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Economic conservatism: it's an ideology circumscribed by a stark moral philosophy. People should be free to make their own way in the world without interference, and should stand or fall on their own merits. Success should not be punished, and failure should not be rewarded. Doing either generates a moral hazard that will lead to excessive risk, and will remove the incentive to succeed--an incentive upon with our economy depends to survive.

It turns out, however, that this philosophy is not universally applied. Establishment conservatives, for instance, still want to reward the banks who nearly sunk our country's economy through less regulation and dispensing with any requirements on bonuses for their executives, who played with fire and got burnt. Social conservatives tend to have an even fiercer moral code by which they judge the sinners who have fallen short: those sinners have a moral obligation to live with the consequences of their decision and not have a way out that lets them escape from the punishment they so richly deserve. But as with the economic conservatives giving the banksters a free pass, social conservatives can be very forgiving too--depending on who you are.

Before the students of Washington University in Saint Louis engaged in massive protests and forced the cancellation of her appearance, the governing body in charge of student programming was about to spend the sum of $20,000 to bring Bristol Palin to speak about two things she knows absolutely nothing about: abstinence and college. This discussion was set to occur during Sexual Responsibility Week, an event at the school designed to promote an open discussion about sex and sexuality in a college setting. (The panel at which Bristol was to appear also featured a representative from the Catholic Student Center, so it's not as if a pro-abstinence voice would have been needed for balance.)

The entire point of promoting abstinence, is as a method of avoiding all the messy complications that go hand-in-hand with sexual activity: emotional distress, risk of disease, and pregnancy, to name some of the most obvious possibilities. For many teenagers, the consequences of a pregnancy can be detrimental: teen mothers face much more difficult paths to advancing their education and careers because of the time involved in having to raise a child, often without the help of a second parent. This would have been the likely fate of most Alaskan teen mothers who had chosen to have a child. But because Bristol happened to be the daughter of a half-term governor and a right-wing media icon, she never faced any such consequences. Instead, she became a standard-bearer for a fruitless standard she herself has failed so noticeably to live up to. Her accident was not punished with moral stigma, consternation and loss of opportunity, but was rather rewarded with acceptance, forgiveness, and--perhaps most importantly--five-figure speaking fees and an appearance on a popular reality-television show. And not because of anything that she herself had done, but because she was Sarah Palin's daughter and got pregnant, forcing a circling of the wagons to defend poor Sarah's reputation.

The experience of Bristol in this regard is so rare and so beyond the norm for anyone else in her situation that there is little insight she could offer to anyone, much less the students at Washington University who are trying to balance their emotional and romantic desires with their focus on academic achievement. If the goal of abstinence education is to prevent negative consequences, it is inherently useless to invite someone to speak on the issue who has received exactly the opposite. Now, if Washington University had originally decided to allot this $20,000 to a recent student of the university who had to drop out to take care of a child resulting from an accidental pregnancy and was now working two low-paying jobs to try to make ends meet and provide for her child, sacrificing her career ambitions in the process, that would be worth listening to. But someone whose accidental pregnancy was a launching pad for her career ambitions, rather than an inhibition to them, does not deserve a place at the table when discussing the consequences of teen pregnancy.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jan 30, 2011 at 01:00 PM PST.

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