Seven Reasons “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” is Nonsense

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“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. R-O-N-G Rong.

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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1: Poverty, and the cycle of poverty. This is the big one. Poverty is a social issue. The cycle of poverty — the ways that poverty itself makes it harder to get out of poverty, the ways that poverty can be a permanent trap lasting for generations — is a social issue, and a human rights issue.

If you’re poor, there’s about a two in three chance that you’re going to stay poor for at least a year, about a two in three chance that if you do pull out of poverty you’ll be poor again within five years — and about a two in three chance that your children are going to be poor. Among other things: Being poor makes it much harder to get education or job training that would help you get higher-paying work. Even if you can afford job training or it’s available for free — if you have more than one job, or if your work is menial and exhausting, or if both of those are true (often the case if you’re poor), there’s a good chance you won’t have the time or energy to get that training, or to look for higher-paying work. Being poor typically means you can’t afford to lose your job — which means you can’t afford to unionize, or otherwise push back against your wages and working conditions. It means that a temporary crisis — sickness or injury, job loss, death in the family — can destroy your life: you have no cushion, nobody you know has a cushion, a month or two without income and you’re totally screwed. If you do lose your job, or if you’re disabled, the labyrinthine bureaucracy of unemployment and disability benefits is exhausting: if you do manage to navigate it, it can deplete your ability to do much of anything else to improve your life — and if you can’t navigate it, that’s very likely going to tank your life.

Also, ironically, being poor is expensive. You can’t buy high-quality items that last longer and are a bargain in the long run. You can’t buy in bulk. You sure as hell can’t buy a house: depending on where you live, monthly mortgage payments might be lower than the rent you’re paying, but you can’t afford a down payment, and chances are a bank won’t give you a mortgage anyway. You can’t afford the time or money to take care of your health — which means you’re more likely to get sick, which is expensive. If you don’t have a bank account (which many poor people don’t), you have to pay high fees at check-cashing joints. If you run into a temporary cash crisis, you have to borrow from price-gouging payday-advance joints. If your car breaks down and you can’t afford to repair or replace it, it can mean unemployment. If you can’t afford a car at all, you’re severely limited in what jobs you can take in the first place — a limitation that’s even more severe when public transportation is wildly inadequate. If you’re poor, you may have to move a lot — and that’s expensive. These aren’t universally true for all poor people — but way too many of them are true, for way too many people.

Poverty in the United States is all too often an inescapable trap. Second chances, once a hallmark of American culture and identity, have become a luxury. One small mistake — or no mistake at all, simply the mistake of being born poor — can trap you there forever.

Plus, being poor doesn’t just mean you’re likely to stay poor. It means that if you have children, they’re more likely to stay poor. It means you’re less able to give your children the things they need to flourish — both in easily-measurable tangibles like good nutrition, and less-easily-measurable qualities like a sense of stability. The effect of poverty on children — literally on their brains, on their ability to literally function — is not subtle, and it lasts into adulthood. Poverty’s effect on adults is appalling enough. Its effect on children is an outrage.

And in case you hadn’t noticed, poverty — including the cycle of poverty and the effect of poverty on children — disproportionately affects African Americans, Hispanics, other people of color, women, trans people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups.

So what does this have to do with fiscal policy? Well, duh. Poverty is perpetuated or alleviated, worsened or improved, by fiscal policy. That’s not the only thing affecting poverty, but it’s one of the biggest things. To list just a few of the most obvious examples of very direct influence: Tax policy. Minimum wage. Funding of public schools and universities. Unionization rights. Banking and lending laws. Labor laws. Funding of public transportation. Public health care. Unemployment benefits. Disability benefits. Welfare policy. Public assistance that doesn’t penalize people for having savings. Child care. Having a functioning infrastructure, having economic policies that support labor, having a tax system that doesn’t steal from the poor to give to the rich, having a social safety net — a real safety net, not one that just barely keeps people from starving to death but one that actually lets people get on their feet and function — makes a difference. When these systems are working, and are working well, it’s easier for people to get out of poverty. When they’re not, it’s difficult to impossible. And I haven’t even gotten into the fiscal policy of so-called “free” trade, and all the ways it feeds poverty both in the U.S. and around the world. (I’ll get to that in a bit.)

Fiscal policy affects poverty. And in the United States, “fiscally conservative” means supporting fiscal policies that perpetuate poverty. “Fiscally conservative” means slashing support systems that help the poor, lowering taxes for the rich, cutting corners for big business, and screwing labor — policies that both worsen poverty and make it even more of an inescapable trap.

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2: Disenfranchisement. There’s a cycle that in some ways is even uglier than the cycle of poverty — because it blocks people from changing the policies that keep the cycle of poverty going.

I’m talking about the cycle of disenfranchisement. I’m talking about the myriad ways that the super-rich control the political process — and in controlling the political process, both make themselves richer and give themselves even more control over the political process. Purging voter rolls. Cutting polling place hours. Cutting back on early voting — especially in poor districts. Voter ID laws. Roadblocks to voter registration — noticeably aimed at people likely to vote progressive. Questionable-at-best voter fraud detection software, which — by some wild coincidence — tends to flag names that are common among minorities. Eliminating Election Day registration. Restricting voter registration drives. Gerrymandering — creating voting districts with the purpose of skewing elections in your favor.

Voter suppression is a real thing in the United States. And these policies are set in place by the super-rich — or, to be more precise, by the government officials who are buddies with the super-rich and are beholden to them. These policies are not set in place to reduce voter fraud: voter fraud is extremely rare in the U.S., to the point of being almost non-existent. The policies are set in place to make voting harder for people who would vote conservative plutocrats out of office. If you’re skeptical about whether this is actually that deliberate, whether these policies really are written by plutocratic villains cackling over how they took even more power from the already disempowered — remember Pennsylvania Republican House Leader Mike Turzai, who actually said, in words, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Remember former Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer, who actually said, in words, “We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.” Remember the now-former North Carolina Republican official Don Yelton, who actually said, in words, that voter restrictions including voter ID were “going to kick Democrats in the butt.” Remember the Texas Republican attorney general and candidate for governor Greg Abbott, who actually said, in words, that “their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats.” Remember Doug Preisse, Republican chair of Franklin County (Ohio’s second-largest county) who actually said (well, wrote), in words, that Ohio Republicans were pushing hard to limit early voting because “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.” (And no, the “read African-American” clarification isn’t mine — it’s his.) Remember… oh, you get the idea. Disenfranchisement is not some accidental side effect of Republican-sponsored voting restrictions. Disenfranchisement is the entirely intentional point.

And on top of that, you’ve got campaign finance laws saying that corporations are people, too — “people” with just as much right as you or I to donate millions of dollars to candidates who’ll write laws helping them out.

When you’ve got fiscal policies that enrich the already rich — such as regressive tax policies, deregulation of businesses, deregulation of the financial industry — and you combine them with campaign finance laws that have essentially legalized bribery, you get a recipe for a cycle of disenfranchisement. The more that rich people control the political process, the richer they get — and the richer they get, the more they control the political process.

Black_Lives_Matter_protest New York City picture credit Arms & Hearts
3: Racist policing. There’s a whole lot going on with racist policing in the United States. Obviously. But a non-trivial chunk of it is fiscal policy. Ferguson shone a spotlight on this, but it isn’t just in Ferguson — it’s all over the country. In cities and counties and towns across the United States, the government is funded, in large part, by tickets and fines for municipal violations — and by the meta-system of interest, penalties, surcharges, and fees on those tickets and fines, which commonly turn into a never-ending debt amounting to many, many times the original fine itself.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a tax. It’s a tax on poor people. It’s a tax on poor people for being poor, for not having a hundred dollars in their bank account that they can drop at a moment’s notice on a traffic ticket. And it’s a tax that disproportionately targets black and brown people. When combined with the deeplyingrained culture of racism in many many many police forces — a police culture that hammers black and brown people for the crime of existing — it is a tax on black and brown people, purely for being black or brown.

But Loki forbid we raise taxes. Remember the fiscal conservative mantra: “Low taxes good! High taxes bad!” High taxes are bad — unless we don’t call them a tax. If we call it a penalty or a fine, that’s just peachy. And if it’s disproportionately levied by a racist police force on poor black people, who have little visibility or power and are being systematically disenfranchised — that’s even better. What are they going to do about it? And who’s going to care? It’s not as if black lives matter.

What’s more: You know some of the programs that have been proposed to reduce racist policing? Programs like automatic video monitoring of police encounters? An independent federal agency to investigate and discipline local policing, to supplement or replace ineffective, corrupt, or non-existent self-policing? Those take money. Money that comes from taxes. Money that makes government a little bit bigger.

Fiscal conservatism — the reflexive cry of “Lower taxes! Smaller government!” — contributes to racist policing. Even if you, personally, oppose racist policing, supporting fiscal conservatism makes you part of the problem.

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4: Drug policy and prison policy. Four words: The new Jim Crow.

Drug war policies in the United States — including sentencing policies, probation policies, which drugs are criminalized and how severely, laws banning felons convicted on drug charges from voting, and more — have pretty much zero effect on reducing the harm that can be done by drug abuse. They don’t reduce drug use, they don’t reduce drug addiction, they don’t reduce overdoses, they don’t reduce accidents or violence that can be triggered by drug abuse. If anything, these policies make all of this worse.

But they do have one powerful effect: Current drug policies in the United States are very, very good at creating and perpetuating a permanent black and brown underclass. They are very good at creating a permanent class of underpaid, disenfranchised, disempowered servants, sentenced to do shit work at low wages for white people, for the rest of their lives.

This is not a bug. This is a feature.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist to see how current U.S. drug policy benefits the super-rich and super-powerful. It is a perfect example of a “social issue” with powerful ripple effects into the economy. And that’s not even getting into the issue of how the 1% benefit from super-cheap prison labor, labor that borders so closely on slavery it’s hard to distinguish it. So people who are well-served by the current economy are strongly motivated to keep drug policy firmly in place.

Plus, two more words: Privatized prisons. Privatized prisons mean prisons run by people who have no interest in reducing the prison population — people who actually benefit from a high crime rate, a high recidivism rate, severe sentencing policies, severe probation policies, and other treats that keep the prison population high. It’s as if we had privatized fire departments, who got paid more the more fires they put out — and thus had every incentive, not to improve fire prevention techniques and policies and education, but to gut them.

Privatization of prisons is a conservative fiscal policy. It’s a policy based on the conservative ideal of low taxes, small government, and the supposedly miraculous power of the free market to make any system more efficient. And it’s a policy with a powerful social effect — the effect of doing tremendous harm.

It’s true that there are some conservatives advocating for criminal justice reform, including drug policy reform, on the grounds that the current system isn’t cost-effective. The problem with this, as Drug Policy Alliance Deputy State Director Laura Thomas points out (transparency note: Ms. Thomas is a friend of mine): When you base policy decisions entirely on whether they’re cost-effective, the bottom line will always take priority. Injustice, racism, corruption, abuse — all of these can stay firmly in place. Human rights, and the human cost of these policies? Meh. Who cares — as long as we can cut government spending?

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5: Deregulation. This one is really straightforward. Deregulation of business is a conservative fiscal policy. And it has a devastating effect on marginalized people.

Do I need to remind anyone of what happened when the banking and financial industries were deregulated? Do I need to remind anyone of who was most hurt by those disasters? Overwhelmingly poor people, working-class people, and people of color — that’s who.

But this isn’t just about banking and finance. Deregulation of environmental standards, workplace safety standards, utilities, transportation, media — all of these have the entirely unsurprising effect of making things better for the people who own the businesses, and worse for the people who patronize them and work for them. Contrary to the fiscal conservative myth, an unregulated free market does not result in exceptional businesses fiercely competing for the best workers and lavishly serving the public. It results in monopoly. It results in businesses with the unofficial slogan, “We Don’t Care — We Don’t Have To.” It results in five-hundred-pound gorillas, sleeping anywhere they want.

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6: Domestic violence, workplace harassment, and other abuse. See above, re: cycle of poverty. If someone is being beaten by their partner, harassed or assaulted at work, abused by their parents — and if they’re poor, and if there’s fuck-all for a social safety net — it’s a hell of a lot harder for them to leave. What’s more, the stress of poverty itself — especially inescapable, entrapped poverty — contributes to violence and abuse.

And you know who gets disproportionately targeted with domestic violence and workplace harassment? Women. Especially women of color. And LGBT folks — especially trans women of color, and LGBT kids and teenagers.

Do you care about racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist violence? Then quit undercutting the social safety net. A solid safety net — a safety net that isn’t made of tissue paper, and that doesn’t require the people in it to constantly scramble just to stay there, much less to climb out — isn’t going to magically eliminate this violence and harassment. But it sure makes it easier for people to escape it.

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7: “Free” trade. This one is really straightforward. So-called “free” trade policies have a horrible effect on human rights, both in the United States and overseas. They let corporations hire labor in countries where labor laws — laws about minimum wage, workplace safety, working hours, child labor — are weak to nonexistent. They let corporations hire labor in countries where they can pay children as young as five years old less than a dollar a day, to work 12 or even 16 hours a day, in grossly unsafe workplaces and grueling working conditions that make Dickensian London look like a socialist Utopia.

And again — this is not a bug. This is a feature. This is the whole damn point of “free” trade: by reducing labor costs to practically nothing, it provides cheap consumer products to American consumers, and it funnels huge profits to already obscenely rich corporations. It also decimates blue-collar employment in the United States — and it feeds human rights abuses around the world. Thank you, fiscal conservatism!

***

I could go on. I could write an entire essay on each one of these examples. Hell, I could write an entire book about each one of these examples: other people certainly have. And this list is far from complete. But I think you get the idea.

Now. 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.

If you care about marginalized people — if you care about the oppression of women, LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans and Hispanics and other people of color — you need to do more than go to same-sex weddings and listen to hip-hop. You need to support economic policies that make marginalized people’s lives better. You need to oppose economic policies that perpetuate human rights abuses and make marginalized people’s lives suck.

And that means not being a fiscal conservative.

Black Lives Matter Protest photo by Arms & Hearts, via Wikimedia Commons.

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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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Seven Reasons “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” is Nonsense
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20 thoughts on “Seven Reasons “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” is Nonsense

  1. 1

    While that’s all true, I feel like you’re kind of ignoring the reason people are fiscal conservatives (at least the moderate-democrat types), which is more of an economic argument. When there’s overregulation, then it’s harder to make start-ups and harder for corporations to hire people. When you have an economy thriving, then people have more opportunity to flourish, including the more marginalized of people. And when times when an economy is struggling, it’s often the marginalized that are hit the hardest.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think “fiscal conservatism” actually works that way. But people are very often concerned with the bottom line and especially things like employment. My point is more that it is difficult to make the social arguments without directly engaging the economics argument.

    Take minimum wage. The argument against minimum wage increases is almost always that it raises unemployment (as corporations can’t hire as many people), and therefore won’t actually help the poor. Frankly, I don’t know a way to argue against that without directly showing the economics is empirically wrong. It’s an actual disagreement about the cycle of poverty and one has to navigate through all the Just-World Hypothesis.

    I might as well take this time to plug a really cool upcoming documentary called City of Trees about how environmental jobs of Washington D.C. helped its communities recover from the recession.

  2. 2

    Well, when you think about it, conservative economic policy benefits the elite at the expense of everyone else. If an economic elite tends to have, say, more white males than any other group, then conservative, “small government” economic politics will help the elite stay the way it is. Supporting conservative economic policy requires people to have blinders on to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Not to mention ageism and ablism. The disconnect is that most people claim to have no prejudices, but can very easily be blind to overall bias problems. So, a fiscal conservative hears about a study showing that non-whites face mortgage rate discrimination. He/she pats self on back for not being racist, but never considers how this documented discrimination needs a law enforcement/affordable housing solution.

  3. 3

    While that’s all true, I feel like you’re kind of ignoring the reason people are fiscal conservatives (at least the moderate-democrat types), which is more of an economic argument.

    She’s not ignoring that. Her whole point is that those who hold those views for the “economic argument” ignore that their economic argument has real social consequences.

  4. 4

    And to further the above comment

    Frankly, I don’t know a way to argue against that without directly showing the economics is empirically wrong.

    Shouldn’t that be enough?!!

    (That’s the whole damn point: it’s a false belief system.)

  5. 6

    doublereed:

    When there’s overregulation, then it’s harder to make start-ups ..

    “overregulation”, a word which has never had a coherent definition, a word straight from Humpty Dumpty’s treatise Principles of Strawman Engineering .

    Having spent much of the last 15 years working for startups, I don’t think it’s true that startups are significantly hindered by most of the regulations in existence today, and I don’t think it’s likely to become true any time in the future.

    On the contrary – as far as I can see, conservatives have spent decades, ever since about 1980, unthinkingly attacking nearly every regulation that did not have a simple, obvious, short term benefit to them. And they’ve been extremely successful.

    And they have been successful largely because they call every regulation they don’t like “overregulation” .

  6. 7

    While that’s all true, I feel like you’re kind of ignoring the reason people are fiscal conservatives (at least the moderate-democrat types), which is more of an economic argument. When there’s overregulation, then it’s harder to make start-ups and harder for corporations to hire people. When you have an economy thriving, then people have more opportunity to flourish, including the more marginalized of people. And when times when an economy is struggling, it’s often the marginalized that are hit the hardest.

    doublereed @ #1: I’m not ignoring it. I’m saying that it’s wrong. I specifically addressed the issue of deregulation, and pointed to evidence showing that it does not, in fact, create a rising tide that lifts all boats. Its actual effect is to make things easier for business owners, and fucking over everyone else. As llewelly pointed out at #6: “Over-regulation” basically means “any regulation that business owners don’t like.”

    Also “fiscal conservatism” isn’t just about deregulation. It’s about low taxes, small government, and free trade.

  7. 8

    The poverty stuff above is the life of my family in a nutshell. There’s another element of it that’s harder to put a finger on – a sort of despair looming over life that makes everything more difficult, even for someone like myself without any clinical mental health issues.

    If I was the philosopher king & only looking at my own nation, I’d see that this country relies on all people being consumers, therefore it needs the poor to have more buying power, and therefore it needs poverty reduction. So I’d give the corporations this ultimatum: They provide a living wage for everyone, or they pay an assload of taxes to fund social services so the government can provide the services they aren’t willing to allow their employees to afford. Once the poorest people no longer have to fear homelessness, starvation, or preventable physical and mental calamities, they will be able to use their paltry incomes to buy iphones and steaks. Or they’ll have non-paltry incomes, and consume at will.

    If I was the philosopher king and looking at the whole world instead of just my own piece, I’d realize any nation’s economy being built on endlessly increasing consumption is a malthusian horrorshow that will fucking annihilate the human species one day, and I’d just give up and throw myself from the parapets. Glad I don’t have to untangle that shit.

  8. 9

    This is possibly your best article that I’ve ever read. All these points have been made before, but usually individually, very few writers actually link them together. Your point about the poverty trap in particular reminds me of ‘Men at Arms’ by Terry Pratchett and the Captain Vimes’ Theory of Boots:

    ““The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

  9. 10

    Great American Satan (#8):

    “If I was the philosopher king & only looking at my own nation, I’d see that this country relies on all people being consumers, therefore it needs the poor to have more buying power, and therefore it needs poverty reduction. So I’d give the corporations this ultimatum: They provide a living wage for everyone, or they pay an assload of taxes to fund social services so the government can provide the services they aren’t willing to allow their employees to afford.”

    That sounds good, but it’s actually based on the same fundamental misunderstanding of economics as fiscal conservatism is. The problem is the myth that government spending has to be paid for through tax collections. That’s not how it works when a country controls its own currency, borrows in its own currency, and maintains a floating exchange rate with other currencies. When those conditions are met, the government can spend any amount of money it chooses regardless of how much tax it collects. I know this sounds ridiculous and implausible, but recent history has plenty of examples. The US spent as much as it wanted on all those wars, and it spent as much as it wanted to bail out the banks, and it spent as much as it wanted on so-called quantitative easing. It accomplished all of this spending, which collectively amounts to tens of trillions of dollars, without anything like the kind of huge tax cuts which would be needed to pay for them. And it wasn’t a problem. We didn’t go bankrupt, and inflation didn’t explode all over the place.

    So you don’t need to collect an assload of taxes to fund social services. Congress can pay for whatever social services it wants the same way it can pay for whatever wars it wants without raising taxes on anybody.

    To be clear, it’s not that I oppose making corporations pay assloads of taxes. Not at all. But corporations are powerful, and they don’t want to pay taxes. When you make helping the poor contingent on taxing corporations, you’re giving corporations de facto veto power over helping the poor.

  10. 11

    Now. 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.

    Another reason why this argument is often made dishonestly: the small-government types tend to be against the government running things, even if that would turn out to be the more cost-effective option. You mentioned private prisons – so far, the evidence seems to suggest that they are run less cost-effectively. And it’s easy to understand why: the government doesn’t need to run a profit and pay shareholders if they run the prisons themselves. Besides, anyone who’s ever worked at a major corporation knows that they aren’t always paragons of efficiency either. Finally, when they privatize a prison, they’ll still need people to regulate the prisons, and make sure they’re getting their money’s worth (costs not usually included in the cost comparisons, by the way). Similarly, privately run healthcare or schools or mass transit don’t really seem to save the government (or the taxpayer) money either. The idea that the disagreement is about efficiency is dishonest. The disagreement is about what tasks the government should take on to begin with.

    Finally, one more comment about privatization: it seems that privatization of public institutions is often motivated not so much by a desire to save money, but by a desire to circumvent government protections. For example, after the McKinney incident, I learned that many public pools were privatized after desegregation, after the government could no longer keep black people out – but privately owned pools still could. So now most community pools are no longer public. Similarly, private schools may select on religious beliefs (both for students and for staff), and may include explicitly religious instruction in ways the government never would be allowed to (while generally still relying on government funding). And of course, every time a public institution is privatized, all the people who used to work there are immediately stripped of their union protection. You now even see conservatives calling for privatization of the institute of marriage all of a sudden. Gee, I wonder why? So anyone who claims to be socially progressive should be really weary about calls for privatization.

  11. 12

    It’s not nonsense. Wanting less government spending and less morality policing isn’t contradictory. You seem to think that people wanting small government as well as same sex marriage, blackjack and hookers must necessarily care about poor people getting screwed over.

    Other than that, very nice post.

  12. 14

    Wanting less government spending and less morality policing isn’t contradictory. You seem to think that people wanting small government as well as same sex marriage, blackjack and hookers must necessarily care about poor people getting screwed over.

    Marc Abian @ #12: Wanting same sex marriage, blackjack and hookers does not constitute being socially liberal. I’m not talking about libertarian “screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine” types. I’m talking about people who claim to care about racism, sexism, domestic violence, screwed-up drug policy, homophobia, and so on — and who still support fiscal policies that allow all these to flourish.

    But in fact, in at least some cases, even the issues that most concern the “screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine” libertarians are made worse by conservative fiscal policy. See #4 above: Drug policy.

  13. 15

    Another reason why this argument is often made dishonestly: the small-government types tend to be against the government running things, even if that would turn out to be the more cost-effective option. You mentioned private prisons – so far, the evidence seems to suggest that they are run less cost-effectively. And it’s easy to understand why: the government doesn’t need to run a profit and pay shareholders if they run the prisons themselves.

    Deen @ #11: Good point about privatization. I’ve always been baffled by the idea that somehow private businesses will be cheaper and more efficient than government agencies — given that government agencies don’t need to make a profit.

    I think the idea is that government agencies don’t have to worry about efficiency, because they’re spending “other people’s money” and don’t have to worry about the bottom line. Bollocks. Government agencies still have budgets. And they don’t have to take in more than they spend — the literal definition of “profit”.

  14. 16

    It’s not nonsense. Wanting less government spending and less morality policing isn’t contradictory.

    If you limit “socially progressive” to merely “less morality policing”, then yes. If you expand that to include, you know, social progress, not so much. Because no matter how you slice it, the fact remains that fiscal policy has direct impact on social progress.

    You seem to think that people wanting small government as well as same sex marriage, blackjack and hookers must necessarily care about poor people getting screwed over.

    Well, if you want to call yourself “socially progressive”, yes you should care about poor people getting screwed over. That should fit into your analysis of what fiscal policies you support. If you don’t, then you’re not doing a good job of being “socially progressive”. That’s kinda the whole point of the article. A lot of people think they’re socially progressive. They don’t think of themselves as hating on the poor, or ignoring or neglecting them. But they support fiscal policies that do ignore and neglect the poor, that exacerbate the problems poor people face and make it harder to escape poverty. A lot of people have terribly wrong ideas about how economies and budgets work. A lot of people have no concept of how welfare policies often produce more revenue than they pay out. Frequently, fiscal policy that is geared toward social progress and social justice is more fiscally responsible than fiscal conservatism, not less. It’s just assumed by many (if not most) fiscal conservatives that many (or most, if not all) forms of government spending are fiscally irresponsible by default, and that’s wrong.

  15. 17

    @Greta Christina in #15:

    I think the idea is that government agencies don’t have to worry about efficiency, because they’re spending “other people’s money” and don’t have to worry about the bottom line. Bollocks. Government agencies still have budgets.

    Indeed. What’s more, that’s also how businesses work once they get big enough: every department in a large corporation is also spending other people’s money – they too get a budget that is paid from overall revenue. The trick is to have an incentive structure that rewards improvements, which both governments and corporations should in principle be capable of doing.

  16. 18

    @Marc Abian in #12:

    Wanting less government spending and less morality policing isn’t contradictory.

    Question: do you also consider enforcing anti-discrimination laws “morality policing”? If so, I’m not sure how much you support civil rights. If not, are you in favor of government doing more of it, or less of it?

  17. 19

    Greta,

    Wanting same sex marriage, blackjack and hookers does not constitute being socially liberal

    I’ve heard people who’s position is basically republician without all that religious baggage (abortion, gay marriage) or moral panics (drugs, prostitution, porn) consistently describe themselves as fiscally conservative, social liberal. Either you or they are wrong on the terminology. Whatever you call it, their position isn’t inherently contradictory.

    themadtapper,

    If you limit “socially progressive” to merely “less morality policing

    I don’t know where you got the socially progressive quote from, because I certainly never said it. In fact, if the OP used the word progressive instead of liberal I wouldn’t have commented at all.
    FWIW, I definitely consider myself socially progressive, and I consider this to be a “very nice post.”

    On privatisation, you also have to consider that in many cases the only competition is a bidding process (subject to corruption) by private companies. Once that is complete, you get a private company with a monopoly on a often essential product (like water), which even free marketeers should agree is not good. There are also concerns about guaranteeing profit for private companies to entice them to invest, the fact that bankruptcy will leave tax payers footing the bill, the evasiveness of private companies e.g. commercial confidentiality excuses preventing disclosure though FOI requests. We all realise that corporations manipulate the government and subvert democracy, and when their business is provision of a public service they have a huge incentive and opportunity. For example see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prison#Lobbying

    On thing I can’t recommend enough on this topic is George Monbiot’s book Captive State. It was written about England in 2001, but it’s relevant reading for anyone interested in this topic, particularly if you think privatisation saves money.

  18. 20

    This is a great discussion. I have called myself a ‘fiscal conservative’ before (or at least have argued that we need fiscal conservatives). But I tend to agree with your larger points.

    I work for a large for-profit hospital system. I am a clinician working in the business side of health care, trying to help make the hospital operate profitably. I personally believe that healthcare should be a public service (like EMS and public libraries). Unfortunately, that is not the reality in which we live. I have lost my job taking care of patients at a non-profit, not because my care was inefficient, but because the hospital was running out of money. The reality is that there does need to be some fiscal responsibility in service of the public welfare; sustainability needs to be considered – or the United States follows Greece into the crapper.

    Not all taxes are helpful (sales taxes hurt the poor disproportionately – estate taxes, not so much). Some ‘over regulation’ is actually lobbied for by large companies who don’t want easy entry into their markets.
    This hurts the poor. The idea that a living wage will destroy an economy by pushing businesses away has been disproven in cities like Santa Fe and San Francisco. It hasn’t been shown to be terribly helpful to the poor, either, however. It certainly hasn’t been the panacea we hoped it would be.

    I think that our priorities matter. Human rights before property rights. Fiscal conservatism, to me, means being willing to compromise on individual tactics to find sustainable solutions to these problems.

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