7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand

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Social and economic issues are deeply intertwined.

“Well, I’m conservative, but I’m not one of those racist, homophobic, dripping-with-hate Tea Party bigots! I’m pro-choice! I’m pro-same-sex-marriage! I’m not a racist! I just want lower taxes, and smaller government, and less government regulation of business. I’m fiscally conservative, and socially liberal.”

How many liberals and progressives have heard this? It’s ridiculously common. Hell, even David Koch of the Koch brothers has said, “I’m a conservative on economic matters and I’m a social liberal.”

And it’s wrong. W-R-O-N-G Wrong.

You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. They affect each other. Economic issues often are social issues. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous social harm. That’s true even for the mildest, most generous version of “fiscal conservatism” — low taxes, small government, reduced regulation, a free market. These policies perpetuate human rights abuses. They make life harder for people who already have hard lives. Even if the people supporting these policies don’t intend this, the policies are racist, sexist, classist (obviously), ableist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise socially retrograde. In many ways, they do more harm than so-called “social policies” that are supposedly separate from economic ones. Here are seven reasons that “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” is nonsense.

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand
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22 thoughts on “7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand

  1. 1

    David Koch is lying through his teeth when he pretends he’s “socially liberal.” Koch and his brother are actively trying to establish corporate feudalism in this country. That’s not a socially liberal situation.

  2. 2

    The first dozen comments over there were narcissistic libertarians doing their narcissistic libertarian thing; I was a bit surprised, as we usually get a bit more of a lead before the trolls swarm. AlterNet is, to my eye, getting mobbed to a greater extent recently.

  3. 3

    I am in favor of a single-payer health care system. I am opposed to capital gains taxes. Please explain how these are mutually exclusive goals. believing one should be socially responsible and provide education, health care and shelter, while at the same time opposing out of control spending, say, going to war in several countries for no reason and building a 1.5 $trillion fighter we don’t need, do not seem like contradictory ideas. The former are socially liberal, the latter fiscally conservative.

  4. 4

    Maybe not starting wars is “fiscally conservative” in some idealized, long-obsolete dictionary use of the term. I, on the other hand, prefer to treat labels and identifiers the way they’re actually used by the people who embrace them.

  5. 5

    AND…the Lazy Faries version of economics and society is simply wrong.

    The ‘that’s wasn’t REAL unrestrained capitalism’ trope is as crazy as ‘ISIS isn’t about Islam’ or ‘The Klan isn’t really white.’

    Randroidism and general libertarianism are Flat-Earth beliefs. That makes them an issue for atheists and genuine progressives. Adjusting our beliefs and policies to match reality is so much more effective than living in loony fantasies.

    Do you care if the things you believe are true? Can you perceive that ideas are ‘diverse’ but reality isn’t?

  6. 6

    You, on the other hand, prefer to use labels and identifiers to label and categorize people. I am opposed to war. I embrace the term ‘fiscally conservative’ I ACTUALLY USE IT. I ‘m sorry, how is avoiding war and the associated costs not fiscally conservative? Idealized I might give you, but obsolete? Maybe you need to pull that dictionary out and review the definition of that word.

  7. 7

    Please explain how these are mutually exclusive goals. believing one should be socially responsible and provide education, health care and shelter, while at the same time opposing out of control spending, say, going to war in several countries for no reason and building a 1.5 $trillion fighter we don’t need, do not seem like contradictory ideas. The former are socially liberal, the latter fiscally conservative.

    chuck c @ #3: I answered this, in he piece itself. Perhaps you didn’t read that far. Here’s what I said:

    “There are conservatives who will insist that this isn’t what “fiscally conservative” means. They’re not inherently opposed to government spending, they say. They’re just opposed to ineffective and wasteful government spending.

    “Bullshit. Do they really think progressives are in favor of wasteful and ineffective government? Do they think we’re saying, “Thumbs up to ineffective government spending! Let’s pour our government’s resources down a rat hole! Let’s spend our tax money giving every citizen a solid-gold tuba and a lifetime subscription to Cigar Aficionado!” This is an idealized, self-serving definition of “fiscally conservative,” defined by conservatives to make their position seem reasonable. It does not describe fiscal conservatism as it actually plays out in the United States. The reality of fiscal conservatism in the United States is not cautious, evidence-based attention to which government programs do and don’t work. If that were ever true in some misty nostalgic past, it hasn’t been true for a long, long time. The reality of fiscal conservatism in the United States means slashing government programs, even when they’ve been shown to work. The reality means decimating government regulations, even when they’ve been shown to improve people’s lives. The reality means cutting the safety net to ribbons, and letting big businesses do pretty much whatever they want.

    “You can say all you want that modern conservatism in the United States isn’t what you, personally, mean by conservatism. But hanging on to some ideal of “conservatism” as a model of sensible-but-compassionate frugality that’s being betrayed by the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party — it’s like hanging onto some ideal of Republicanism as the party of abolition and Lincoln. And it lends credibility to the idea that conservatism is reasonable, if only people would do it right.”

    Huge defense spending has been a conservative tentpole for decades; progressives and liberals have been vociferously opposed to it for decades. In fact, one of the standard progressive mantras is pointing out the hypocrisy of conservatives claiming to want small, efficient government, and then supporting huge defense spending. If you’re going to re-define the terms as they are overwhelmingly used in the language, it’s not going to be a very productive discussion.

  8. 8

    To clarify:
    Fiscal Conservatism is Economics’ version of Intelligent Design. It is a fixed collocation, the official PR name of a frankly insane theory that a state economy functions exactly like that of a household and should be run as such. Its every falsifiable prediction has been thoroughly falsified.

    Saying you’re “Fiscally Conservative” to mean you oppose wasteful spending is exactly like saying you’re in favor of Intelligent Design to mean you hate modal windows and fullscreen background videos.

  9. 9

    Greta, thank you, thank you. Once again I am astounded at how cleanly you pull together aspects of an issue that I agree with to build such a solid argument. The HUGE difference is that I would never have been able to think my way thru to your conclusions, but now that you have done it, there it is! I felt the same way with your “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” book. You take an issue where I was vaguely uncomfortable, on the defensive, and clarify the reasons why it is the only ethical and reasonable stance, such that I had an immediate moment of recognition of the how straightforward the conclusion is – “Well, OF COURSE! Why didn’t I think of that?”
    I would love to know what aspect(s) of your background or your thinking process allows you to get to conclusions that no one else seems to have such clarity on. Please, please keep writing.

  10. 10

    Since when has ‘I want everything that benefits me’ been a inconsistent position? Its an obnoxious position but it isn’t inconsistent.

    If you are exceedingly rich then low taxes benefit you, social liberalism benefits you, welfare programs do not appear to provide a direct benefit. So a ‘greedy bastard’ political philosophy is entirely consistent.

    The Koch family fortune was made by slave labor in Stalin’s gulags. Daddy Koch got so guilty over this that he put up the money to found the John Birch society to salve his conscience. The first social issue the Birch society campaigned on was opposing was civil rights.

    David and Charles Koch have continued the line of claiming to support social liberal causes but opposing all government action that would further them. So the only issues on which they support social liberals on policy is when government is the obstacle.

    So it is no surprise that David Koch is attempting to get on the same sex marriage bandwagon at this point when the battle is won in the court of public opinion. But even then his support is limited to joining an amicus brief costing him next to nothing and only in his ‘personal’ capacity lest doing so upset his socially backward allies.

    The Koch brothers have never demonstrated that they have any interest in making life better in practice for other people. The only constant is their desire for the admiration of other people for their practice of purchasing large tax breaks for themselves with campaign contribution bribes and then returning a fraction of the amount they would have paid in pseudo-philanthropy. Invariably supporting causes like universities and museums that provide a platform for their vile propaganda and causes such as the arts and cancer medicine that mostly benefit people like themselves while denying government the funds to address problems on the basis of need.

  11. 11

    The label “fiscally conservative” is sneaky because it sounds so reasonable. Some definitions of it are reasonable. The problem is, as noted in the article, the general application of it is horrible. I used the label myself until I realized this. I am against perpetual deficit spending but, at least in Canadian politics, the Conservatives are far worse than the left-leaning parties. When they got in power in 2006, the previous Liberal gov’t had a long-running surplus. The Conservatives erased it immediately and plunged into deficit (this was before the recession hit). The main focus of their campaign was fiscal conservatism, criticizing the “tax-and-spend Liberals.” They cut taxes and continued spending.

    The fiscally responsible approach is to save when times are good. “Fiscal conservatives”, however, are often just interested in cutting taxes and dismantling government. I fully agree that there is a lot of waste in government that needs to be addressed, but shutting it down in favour of tax breaks for the rich isn’t the answer.

    My approach now is to be more specific about my beliefs, rather than using a label with too many meanings. For the same reason, I generally don’t use the label “atheist” without at least providing more information. I am an atheist but my response to questions about my beliefs is something more like, “I see no reason to accept the existence of anything supernatural, including gods. I think religion often harms society but most religious individuals are generally good people (as are most non-religious individuals).”

    For me, the most obvious flaw in the current application of fiscal conservatism is its impact on education. Studies consistently show that investment in education is one of the most beneficial things a society can do*. Even aside from the altruistic reasons, there are many selfish reasons to want an educated society. Want fewer criminals? Invest in education. Want a stronger economy? Invest in education. Want breakthroughs in science, technology, and medicine? Invest in education.

    When the Liberals lost in 2006, Canada was literally a few months from a national affordable childcare strategy. The Conservatives have, for years, spent a fortune on ads telling us how awesome it is that parents can get $100/month for every child under 6 years old (which they plan to bump up to $160). Yeah, that ought to cover it. Not to mention the fact that, having worked in both environments, government-run and other not-for-profit child care centres are consistently better than the for-profit centres (not counting the ones for rich people’s kids, they’re usually great).

    *Too many to cite. Go to google scholar and search for “societal return on investment education.” Some of the results are just about ROI for individuals but I’m referring to the ones that look at the ROI for society.

  12. 12

    @ Phillip Hallam-Baker, #10

    I think the inconsistent part is when people also claim to be socially liberal. The effects of fiscal conservatism (as it’s applied, at least) are generally inconsistent with social liberalism.

  13. 13

    Apart from an argument deployed with sweeping generalizations objection, let me move onto substance.

    Your write “…dripping-with-hate Tea Party bigots!” I recall reading in The Economist a well-sourced poll (circa 2010) demonstrating that people with Tea Party self-identification only evinced racial supremacist opinions at the same rate as all Americans, ie, middle single digits.

    I also recall Charlie Rose’ PBS interview programme broadcast in April, 2009, discussing President Obama’s comments on the Tea Party.

    The guests were historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian Michael Beschloss (American University professor of political science), and John Meacham, then editor of Newsweek

    What stunned me is that all three agreed with Obama’s characterization of the Tea Party as racist, right-wing bigots. But no one offered any evidence for their Beliefs at all.

    (It’s been a while since I looked up this episode. But the last time I did, the transcript was still available online – so yes, I did subsequently check my assertions of fact.)

    Hence, my question to you Greta – are you sure that you aren’t simply engaged in a classic case of projection here?

    (Indeed, how does one know one is not a victim of projection? Consulting one’s friends won’t help, since these people are most likely to either share your projected beliefs, rather than to actually, you know, test them; and friends are least likely to make one uncomfortable and challenge any actual projection – that would be truly unfriendly!)

  14. 14

    @Orson Olson # 13,

    The quote you included, “…dripping-with-hate Tea Party bigots!” was part of a hypothetical statement from some hypothetical person who uses the fiscally conservative / socially liberal label. This is not a claim made by Greta in this article. The article is entirely about the effects of fiscally conservative policies, regardless of the intentions behind them. However, I did try to look up studies about racism in the Tea Party and couldn’t find the study you mentioned. Please link it if you find it.

    I did find this study: depts.washington.edu/uwiser/racepolitics.html which indicates an increase of racist views compared to society as a whole (but not much different than the Republican party). They have also been plagued by a number of prominent members being caught saying horribly racist things. Maybe those people aren’t representative of the movement, I don’t know. But it’s also not relevant to Greta’s article. The fact is that fiscally conservative policies disproportionately harm minorities and economically vulnerable people, regardless of the racial attitudes of the people who support them. They also harm the societies which adopt them.

    I’m kind of thinking that you didn’t read the whole article (link to AlterNet), or possibly even anything past the opening paragraph, when you saw the “Tea Party bigots” comment. The article is full of links about the effects of fiscally conservative policies. I fully believe that the majority of people who support those policies think they are doing the right thing, but the reality isn’t so pleasant.

  15. 15

    Wow, I was one of those people who considered myself “fiscal conservative, socially liberally.” If the term “fiscal conservative” means what you say it does, then I suppose I have been misapplying that label to myself for a while.

    Here is my economic philosophy in a nutshell (keeping in mind I’m not an economist, nor particularly astute at handling money).

    1. The government should spend less than it takes in revenue.
    2. Taxation is a factor in the strength of the economy. Too high, and the government will lose revenue because of the weight of taxes on the economy and because of increased tax-avoidance behavior. Too low, and the government doesn’t have enough to pay its bills.
    3. Taken together, this means that the government can’t afford to buy everything every political faction wants.

    I think we have spent too much on the military since 1992, and our education, infrastructure, and safety-net have suffered as a result. If that doesn’t make a “fiscal conservative”, what does it make me?

  16. 16

    I mostly agree with you, Greta, but the Disenfranchisement, Racist Policing, and War on Drugs sections confused me. Does “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” mean something different where you live? I grew up in New England and currently live in Upstate New York, and most people I encounter with that label are pretty much moderate Libertarians (as in, people who want a non-invasive government and rabid capitalism, not Dixiecrat shitstains like Ron Paul who adopt the label for PR purposes). Their tax policies are highly questionable, and they don’t seem to notice that their trade policies are counterproductive to their alleged support of individual freedom, but except for a handful who have bought the Republican establishment’s BS about voter fraud being a serious problem, it is very rare to encounter one who doesn’t at least want drug use decriminalization, stricter standards for why police can pull over/detain/question/search people, and election day as a holiday. Do I live in a weird little island of “people who say that actually mean it” while elsewhere they just use it as a buzzword?

  17. 17

    Their tax policies are highly questionable, and they don’t seem to notice that their trade policies are counterproductive to their alleged support of individual freedom, but except for a handful who have bought the Republican establishment’s BS about voter fraud being a serious problem, it is very rare to encounter one who doesn’t at least want drug use decriminalization, stricter standards for why police can pull over/detain/question/search people, and election day as a holiday.

    paulwiele @ #16: I think you may be missing the point. The point is that if you support conservative tax policies and other conservative fiscal policies, you’re supporting retrograde drug policies and policing policies and election policies and so on – because conservative fiscal policies perpetuate these things. It doesn’t do much good to say “I hate racist policing,” if you’re supporting conservative fiscal policies that help racist policing thrive.

  18. 18

    I went back to go see if I missed something, and looking carefully at your explanation in the drug war section, I think I get your point now. Thanks.

  19. 19

    This is beyond ridiculous. Because I support abortion rights, gay marriage, and the legalization of marijuana to name a few means that I cannot also be fiscally conservative? That is ludicrous and I see no correlation other then someone being rigid in their thinking about party lines. Also I can support abortion without supporting government funding of it. How does supporting gay marriage have anything to do with my philosophy on government regulation or lack their of regarding business’ in this country?

  20. 21

    I think the flaw in thought here is that because something may “work” that it’s not wasteful. I could build you a 1 million dollar machine to make you breakfast or I could just go into your kitchen and scramble the eggs myself. The main issue with government spending is that government has no vested interest to be efficient and keep cost and low as possible since the main objective is to just make things “work”. The difference with a private enterprise is that it has a responsibility to itself and it shareholders to demonstrate a profit. So yes, I think its possible to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal in the sense that you want a government that is more financially responsible and transparent with money before simply writing a blank check from the American people while protecting the rights of individuals not based on a subjective moral code but on science and rational thought.

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