Sex, religion and conservatives

Why do conservatives support laws against discrimination for characteristics that they approve of, but not for characteristics they don't approve of?

Posted on February 29, 2008  Posted to The Guardian

Sex, religion and conservatives

Why do conservatives support laws against discrimination for characteristics that they approve of, but not for characteristics they don't approve of?

In their attempt to oppose laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (that is, laws supporting gay rights) while supporting other such laws, conservatives have long tied themselves in knots. You shouldn't compare antigay discrimination to racial discrimination, they said, because race is an immutable characteristic, while homosexuality is a chosen behavior. Thus it's appropriate to ban discrimination on the basis of race. And also, they'll allow, all the other characteristics protected in the US by the 1964 Civil Rights Act - race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But wait a minute, I used to say to conservatives. It's obvious to thinking people that sexual orientation isn't chosen - it may be genetic or environmental, but it certainly isn't chosen. As far as the individual is concerned, it's an innate or immutable characteristic. So if that's your standard, then discrimination against gays is just as unreasonable as discrimination against blacks. (Yes, conservatives could counter that orientation might be immutable, but sexual behavior is still chosen. Sort of like saying that you might be born Jewish, but you could stay in the closet and not practice your faith, and then you wouldn't suffer any discrimination.) And meanwhile, religion is a chosen behavior. Right? In most Christian churches, you must make a conscious decision to join the church, and that decision is normally made after reaching the age of reason.

Thus, it seems, conservatives are doubly wrong: They say that discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics should be banned, but discrimination on the basis of chosen behavior should not. But they are wrong to say that sexual orientation is chosen, and wrong to imply that religion is immutable like race.

But then there's a twist: In fact, it always seemed to me, religion isn't really chosen. Most people join the church their parents attend. If your parents are Catholic, so are you. If your parents are Baptist, so are you. We see this in ethnic/religious disputes from Iraq to Serbia to Northern Ireland to India, where it's hard to distinguish between ethnic groups and adherents to particular religions. But we also see it among Americans who practice the faith of their fathers and often attend the actual church where their great-grandparents worshiped. So maybe the conservatives can reasonably consider religion to be biological or innate.

But now a massive new study from the Pew Research Center tells us that I was right all along, and the conservatives are indeed doubly wrong. Many people, at least in the United States, do change their religion. Indeed, it appears that 44% of Americans have switched religious affiliations, either to join another religion or to drop any religious affiliation.

So we're back where we started: Conservatives support legal protection against discrimination for chosen characteristics that they approve, but not for characteristics they don't approve of. It's not a matter of logical categories.


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Posted on February 29, 2008  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Conservatives,Equality,Gay rights,guardian.co.uk,Religion,The Guardian,United States

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

Posted on January 24, 2008  Posted to The Guardian

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.

McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.

McCain will also be 72 years old if he is inaugurated a year from now, however, making him the oldest man ever to enter the White House. He likes to talk about his 95-year-old mother to illustrate his good genes, but the presidency is a very stressful job, there are indeed terrorists out to get the American president, five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison can't be good for your health and he has had a bout with skin cancer. Furthermore, his mother's age notwithstanding, his father died at 70 and his grandfather at 61. So he has to recognise the possibility at least that he might not serve out his term. At a time of international turmoil, it is essential that a president, especially one so committed to duty, honour and country, leave the country in capable hands in that eventuality.

Could McCain honourably serve his country by putting Mike Huckabee a heartbeat from the presidency? There's some political plausibility. Huckabee is younger. He would reassure religious conservatives who might be sceptical of McCain. He's a charming and effective campaigner.

But from a policy perspective, he's a conservative candidate who is also a big-spending nanny statist. He bills himself as a "Christian leader" and says that his rise in the polls can only be attributed to God's will. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Huckabee doesn't just want a government that will stamp out sin. He wants a government that will worry about your body as much as your soul." He says that "it is government's responsibility to try to create a culture of health", including pressuring employers to "encourage" healthier lifestyles among their employees. He wants a federal ban on smoking in the workplace and other public places. He's even threatened to ban cigarettes altogether. He wants federal regulation of local schools and restaurant menus.

But more importantly for McCain, Huckabee has no experience and apparently no knowledge of foreign policy. When the journal Foreign Affairs inexplicably asked him for an essay, he wrote about the "Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality" - and then, when his remarks were reported, he ran away from them. He demonstrated his minimal knowledge about Pakistan in his remarks on Benazir Bhutto's assassination. He spouts the usual nonsense about energy independence and veiled protectionist rhetoric like "We can't have free trade if it's not fair trade." When asked about the blockbuster National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capability, he said that "nobody's going to be able, if they've been campaigning as hard as we have been, to keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won Dancing with the Stars."

To be sure, neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush had much foreign policy experience as governor either (and we've seen how well that worked out), but Huckabee seems to have far less background even than they did.

It's hard to imagine that a man who values national security and his own duty as much as McCain does would put a self-styled "Christian leader" who doesn't read foreign policy stories in the newspaper a heartbeat from the Oval Office.

For more blogs on the US elections, click here.


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Posted on January 24, 2008  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Foreign Policy,guardian.co.uk,John McCain,Mike Huckabee,The Guardian,United States

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

Posted on January 24, 2008  Posted to The Guardian

Investment returns

America shouldn't try to correct its record-high trade imbalance with China by rushing to increase exports

Posted on December 14, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Investment returns

America shouldn't try to correct its record-high trade imbalance with China by rushing to increase exports

As US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson meets in Beijing with Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi to discuss the US-China trade balance, the US commerce department has just released its monthly report on the widening trade deficit. Journalists report this in hand-wringing terms that consistently reflect little understanding of real economics. "Oh no, imports from China are up," blares my radio. "The only solution is to increase American exports to China."

And that's supposed to be the free-trade position, a counter to the argument for tariffs or other coercive measures to prevent China from forcing its products on innocent American consumers. (I'm omitting the safety and health problems with Chinese products for now, as we heard the same economic complaints when Japan was the biggest non-white exporter to the US. Somehow we've never worried so much about imports from Canada, the UK and Germany.)

But this whole framework is misguided. Twenty-four years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained (comment beginning on page 667) the difference between the economist's and the non-economist's views of trade. The economist believes that "The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households." And, therefore, "Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost." Imports are the things we want - clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas - and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them. (I see that Tim Worstall made the same point just last month on Comment is Free in response to the German foreign minister.)

Adam Smith wrote in 1776: "Nothing can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade." When two parties trade, each expects to gain. It doesn't matter whether they live in different neighbourhoods, different states or different nations. Each of us seeks to give away as little of our own wealth as possible to get as much possible from others. And as consumers pursue their wellbeing, trade will inevitably balance, though monthly statistics will offer many "imbalances" to raise alarms about. Secretary Paulson shouldn't worry too much about increasing exports, and he definitely shouldn't pressure the Chinese to send American consumers fewer products.


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Posted on December 14, 2007  Posted to Asia Pacific,Business,China,Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,International trade,The Guardian,US economy

Investment returns

America shouldn't try to correct its record-high trade imbalance with China by rushing to increase exports

Posted on December 14, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

This perfect book

Ira Levin should be remembered for his dystopian novel This Perfect Day, which ranks alongside Brave New World and 1984

Posted on November 16, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

This perfect book

Ira Levin should be remembered for his dystopian novel This Perfect Day, which ranks alongside Brave New World and 1984

Ira Levin - who died this week at the age of 78 - was known for his bestselling novels Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, all of which became successful movies. But another of his novels, This Perfect Day, deserves to be better known than it is. Indeed, given its tight plot about a revolt against an all-providing world government, I don't know why it hasn't gained the attention of Hollywood. As libertarian historian Ralph Raico wrote in The American Enterprise back in 1998:

This Perfect Day belongs to the genre of "dystopian" or anti-utopian novels, like Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. Yet it is more satisfying than either. Not only is its futuristic technology more plausible (computers, of course), but the extrapolation of the dominant ideology of the end of the 20th century is entirely convincing.

The novel is set 141 years after the Unification, the establishment of a world government guided by a central computer. The computer, Uni, provides all the members of the human race with everything they need - food, shelter, employment, psychotherapy, and monthly "treatments" that include vaccines, contraceptives, tranquilizers, a drug to prevent messy beard growth, and a medication that reduces aggressiveness and limits the sex drive.

It's a perfect world, as described in the children's rhyme that opens the book:

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei, Led us to this perfect day. Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ, All but Wei were sacrificed. Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx, Gave us lovely schools and parks. Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood, Made us humble, made us good.

Everyone loves Uni, which gives them everything they could want. And the great medical advances of the Unification ensure that everyone lives to the maximum human lifespan of 62. No one questions the wisdom and benevolence of Uni. Except Chip, whose crotchety grandfather gave him that secret and illegal nickname and urged him to try to think about things just before he got his monthly treatment. Eventually Chip's thoughts take a radical turn, and he meets a few other people who are similarly disgruntled at the perfect world. A rip-roaring plot ensues.

I love a good dystopian novel in which a few hardy rebels try to make a revolution. And Raico is right to note that Levin did a good job of imagining an extension of some of the intellectual trends of the 20th century. In today's papers we can read of politicians and intellectuals on both right and left trying to use government to increase happiness and "socially desirable behavior." Uni is the consummation of those desires, but Levin understands that government-provided happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be.

But in one way Levin was himself caught in the intellectual milieu of his times. (The novel was published in 1970.) He understood the cost to freedom of a government that controlled and provided everything. But he did seem to believe that such central planning would be efficient. He had Chip worry that if the rebels managed to shut down Uni, planes would fall out of the sky, people would die, trains would crash, food wouldn't get to the dinner table.

In this starry-eyed view of the economic efficiency of planning, Levin was led by the world's most famous economists. John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, wrote, "the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower." And Paul Samuelson wrote in his widely used textbook: "What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth.... The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth." Actually, Levin, a novelist writing in the late 1960s, can be excused for his misconceptions more than Galbraith and Samuelson, economists who wrote those lines in the 1980s, only a few years before the final collapse of Soviet-style socialism.

In 1985, I had the economist Don Lavoie send Levin a copy of his fine book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, inscribed something like "in the hopes of persuading you that central planning is no more workable than it is humane."

But this is a minor quibble about a great novel. The big problem with This Perfect Day is that it's out of print. If that isn't a market failure, I don't know what is. Publishers, filmmakers - wake up! Bring this book back into print and onto the big screen.


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Posted on November 16, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,The Guardian

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