The philosopher Leo Strauss was perhaps best known for the view that great philosophical works—especially those produced in times when persecution for heretical views was commonplace—often concealed an “esoteric” message, intended only for an elite of truly “philosophical” readers, that was different from, and often quite at odds with, the surface meaning of the text. A somewhat cruder version of that view has often been associated with neoconservatives—many of whom count themselves admirers of Strauss. This was perhaps most clearly expressed by the late neocon grand don Irving Kristol in an interview on the subject of religious belief:
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.
Increasingly, I find myself thinking that it’s not really neoconservatives but social conservatives who are more prone to this view. Years ago, I wrote that the conservative case against gay marriage only really makes sense if seen through this lens. The reason their public arguments against marital equality so often seem incoherent is that the true rationale rests on the social desirability of a myth or “noble lie” that would cease to be effective if it were exposed by making the argument publicly.
Something similar is at work, I suspect, in some recent arguments over contraception. Many commentators have expressed understandable bafflement, for instance, at Rick Santorum’s attempt to explain what he means when he alludes to the “dangers of contraception”:
What I was talking about is we have a society — Charles Murray just wrote a book about this and it’s on the front page of “The New York Times” two days ago, which is the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America, teens who are sexually active.
What we’re seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society with respect to drug use and all — a host of other things when children have children.
On its face, this is nonsensical: How can contraception, of all things, be responsible for an increase in out of wedlock births?
The clue here is the reference to Murray’s book Coming Apart—which if not exactly a work of high sociological rigor, is interesting and a quick enough read to be worth a look. Murray’s core topic is what he believes to be a growing cultural gap between the educated elite and the rest of America. While the elite profess the most socially liberal attitudes, Murray argues that they hew to “conservative” norms in some crucial respects—such as generally bearing children in the context of stable marriages. Yet as Phoebe Maltz observes, this is hardly a thoroughgoing conservatism: Sure, the educated elite eventually settle down to marry and have children, but that’s routinely preceded by a decade or more of extramarital sexual activity enabled by contraception.
Here is one way to make sense of Santorum’s remarks. Elite sexual norms have transformed over the past half century, as a result of a combination of factors: Contraceptive technology; improved educational sorting that increases the frequency of romantic partnerships between highly educated professionals, and an economy that rewards longer periods of education and correspondingly delayed marriage and reproduction. Under the new norm, there’s no expectation of marriage or childbearing before one’s late-20s or early-30s, but also no expectation that people will abstain from sexual activity or romantic cohabitation until that point. There is no stigma against premarital sex, engaged in strictly for the enjoyment and emotional satisfaction of the participants. For the cognitive elite—who are generally reasonably good at impulse control and long-term planning, have the social and economic resources to provide a buffer against youthful misjudgments, and have powerful incentives to avoid derailing their ambitious career plans—this works out just fine.
Here is where the “esoteric” or Straussian social conservative argument comes into play: For those outside the cognitive elite (they would argue) this does not work out fine. Lacking both the incentives and the resources of the elite, the erosion of the stigma against premarital sex among the “lower classes” yields increased premarital childbearing, locking both generations into poverty and dependency. This outcome can only be avoided (the Straussian social conservative might argue) if the “lower orders” do not adopt the sexual norms that work perfectly well for the cognitive elite.
But nobody likes to be told they’re simply not capable of enjoying the same freedoms as the elite: The only publicly acceptable norm for a democratic polity is the rule that sex outside the confines of traditional marriage is “just wrong” or somehow “immoral.” This norm may not make sense, but since most people do not think deeply about the underlying ethical rationale for local norms, it will be widely accepted so long as it appears to be widely accepted—which is to say, so long as the cultural elite at least continue to give it lip service, whatever their private behavior. Contraception (in tandem with those other changes) makes it possible for the elite to visibly reject that norm, enjoying successful and happy lives in which a long sexually active young-adulthood precedes eventual marriage and reproduction. The argument that non-elites are incapable of successfully living according to the new elite norms is publicly unacceptable in a democratic society, and so those norms become widely accepted, with damaging results.
I am not, I should stress, endorsing this argument. But it is, at least, an intelligible argument. It is the only remotely coherent way I can see to make sense of Santorum’s purported link between the prevalence of contraception and rising non-marital births. It’s just not an argument social conservative elites can make openly—certainly not if they wish to retain any pretensions of populism. The best justification of “traditional values” is ultimately pragmatic and utilitarian, and their acceptance as general rules depends crucially on the idea that most people are not good at making ad hoc judgments by applying a pragmatic and utilitarian standard directly. But they’re only effective if this pragmatic foundation is not laid bare: If people simply accept the traditional rules as “what everyone knows to be right.”
This is, I suspect, why so many social conservative positions seem not just misguided but downright baffling and mysterious to others. It’s not that they lack any intelligible justification, it’s that social conservative elites (believe that they) cannot openly or publicly advance that justification without undermining their own ends.
Addendum: As a commenter reminds me, this argument is occasionally stated explicitly, as it was in a famous “No Guardrails” editorial in the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s, which Radley Balko references in this 2003 Fox News article on… Rick Santorum! It’s also the basic idea underlying Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1995 book One Nation, Two Cultures (the wife, as it happens, of Irving Kristol). But again, it’s rare for the argument to be made quite so explicitly in these terms, because it implicitly concedes that it’s not inherently immoral for the elite to deviate from conservative values, except insofar as doing so openly sets a bad example for non-elites who can’t handle that level of personal freedom.