I thought I would write a short post about Ross Douthat’s most recent column in the New York Times because he addresses an issue that was recently the subject of one of my posts. On the subject of sex education, Douthat writes “The evidence suggests that many abstinence-only programs have little impact on teenage sexual behavior, just as their critics long insisted. But most sex education programs of any kind have an ambiguous effect, at best, on whether and how teens have sex.” In defense of this claim, Douthat mentions a recent book on the history of sex education in America by Kristin Luker and notes the author’s conclusion that it is “surprisingly difficult to show that sex education programs do in fact increase teenagers’ willingness to protect themselves from pregnancy and/or disease.” Douthat then goes on to make the argument that, because evidence about the effectiveness of all types of sex education is inconclusive, different regions of the United States ought to be able to use federal funding to institute different educational programs to reflect community values.
Douthat’s primary thesis is that the contraception-versus-abstinence debate should be viewed “more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy.” As my previous posts would suggest, I agree that this is a battle over values, but Douthat’s conclusions about public policy do not follow from this premise. Douthat suggests that we should keep federal funding for sex education but allow communities to use that funding to reflect their own “sacralist” or “naturalist” values about sex. This is problematic for two reasons. First, if Douthat could demonstrate that sex education had no effect, whatever its content, then surely the conclusion is that the federal government should quit doling out money for sex education, period. The fact that he wants to keep such funding in place belies the reality that such education has some sort of desirable effect. Second, Douthat’s point that specific socio-economic, cultural, and family factors exert a greater influence on a teenager’s sexual behavior than one class taught in school sounds good, but the argument itself is really weak. By analogy, the availability of high-calorie junk food and captivating sedentary distractions clearly exerts more of an effect on childhood obesity than the content of one class that touts the benefits of healthy diet and exercise, but nobody is saying that the evidence about health and nutrition class is so inconclusive that we ought to let communities use federal funding for that kind of health education to “reflect community values”.
Douthat’s conclusion is that the federal government “[shouldn’t] try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa,” and, for this reason, federal funding earmarked for sex education shouldn’t come with any “ideological strings attached.” This argument is really a variation of the “states rights” position which holds that local governments have a better understanding of the specific needs of their communities and should, therefore, have the authority to make policy decisions that respond to those needs. It is a mostly reasonable argument that has been used, at various times, to justify everything from slavery and Jim Crow laws to including “alternatives to evolution” in “science” books used in public schools. It seems that Douthat thinks that “sacralist” and “naturalist” values fall into the benign class of things such as snow removal and libations taxes that should be regulated on a local level for practical reasons. This is absurd. It is precisely because sex education is rife with implicit questions about values that the states rights argument is not appropriate here.
The question of whether the the federal government ought to be able to ear-mark funds for a specific purpose which reflects a specific value is really empty. All laws, regulations, and taxes are justified, at some level, by some value, and, for the most part, the kinds of values that are implicit in policy decisions are uncontroversial. It is only in those cases in which a controversy arises that the states rights argument gets trotted out, and in those cases it is almost always used by those who are angling to promote an opposing value. For example, we all know that the same people who want a federal amendment banning gay marriage would happily argue that they have the right to use federal funding ear-marked for sex education to reflect their community’s “sacralist” values of abstinence.
Of course, the hypocrisy of politicians and political activists is not a direct response to Douthat. He could consistently say that the federal government has no right to impinge upon local laws and policies which reflect community values, regardless of what those values are. But, this is an absurd position. If accepted, it entails that the federal government was also unjustified in overruling laws regarding slavery and segregation which were, at the time, a reflection of “community values.” It would be more reasonable for Douthat to make the case that sex education is like traffic regulation where the value is uncontroversial and is promoted more through its existence than through its specific content*. Unfortunately, this is a pretty unappealing analogy as virtually everyone agrees that the value of education is derived, in large part, from its content. So, I’m left to the conclusion that Douthat’s argument just doesn’t work. He doesn’t say that sex education is not valuable, he can’t say that the content of such classes doesn’t matter, and he shouldn’t say that the federal government has no business taking a position on something that is valuable and does matter.
*For example, it’s not morally important whether we drive on the left or the right side of the road, but it is morally important that we all agree to one or the other. Thus, the value of traffic laws does not derive from their specific content but from their existence in the first place.