The problem with being ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative’

Lorraine Berry uses the current long lines at airports due to cuts in the staffing of TSA personnel at the security checkpoints as the starting point to argue that there is an inherent contradiction in the SLFC (socially liberal but fiscally conservative) stance that is popular, especially among young people. The problem is that implementing socially liberal policies costs money.

Fiscally conservative means that we can’t have nice things, like the kinds of Internet speeds enjoyed by most of the countries in Europe and much of Asia. Swedes pay approximately $40 per month for the Internet. While the tech bros of San Francisco and environs may be creating cutting edge technology, it’s the equivalent of trying to drive a Maserati in a school zone. In nations such as Sweden, the internet is treated as a public utility, and there was public investment in building the infrastructure of the service so that it was available to everyone in the country. While many in the U.S. equate infrastructure with road construction, it’s important to remember that the Flint water crisis is a direct result of not wanting to pay for infrastructure improvements. Because we’re all subject to the competitive market of internet providers who have no motivation for extending service to sparsely populated areas, or investing in increased speeds if it requires huge capital investments, it’s unlikely that those speeds are going to catch up with countries where “big government” made the investment on behalf of their peoples.

The old adage says that “you get what you pay for.” Fiscal conservatism, which is often just another way of saying that someone doesn’t want to have to pay taxes, ends up having real-life impacts on Americans’ quality of life. The idea of small government may look attractive in a hipster world where everyone just wants to do their own thing, but it’s hard to do one’s own thing when one is working long, underpaid hours in order to service back-breaking student loans and pay for ticky-tacky housing with rents that resemble a king’s ransom. The people who benefit most from fiscal conservatism are the people for whom student loans, or access to housing–even having to rely on commercial airlines for travel–are not issues. For the rest of us, fiscal conservatism is a bad investment.

I freely confess to being a ‘tax and spend’ person, wholly in favor of higher taxes in order to support social programs that I value. I feel that income tax rates in the US are ridiculously low for people in my income bracket and higher, and would gladly pay more.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, I think this was the NDP’s downfall in the Canadian elections. The progressive party promising to balance the budget! Lost them my vote, anyway.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I can recall when 50 years ago, “fiscally conservative” simply meant you expected a reasonably balanced budget. If you wanted to build roads, you would make sure you had enough money in various taxes/bonds to do so, and would increase/add new taxes to cover the shortfalls.
    That went away with Reagan AND the infamous “Lafer Curve”.

  3. themadtapper says

    Greta Christina did a post a while back (before she moved her blog) about the same thing, explaining how social liberalism ain’t free and that fiscal conservatism does in fact have social repercussions. The two ideologies are simply not compatible. SLFCs not socially liberal, they’re socially stingy. They only care about social issues when there’s a monetary cost, at which point they’re against whatever the issue is.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I feel that income tax rates in the US are ridiculously low for people in my income bracket and higher, and would gladly pay more.

    First, I want billionaires and multimillionaires to have tax brackets similar to what they had in the 60s.
    Second, I want Social Security strengthened so I can feel confident that reducing my 401k contribution won’t put my retirement at risk.
    Do those 2 things and I will be glad to have my taxes raised.

  5. says

    What drives me fucking nuts about “fiscal conservatives” is that they seem to never want to look at military spending. Which is why I call “bullshit!” on them so often. It’s like a guy with an $8,000/wk cocaine and escorts habit saying he’s fiscally responsible, while he is simultaneously piling up credit card debt and has a leaky roof.

  6. naturalcynic says

    What SLFC appears to mean is that they tend to be plain old libertarians. It’s OK to be gay or transgender, same sex marriage is fine with them, recreational drugs should be decriminalized or legalized and so forth. And sometimes even feminist. To them. it does not seem to have much to do about a social safety net. This is in opposition to the majority of the R’s who are socially regressive and fiscally conservative [or regressive]. One can mentally afford the SLFC position because its adherents are coming from a position of privilege.

  7. sigurd jorsalfar says

    The good news is that higher federal taxes in support of social programs are unnecessary because federal taxes don’t actually pay for anything. The federal government is the issuer of the currency, meaning it creates money by the act of spending and destroys money through taxation. Taxation at the federal level doesn’t ‘support’ any federal spending. I recommend this resource for anyone who wants to understand this further.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    The problem with being ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative’

    There’s more than one problem. Another is that what falls under “fiscally conservative” these days doesn’t work well. “Trickle-down economics” doesn’t work. “Supply-side” doesn’t work. Conservatives were very very wrong about deficits (see Reinhard & Rogoff). Republicans (who like to call themselves conservatives) complain about the deficit, i.e. that the government is spending more than it takes in. Their remedy? The government should take in less by cutting taxes for the wealthy.

  9. lanir says

    I feel like this is an idea that works fine in a vacuum. In the real world there’s always a starting condition however and the “SLFC” crowd is perfectly happy to ignore that, usually for their own benefit. My experience with people proclaiming the merits of this sort of philosophy is rather limited but what there is of it has followed a pretty straightforward pattern. So far they have all had some manner of privilege which they are willfully ignoring. They talk about responsibility but only from some arbitrary starting point that they define in their favor or in a way that lets them foist all “responsibility” off on people who are not doing well. A completely unregulated “free market” (hint: not actually free in any meaningful sense of the word unless you mean free to be devoured by ever larger predators) has all the control which means all the perks of being in charge roll uphill. But all the responsibility for the outcomes ordained by those with the real power rolls downhill.

    None of them so far have had an answer for why we need to spend so much on the military. It is simply a given that this is required. In fact I tend to hear that we need to spend more on the military although what exactly we would improve is usually not very coherent. Cuts to social programs are also a given although the responsibility spiel I hear so much around personal matters is conspiciously absent in this area.

    They basically sound just like regressives with one difference. They’re more okay with social issues. In my experience they also have a personal stake in some of the same social issues, so the only difference I notice from regressives is they’re less blatantly hypocritical. Maybe I’ve had a bad sampling but they’ve really, really failed to impress me so far with this line of thinking.

  10. doublereed says

    I just have the impression that fiscally conservative, socially liberal crowd has just bought into the whole generation’s propaganda that conservatives are smart with money, social programs cost way too much, liberals want free stuff without consequence, the debt is really scary, etc. etc. And considering I would say the “liberal” side of the media generally supports this view, it’s not that hard to see how people can be in such a bubble.

    But at the same time, they recognize social issues and unfair situations for minorities and women. Perhaps I give them too much a benefit of the doubt, but I consider them more victims of corporate media bullshit.

    I see a lot of people talking about the military, but my personal experience is that they’re usually in favor of cutting the military. I assume the specific issues vary considerably from location and individual person though.

  11. says

    social programs cost way too much, liberals want free stuff without consequence, the debt is really scary, etc. etc

    Yeah, that seems to be it. To which one can only reply:
    “what about ‘costing way too much’ doesn’t apply to our military?”
    For the cost of the F-35 program* and the F-22 program* we could have had Canada-style healthcare. Sorry, suckers. Instead of healthcare for people we have a jobs program/porkbarrel program for the defense industry.

    What I hear when I hear that sort of thing is a bit weird. And it sounds like: “OH you want medicare? Then you should be a valuable person to your corporate masters at Lockheed Martin, which has lots of jobs and money because they are clamped onto the defense department’s bountiful teat. And if you’re a good wage-slave for them, they’ll take care of you because you’re not entirely expendable until you are and then they toss you away like a jizz-covered kleenex.” Basically, it’s a way of dividing people that our fucked up society wants to take care of (good corporate wage-slaves) from the people that can’t contribute enough to some capitalist douchebag’s bottom line.

    Another aspect of that is that many of their “FCSL” heroes are asswipes like Trump and Clinton and Buffet, who are filthy rich yet acknowledge cheerfully that they cheat like hell on their taxes. Supporting massive military and massive tax-cheating is never “Fiscally Conservative” and does not line up at all with “debt sucks” philosophy.

    (* an expensive POS)
    (** another expensive POS)

  12. says

    my personal experience is that they’re usually in favor of cutting the military.

    Usually the cuts the FCSL types like a nominal ones. Like killing off a few of the most egregiously wasteful programs while maintaining the guaranteed fail-producing structure of the whole decrepit system. A “Fiscal Conservative” would be walking around in a constant state of head-exploding rage over the fact that the pentagon told congress “eh, fuck you” when ordered to audit their budget and expenditures. Actually, they didn’t say “fuck you” they said “that’s impossible.” To which the only rational response would have been “then you can’t actually budget so we’re going to stop the money until you figure that out.”

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