgetown University to a sparse audience. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.

In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.

As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.

The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.

Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.

There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?

Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.

Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Gender politics and the essence of humanity

Recent developments in the politics of gender are raising deeper questions about the continuing relevance of gender itself. This week the Alberta government presented a new birth certificate to a twelve year-old girl-by-birth who began identifying as a boy at age nine. The ‘F’ indicating sex on the child’s certificate was changed to an ‘M’.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta has become the first province to allow such a change for children, who are not eligible for sex reassignment surgery. Court cases in other provinces seem to signal forthcoming nationwide changes in gender identity policy.

As is often the case with complicated social issues, the conspicuous effects of the policy are less important than the subtle, but broader cultural shifts that will follow it.

That is to say, social conservatives are not concerned so much about an Alberta child’s birth certificate as they are about the continued cultural significance of the words “male” and “female”. These concerns are not ludicrous given the tremendous speed of social change in the recent past, and in light of recent media conversations about gender.

In April, Global News ran the headline, “Does gender no longer work on birth certificates?” A Saskatchewan mother of a six year-old transgendered girl noted that birth certificates once listed a child’s race and father’s occupation, and argued that gender designations were just as archaic.

The question is bigger than birth certificates, however. This week, Canadian media reported that the Vancouver School Board had directed its staff to use the pronouns “xe”, “xem” and “xyr” to refer to students of ambiguous sex, or who otherwise do not wish to be called “he” or “she”.

A National Post feature last month was titled “The end of gender? North American society may be ready for more shades in between male and female”. The article quoted a University of Melbourne professor who advocates the abolition of gender itself.

The exemplars in these progreThe Kissssive visions are the minority of individuals who are transgendered or androgynous in some way. But while there are exceptions in circumstance, might it be true in principle that humans are male and female? What would a genderless society mean for our collective human identity?

The denial of the male and female has to be understood in the context of a broader trend: modernity’s tendency to abstract away from human reality for the sake of simplicity and inclusiveness. The last four hundred years have seen the effacement of man’s identity as a spiritual being, as a familial being, and even as a monogamous, heterogamous, or fruitful one. People have become “individuals”, conceived of as intellectual and physical agents and little else.

In the twenty-first century, by abstracting with even more boldness than before, we are at risk of inventing an epicene anthropology, a de-gendered image of humanity in which very few people are made.

The beauty of our civilizational self-portrait has given way to something more schematic, an image that contains no errors but misses the likeness of its subject. Which is more important—that our collective imagination of human identity (symbolized, perhaps, by a birth certificate) is broad enough to include every permutation of individual identity, or that it is deep enough to capture the essence of humanity itself?

Hustings: The leftward drift

New post of mine at The Hustings.

Political writer John O’Sullivan once hypothesized a law of politics: any organization not explicitly right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing. The natural tendency of modern institutions, he thought, is toward the left, and the inclination is only overcome with effort …

[Read more at the Hustings]

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?

Women are becoming less happy: What’s wrong with modern feminism?

Woman“Was happiness the goal? I always thought it was equality.”

That was the comment of a feminist writer this week in the Los Angeles Times, speaking on the goals of feminism. The statement is surprising—why would we think that women’s equality and happiness are opposed to each other?

The comment reveals a puzzle that has gone unsolved among feminists since 2009, when a landmark study cut short the unconscious narrative of the modern feminist movement, wherein the victories of feminism are always victories for women.

The puzzle is the juxtaposition of two facts: first, that the feminist movement has made historic progress in achieving its goals over the last half-century. Second, that women’s subjective well-being, or happiness, has unquestionably declined in absolute terms and in relation to men since the 1970s.

The research

The 2009 paper in the American Economic Journal, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, was titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and it caused a stir in the social science world. The authors found, in their meta-analysis of data, that while women in the US and Europe were once happier than men by a comfortable margin, their advantage had steadily declined starting in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s the average level of happiness for women had fallen below that of men, and it began to fall even more quickly during the twenty-first century.

The declines in unhappiness among women are not easily reduced to other phenomena, because the declines have occurred among all age groups, races and education levels of women, and persist when controlling for cohort effects, employment and family status.

The paper alludes to a few possible explanations for the paradox. One involves marriage: married people are known to be happier than unmarried people, and this holds more strongly for women than for men. A falling marriage rate would likely contribute to lower relative female happiness.

Another explanation the authors suggest is that the women’s movement itself has made women less happy, by leading women to think that they are not “measuring up” in a world where women are more often expected to work for pay, and to compete in that sphere, in some way, with men.

Both of these possible causes rotate around the changing cultural and economic roles of women, and suggest the possibility that the achievements of second- and third-wave feminism have led women, in fact, to become less satisfied with life.

There is no way to prove this is the case, and it would be dishonest to conclusively indict modern feminism in causing female unhappiness. Nevertheless, the paradox still puts feminist theorists in a difficult intellectual spot, because no feminist would have predicted in 1970 that the women’s movement would be accompanied by a broad decline in female happiness, especially in relation to men.

But the reality of the last forty years seems to say that modern feminism either makes women unhappy, or else that at best, it has little or no power to make them happy. (If feminists disagree, perhaps they can bear the burden of the data and prove it.)

The goals of feminism

This is where we are reintroduced to the philosophical question introduced by the Los Angeles Times commentator: is feminism about equality or happiness? Ideally we take both, but if we must make one our goal to the possible detriment of the other, or at least some modern formulation of the other, which one will we take?

We have seen the fruits of the kind of feminism that devotes itself to modern egalitarian ideas before happiness. But what would happen if the aims of feminism were designed according to the criterion that they would lead to the most happiness for women?

That is, if feminist ideology were left aside for a moment, and the progressive assumptions so peculiar to our age were temporarily locked in their ivory tower, what kind of public policy would we find would really bring more enjoyment into the lives of women?

Social science has been fairly conclusive on many of the correlates of happiness in the Western world, and some of these correlates are especially powerful for women. It is worth taking note of these data by considering a few examples that may have been overlooked by activists.

A happiness-focused feminism

As mentioned before, married women are considerably happier than unmarried women (see the Stevenson paper, p. 217). Public policy that promoted the institution of marriage would seem to be an unambiguous gain for women. To be specific, perhaps public schools could teach teenage students about the emotional, psychological, and financial gains that accrue to married people (along with, of course, the sacrifices that are involved).

The story goes deeper than marriage: women are especially wounded by a reckless sexual culture. Sex unconnected from commitment does not lead to long run happiness for either sex, but men derive more satisfaction and less pain than women from these indiscretions. Ross Douthat argued recently, citing studies: “In our sexual culture, the male preference gets treated as normative even by women who don’t share it, and whose own comfort level with sex outside a committed relationship is actually substantially lower.” Even if we do not insist on marriage, women would probably benefit from a “somewhat more conservative sexual culture,” Douthat argues.

Speaking of our sexual culture, there are few places more hostile to women than the virtual world of pornography. Porn use has been shown to corrupt men’s attitudes toward women and to make them more inclined to violent sexual acts. It would make sense for feminists to advocate for a culture that stigmatizes pornography, and for public policy that would help establish that culture.

Women’s happiness is also more affected by instability in domestic life than is men’s. This is perhaps tied to higher female risk aversion. One of the most ubiquitous causes of domestic instability in the Western world is male alcohol use. Men are known to drink at least twice as much as women, and are responsible for about four-fifths of binge drinking. In the US, fifteen to twenty million adults are dependent on alcohol, two thirds of them men.

Alcohol’s costs in comparison to other drugs are particularly social—for example, if a married man is an alcoholic, it is his wife and children who pay much of the price. Alcohol use, even at relatively moderate levels of consumption, also increases the likelihood of rape and other forms of violence by men. Feminists interested in female well-being should fight the culture that normalizes this extraordinarily pervasive social vice, a primarily male indulgence.

Feminism’s future

I have offered a few suggestions for a happiness-focused feminism: strengthening the marriage institution and fighting a culture of promiscuity, pornography and alcohol. If, as I have suggested, we define feminism as a program of initiatives that are likely to make women happier, then feminism will include these traditionalist ideas (as well as others).

However, like the LA Times commentator, academic feminists have rarely sponsored these policies, and in the case of marriage, they have sometimes promoted the opposite. Indeed, they have made organizations and churches advancing these goals their enemies. They seem to ask, in response to gloomy female happiness data, “was happiness the goal?”

Perhaps we have found the explanation for the refusal of a majority of American women to identify as feminist: modern feminism is not really designed to increase the quality of women’s lives. On the contrary, it is an ideology that is firstly anti-traditional and only secondly pro-women: women’s well-being is incidental (and perhaps obstructive) to the cause of progressivism.

If this is feminism, please count me out.

However, if feminism is the promotion of policies known to make women happier (whether the policies are conservative or progressive), count me in. I look with optimism toward a more virtuous society, where the happiness of women and men is the germ of our cultural philosophy, and ultimately the fruits of its efforts.

Photo Credit: Mait Jüriado.

The Free Trade of Goods … And Bads

CanadaEU

Both Canada and Europe expect to benefit from the new free trade agreement.

Canada and the EU have made a sweeping free trade agreement, and Stephen Harper is exultant: “This is a big deal,” he told the press in Europe, after concluding the negotiations. “Indeed, this is the biggest deal our country has ever made. This is a historic win for Canada.”

The Prime Minister’s claim is barely an exaggeration. The general removal of barriers to the cross-Atlantic exchange of goods and services, or free trade, will almost certainly mean hundreds of billions of dollars to the economies of Canada and the European Union over the next few decades. There are few informed people who disagree. In fact, nearly 100% of economists support free trade.

Uncertainty surrounds free trade, however. Recent polls of Canadians find 40% who endorse free trade with Europe, 16% who oppose it and, surprisingly, around 44% of Canadians who have no opinion, perhaps because they do not fully understand what it means to have free trade. Most issues debated in government have a more transparent moral or partisan character.

Because of the economic significance of trade policy, and its relative intuitive simplicity, it is worth explaining free trade in a general way.

Every government in the world charges some level of tariffs on goods and services purchased from foreign sellers. When consumers pay tariffs on goods they import, the tariffs are normally called duties. Most tariffs, however, are levied on businesses, who pass much of the burden of the tariff on to consumers.

When a Canadian confectioner imports sugar from Latin America, for example, it may pay up to $30 per tonne of sugar in duty. Canadian shoe retailers pay up to 20% of the purchase price on footwear imported from Asia or Europe. Foreign governments likewise impose tariffs on Canadian imports.

Canada has concluded agreements to drop tariffs with 14 countries, and there are a few pending agreements that will soon take effect. The new agreement with the EU, which will be fully ratified within a few years, brings the number of such countries to 42. As part of the deal, 98% of existing tariffs between the two economies will be removed. Consumer prices will fall on a variety of goods, and sellers in each economy will have effective access to a much larger market.

The benefits of free trade are even better than low prices or more exports, however, and this is something that Stephen Harper understands.

One of the earliest insights of modern economics was that free trade nearly always leads to a total increase in wealth for all involved countries. Crucially, this is true even for countries whose productive capacity is inferior to their trading partners’ in every industry. This argument, which hinges on the principle of “comparative advantage”, is actually quite subtle, so it is best illustrated by an unrealistically simplified example.

In a hypothetical economy that involves only two countries and two goods, imagine that producers in France are able to produce both cheese and olives more cheaply than are producers in Canada. However, while the cost of growing olives in Canada is extremely high, Canadian cheese is only moderately expensive. So while it would be cheaper to produce cheese in France than in Canada, it would actually be even cheaper to both countries if France only grew olives and Canada produced only cheese. Canada would then trade some of its cheese for French olives. In this case, while France has an “absolute advantage” in both goods, Canada has a comparative advantage in cheese. By means of free trade, Canada is able to obtain its olives by producing cheese, rather than by inefficiently growing them. And because Canadians are willing to pay quite well for olives, the French are left better off as well.

The empirical and intuitive cases for free trade are strong, but there are of course reasons to oppose the policy, at least in particular circumstances. Certain Canadian industries would shrink or vanish if exposed to foreign competitors, and jobs in those industries would be lost. The dairy industry, for example, will probably see falling profits now that Canadians can buy European cheese more cheaply. This is a reason for political caution, but experience teaches us that the benefits of free trade outweigh its costs.

The unambiguous and very large benefits of free trade sometimes tempt policymakers and pundits to become over-enthusiastic, and to forget that there are important reasons to be selective in our trade policy. It is common sense that we do not, for example, liberalize the international market for handguns, explosives or non-medicinal drugs.

Perhaps one of the best publicized effects of the new free trade deal, however, is that the market for wine and spirits will be liberalized, leading to more varieties of alcohol and likely to lower prices. But while Canadians will be freer than before to indulge, we can be almost certain that more people in Canada will die as a result of lower prices, many of them teenagers (the leading preventable cause of teenage death in Canada is alcohol). The number of deaths caused by alcohol shows a surprisingly significant connection to the price of the drug. Whether we are examining drug policy or trade policy, lowering the price of alcohol should probably be our last priority.

Despite the missteps that often accompany good policy, we can be confident that a policy of free trade with Europe is sensible and well justified by experience. We can look forward to the increased prosperity that follows free and open markets. With respect to value created, the agreement may indeed be one of the most significant accomplishments of Mr. Harper’s premiership.