Third, the dividing line between economic and social issues remains far less crisp and definitive than generally assumed. Take for example the Democratic determination to provide widespread coverage for abortion as a key component of Obamacare. Social conservatives fought this provision as a matter of pro-life principle while economic conservatives opposed it as an expensive new entitlement –providing government funding for an elective procedure that remains, at best, deeply controversial. Or consider current efforts by leading conservatives to trim federal funding to National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Culture Warriors” dislike these programs because they support a politically correct, shamelessly leftist perspective, while fiscal conservatives despise them because they offer a prime example of bureaucratic bloat—a federal intrusion into an area (television and radio broadcasting) where the private sector does a mostly adequate job and even manages to turn a profit.
Most of today’s major economic issues in fact feature some significant social component, and nearly all socio-cultural disputes involve an economic dimension influencing the spending crisis and the overall growth of government. When it comes to current battles over the meaning of gay rights, for instance, there’s no question that remaking society to treat gay and straight relationships as indistinguishable will impose a significant burden on taxpayers. If gay partners receive the same Social Security and Medicare benefits as married couples, a system already stretched to the breaking point will bear additional expenses running into the billions. This reform may or may not follow the dictates of fundamental fairness, but it is hardly without cost; you can’t provide equal benefits for a whole new class of beneficiaries without creating obvious problems in the system’s balance sheets.
On another bitterly disputed question, the currently mandated re-imposition of the death tax (currently scheduled to reappear with a vengeance on January 1st unless Congress takes preemptive action) represents not only an economic threat but a punishing assault on family values. If 55% of net worth above a million dollars goes to the government, not your children and grandchildren, intergenerational planning and connection will take a significant hit, not just the survival of family-owned businesses.
With or without the current urgings of some Tea Party and gay rights personnel, Republicans should continue to emphasize the economic concerns and small government priorities that brought them their victories earlier this month. But the impulse to segregate fiscal and social issues ignores the way that economics and values inevitably interact, and the importance of sturdy middle class virtues as the basis for both durable families and free market prosperity. The only real alternative to government as a source of assistance, authority and a functioning civil society remains the “little platoons” described by Edmund Burke—families and communities shaped by attitudes that count as both economically and culturally conservative.