Rant of a *real* fiscal conservative

Greta Christina has managed to do one of the most annoying things someone can do on the Internet.

She has taken a position that I thought was rather sensible, a bridge between supposedly irreconcilable camps, and exposed it as a sham. A farce. An illusion.

Dammit, Greta, is nothing sacred to you? Oh, right. Anyway, the position in  question is that of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”. I had begun to identify tentatively with the label myself.

Her thorough and well-referenced take-down points out that most of the fiscally conservative positions defended by those who like this label are inherently antagonistic to social liberalism. Cutting taxes, shrinking government, deregulating business – all of these have the effect of marginalizing the marginalized, of deepening the social fissures in society (almost all of which have a huge economic angle).

I can’t think of anything to refute the substance of her message.

And yet … there is a linguistic mis-step that irks me. I don’t know if this is a quibble worth clinging to, or if I should just let it go, adapt my vocabulary. Let me know what you think.

You see, what I think when I hear the words “fiscal conservative” is that the government aims to conserve spending – to find the most economically efficient way to achieve a particular goal.

Let’s take health care as an example. The fiscally conservative position would be to use whatever system results in spending the least per procedure, so that more could be achieved with less. Now, the analyses I’ve seen [1,2,3] show that socialized health care is actually more financially efficient than private health care. The first of those points out that per-capita spending on health in Canada in 2009 was about 55% what it was in the US that year.* The most obvious difference between these systems is that we have a health care system in Canada that is more publicly funded than the American system. I can hear the right-wingers crying out that this is obviously false – there must be some mistake. But I don’t hear them offering actually actual evidence-based rebuttal. Instead, they are relying on their ideological commitments.

So, for health care, the fiscally conservative solution is also (happy coincidence) the socially liberal solution. Cool.

Now, I confess that I haven’t worked through all of the issues out there. I suspect that some issues, such as same-sex marriage, have little to no fiscal angle at all. Okay, legalizing it avoids costly human rights trials, and opens up economic niches that are otherwise unavailable. But really, it’s largely an economic non-issue. And other issues, such as tax regimes designed to reduce income inequalities, are not transparently fiscally conservative. So it’s at least plausible that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism occasionally come into conflict.

I guess my big issue with the approach Greta Christina takes is that it grants the self-proclaimed conservatives too much. A government that chooses expensive wars, or criminalizes so many behaviours that it can’t keep up with the self-imposed demand for incarceration space, should not be allowed to label itself “conservative” without eyebrows being raised. The Republican Party in the US is not fiscally conservative. The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is not fiscally conservative. At least, not in the ways that are important to the lives of average citizens.

I suspect that, on substance, Greta Christina and I would not disagree about much here. What I’m not sure of is whether we could agree on the appropriate use of the language. I feel the same way about this as I do about religious folks trying to “own” the language of morality and family values: they don’t have the corner on that market, and often the people they oppose are doing the real thing even better than they are.

What do you think?

Footnote:

* Yes, I know there are many potential confounds in that data. Maybe Americans are less healthy. Maybe things are more expensive there. But for the cost to be almost double what our Canadian system is, you would expect there to be profound and obvious evidence of such things. And I don’t see it.

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