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Kling on Politics, Economics, and Religion

Posted by erweinstein on February 6, 2007

In this interesting essay, Arnold Kling argues that those who favor greater personal and economic freedom (who are called or call themselves “libertarians”) will find more and truer allies among conservatives than among liberals in the United States.

Kling’s thesis seems correct given the current political atmosphere, if not necessarily for the exact reasons he offers. He identifies his two main arguments:

1) The Republican base is more naturally favorable toward limited government than is the Democratic base.

The demographic component of this argument—that public-sector employees and union members, for example, will oppose libertarian economic policies instinctively, and the Democratic Party depends heavily on voters like these—accords with common sense. But the psychological/motivational component is more troublesome. Kling says,

While I imagine that there must be some single moms who lean libertarian, in general single mothers are more likely to look to government as a substitute for the missing father.

It’s probably true that more single mothers favor more state intervention in the economy rather than less, regardless of which party they officially support. But we need not turn to psychoanalysis to explain this. It could be that single mothers support non-libertarian economic policies solely because these policies offer them more public services, a larger “social safety net”, and fewer work requirements for welfare. (I am not implying that welfare is a concern for all or most single mothers, just discussing possible motivations.) Kling may be right about a single mothers, but there’s too much we don’t know about the psychology, sociology, and economics (people respond to incentives!) of political opinion- and identity-formation. People’s actual motivations and the causes thereof are quite complex, and it is ambitious to explain an entire social group in one sentence. Can we easily psychoanalyze the politics of, say, Hollywood actors? While we can certainly make generalizations, how do we express in one factually-correct and nontrivial statement the observed continuum from progressive Democrats like Sean Penn to popular Republican politicians like Reagan and Schwarzenegger?

Kling’s second main point has even more depth:

2) I find it a challenge trying to persuade religious conservatives to loosen the relationship between their religious beliefs and their political agenda. However, I find it even more of a challenge to deal with the Left, where their political agenda is their religion.

There is much empirical validity to this, and Kling is impressively pithy. However, he ignores another side of the conflict between religion and libertarianism that is, in my experience, more relevant. A plurality (or more) of mainline Protestants and an overwhelming majority of American Jews believe (or act as if they believe) that their religion requires voting Democrat. This is indeed a problem for non-Democrats, especially those who are both “libertarian-leaning” and religious, but it is not necessarily intractable. Are American liberals somehow less amenable to reason than American conservatives when libertarian issues are at hand? If not, then it is important to explain to these religious Democrat voters that the hallmarks of classical liberalism—local decision making, emphasis on results rather than intentions, using the power of competitive markets to improve human prosperity, and striving for both personal/social and economic/transactional freedom—can help the poor and make society better for all. (A rising tide lifts all boats.) After a fashion, I suspect that it may be easier to persuade religious liberals to accept market-based policy solutions (cf. the Clinton presidency) than to persuade religious conservatives to stop expanding Leviathan in the name of promoting their moral values (cf. the Bush 43 presidency and the US Congress from 2003 to 2007). But even if intelligent and non-blinkered leftists could be more easily persuaded to tolerate libertarian policies in particular instances than their counterparts on the right, I agree with Kling that the current Democratic Party and its supporters are less conducive overall to reducing government and expanding both types of freedom than the current Republican Party. The difference may be depressingly small, but when one compares the Democrat and Republican presidential front-runners, it is noticeable.

My favorite quote from the article:

On social issues, I differ from the National Review partisans in that I am not a social conservative politically. I favor keeping government out of issues of sexual conduct. Nonetheless, in terms of behavior I am quite conservative.

Well said, Dr. Kling. I agree and sympathize.

One Response to “Kling on Politics, Economics, and Religion”

  1. Manas said

    That was interesting, but I don’t agree.

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