Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fiscal conservatism

I was very excited by the title of this post, since of course I really am a communist. Ah well.

I'm always amused, however, when people describe themselves as socially liberal but "fiscally conservative". Most people, including atheists, are as actively misinformed about economics as most theists are about philosophy. Conservatism is a set of social values, money is a social construct, so to me "fiscal conservatism" means using the social constructions around money to bring about conservative social values, especially preserving and enhancing the status of the ruling class and maintaining the subordination of the working class.

One interesting point is that many conservative values are subtly encoded in our basic beliefs about economics in just the same way the author describes conservative values such as "judicial activism" as subtly embedded in basic Christian conservative beliefs.
I loved the subtext to the questions. Innocent sounding questions that carry a boatload of meaning if you know what they’re driving at. For example, “Our judicial system should allow judges, through their decisions and rulings, to guide and shape the foundational basis of law.” On the surface, the way the question is worded makes you want to write “disagree”–judges don’t make the law, they’re supposed to interpret the law. But they’re gearing you up to learn about judicial activism, which will eventually lead to claiming that judges who rule contrary to what a conservative family organization wants are part of an oligarchy, or even accusing them of tyranny, etc. So I kind of had to think for a moment on some of these type of questions: questions where I knew I might agree on the surface, but totally disagree on the application.
For example, consider the question, "Some people deserve to have more money than others." Seems like a question any sensible person would assent to, n'est-ce pas? But there are a lot of assumptions buried in this question: What is it precisely about a person or class of people that makes them deserve more money? How much more? Do they intrinsically deserve the money, at a "moral" level, or are there some people we pragmatically want to give more money to for more basic, fundamental reasons?

If one blithely answers "yes" to this question, without really examining what it asks, then certain other beliefs seem to flow: It's not a criticism, for example, to simply note that Bill Gates has a lot more money than an African subsistence farmer or homeless American; perhaps Mr. Gates simply deserves to have more money.

More importantly, it suggests that anyone who opposes any of the "buried" assumptions must therefore have a different answer to the explicitly asked question. If all good capitalist sheep workers answer "yes", then it must be that anyone who opposes capitalism must answer "no", and therefore believes that everyone, regardless, must always have exactly the same amount of money. Of course, this position is nonsense, at least to the historically and philosophically aware socialist and communist. Communism has never been about any sort of rigorously enforced absolute equality of consumption, but about ameliorating the vast and unwarranted inequalities of capitalism, especially the laissez-faire capitalism and blatant imperialism of the 19th and early 20th century environment of the founders of communism.

Now, most sensible, liberal people who describe themselves as "fiscally conservative" would offer a different explicit interpretation: they believe in a sound, reality-based approach to money: we should not, for example, do unrealistic things like consume more than we produce. But why should we ever associate the word "conservative" with reality? The subtle bias, of course, is that those social liberals mean well, but they just don't understand money, and people (such as myself) who are even farther away from capitalism must be as reality-challenged as Gene Ray and David Icke.

But of course this is the exact position of Christian conservatives: they believe — or at least they say they believe — in a sound, reality-based approach to social values. They are not imposing their personal, idiosyncratic values on the public, heaven forbid! They are just describing reality as it is; those who disagree are just as mistaken as people who disagree that the Earth orbits the Sun or that things fall when you drop them.


  1. Interesting. I confess, I am not nearly as well versed in politics/economics as I am theology, though I am a bit more informed than the average person (average atheist? I don't know). I do agree that I don't like the term "fiscally conservative", but I always interpreted it to mean that your social values line up with a typical Democrat, while you agree with Republicans on financial policy. There are some issues on which I lean more to the Left, and some I lean more toward the Right. Sometimes, I see both sides of the issue, and I don't really know who to agree with, and that is probably due to ignorance on my part. I remember doing that with religion before I became more settled on that issue.

    This is why I don't usually write about politics on my blog. :)

  2. ...agree with Republicans on financial policy...

    I'm honestly not trying to be snarky or sarcastic; it's a serious question: have you been paying attention to what the Republicans have actually been saying about financial policy since Reagan?

  3. See, I think you are confusing "fiscal conservativism" with "Republicanism." Bill Clinton was a fiscal conservative, but there hasn't been a fiscally conservative Republican in office *since* Reagan.

  4. (Though I see where you got that from my statement above--my apologies for the mis-wording. I should have added a caveat to that at the end, but ADD'd instead.)

  5. Though I see where you got that from my statement above

    Yeah, kind of.

    But seriously, Reagan? You simply cannot put both Reagan and Clinton in anything like the same financial category. Which one lowered taxes, raised spending, ballooned the deficit, and encouraged criminal profligacy in the private banking sector? Hint: It wasn't Clinton.

  6. Whoops, this is going to go down as one of my most embarrassing conversations ever. I have actually never had a discussion on this type of thing before, which is precisely why I'm interested in doing so now--I like having my views challenged. However, I'm sorry for not being more eloquent/prepared. Let me try again.

    You're right about Reagan, though some do associate him with fiscal conservatism (more on that in a minute). I misread some research I did, looking for the last fiscally conservative Republican. I don't know when the last one was. However, I do know what fiscal conservatism is, and though I am not explaining it very well at all (like I said, I've never had to), I still think you are equating it with Republican policy itself. Whereas a Republican might want to cut back on government waste by cutting social programs, non-fiscally conservative Republicans will spend it instead on military. Which is what Reagan did: he and other Republicans will run on a platform of fiscal conservatism, but it's hypocritical in that they aren't cutting spending. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. Like I said, Clinton was a fiscal conservative, and he increased social spending. But, by and large, it is Republicans who advocate for this platform, whether they follow it or not. We are operating on two different definitions here. The bottom line is that your definition of "Conservatism is a set of social values, money is a social construct, so to me "fiscal conservatism" means using the social constructions around money to bring about conservative social values, especially preserving and enhancing the status of the ruling class and maintaining the subordination of the working class" is wrong. That's often a Republican view on financial policy. But true fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with social issues. It's more about free trade, lower taxes, and limited government involvement. That doesn't mean that the poor don't get helped or the disabled are cast out onto the streets. This view on finances is classical liberalism, though it has morphed over time into a conservative platform, often for the reasons you described in your definition. However, that's not what it is supposed to be anymore than communism is supposed to be taking everyone's money away from them and enabling lazy people to do nothing.

    And like I said, I am more moderate myself. For one example, I think you do need some government regulation to keep the poorer/working people from exploitation by the larger corporations. So I definitely don’t take it to an extreme, the way some Libertarians/TEA party-ers do.

  7. Don't worry about not being prepared. You've drawn me into an actual conversation in comments, which is unusual for me now.

    I still think you are equating it with Republican policy itself.

    Not really. I was just amused that you would equate fiscal conservatism with Republicans. Communism aside, even as a liberal Democrat, I've always seen the Republican propaganda for "fiscal conservatism" to be nothing but utter hypocrisy.

    But true fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with social issues. It's more about free trade, lower taxes, and limited government involvement.

    One thing that really turned me to communism is seeing how inexorably economic issues are intertwined with social issues. Economic issues in a real sense are social issues, and vice-versa. Issues like "free trade, lower taxes, and limited government" have very profound impacts on society, and in fact are just the sort of policies that do indeed preserve the status and power of the capitalist ruling class. One of the great successes of capitalist propaganda have been convincing people that certain economic relations are intrinsically good, regardless of the the human cost: while it's regrettable, it's as inexorable that people suffer from them as they do from cancer or falling off cliffs.

    You've started me thinking, and I'll most probably write more on it later. In the meantime, you might want to read Lenin's The State and Revolution, which explains in some detail the necessarily close relationship between the apparatus of government and the capitalist ruling class. Lenin's a surprisingly good writer and a fairly intelligent guy.

  8. I will read it and get back to you. I live in the South: A good conversation with a communist is even rarer than a good conversation with an atheist. :)


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