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.
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.
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.
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 deeply–ingrained 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.