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Our values paradox
Liberals and conservatives hold distinct values. But for both sides, habitual ideological stands are undermining cherished policy goals.
David Frum
David Frum

"Keep your laws off my body."

It's a slogan that works equally well for the pro-choice left and the anti-nanny-state right.

How well does it work for America?

A new study by the National Center for Health Statistics has found that the “likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first.”
 
If you are a conservative, you probably seized upon this study as further confirmation of your belief that government should support traditional marriage.
 
If you are a liberal, on the other hand, you probably shrugged off the news item (if you noticed it in the first place). Maybe non-marital relationships are riskier. So what? Put that information in the lifestyle section. It’s got nothing to do with public policy.

However, if you are a liberal, you probably welcome the Obama administration’s emphasis on the health risks of obesity and being overweight. The obese and the overweight are more vulnerable to a range of illnesses and diseases, from depression to knee injuries to heart failure. And of course poor and minority Americans are the most likely to be obese and overweight.
 
If you are a conservative, on the other hand, the whole issue probably strikes you as one more unwarranted government intrusion into personal life. “Hey Obama!” shouted Rush Limbaugh on his March 3 program. “Why don’t you shut the hell up and stop lecturing us about our lives! Same thing with Mayor Bloomberg. We’re not supposed to eat trans fats. We’re not supposed to eat salt. We’re not supposed to have Mickey Ds in poor neighborhoods. Stop nagging us!”

Maybe McDonald’s food is unhealthy. So what? Put that information in the lifestyle section. It’s got nothing to do with public policy.
 
While conservatives think it outrageous that the administration would spend $10 million to promote healthy eating, you don’t hear much protest on the right about the many millions spent over the past two decades to teach schoolchildren the benefits of postponing sexual activity until marriage.
 
Liberals, by contrast, jeer at abstinence education. As they note, such programs generally do not achieve much. What’s the track record on anti-obesity campaigns? Not much better, surely. Yet it is only the conservatives who jeer at those.
 
So far, this tale of two campaigns with dubious cost-benefit ratios sounds like yet another weary refrain on ideological double standards. But look closer, and you’ll see a deeper paradox at work.
 
What is the great liberal social policy preoccupation? Inequality, right? Especially the growth of inequality in the past three decades.
 
Yet the crisis in the American family may well qualify as the single greatest driver of inequality. We know that children who grow up with both biological parents are dramatically more likely than children from broken families to finish school, avoid out-of-wedlock births, and stay out of prison. In addition, we know that family stability is self-reinforcing. Over the past two decades, the families of the college-educated have regained the stability typical of families prior to the 1970s. But the families of the non-college-educated have not; those families are just as unstable today as when disco was king. Consequently, we have a widening gap in children’s life chances based on the gap in the stability of their parents’ marriages.
 
And what is the great conservative preoccupation? The growth in government spending, right? Yet the greatest driver of government spending is rising health-care costs – and obesity is one of the most important drivers of health-care spending, accounting for nearly one dollar in ten by most estimates. By 2018, researchers at Emory University estimate, obesity-related illnesses may carry an annual price tag of $344 billion.
 
As Americans get fatter, they become more prone to expensive illnesses such as diabetes and heart failure, driving up health-care costs, which drive up Medicare and Medicaid costs, which drive up taxes.
 
So what we have here is more than a display of reflexive moral stands by left and right -- that liberals value sexual autonomy while conservatives cherish consumer freedom. What we have is a more subtle paradox between liberal and conservative policy goals and liberal and conservative cultural values.
 
The liberal value of sexual autonomy is undermining the liberal goal of greater equality.
 
The conservative value of consumer freedom is undermining the conservative goal of lower taxes.
 
On both sides of the aisle, the rights we most determinedly defend are devouring the goals we most ardently wish to achieve.

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