I’m a libertarian, which roughly speaking means I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
When you don’t have time to get into a debate about the harm principle, positive versus negative rights, limited government, anarcho-capitalism, and whether taxation is theft, this kind of short-hand can be useful.
Since I was at university 10 years ago, I’ve noticed a trend towards fiscal conservatism and social liberalism amongst millennials. In polls of under-35s, or in discussions on college campuses, asking someone if they’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal has increasingly received a pretty positive response.
Sure, there’s still some communists running the student unions and some social conservative hold-outs. But the trend has gone so far that “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” might well be the tagline of an entire generation.
As with other recent political trends on campus, this one seems to have infected our broader political culture. Nowadays almost everyone – regardless of age, or even political ideology – seems to describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
Politicians as diverse as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, and Tom Mulcair have all been described this way.
Donald Trump, with his support for gay rights, is more socially liberal than you’d expect a Republican to be.
Hillary Clinton, with her support for business and trade, is more fiscally conservative than you’d expect from a Democrat.
Stephen Harper refused to re-litigate many social conservative issues and actually opened up access to medical cannabis.
Justin Trudeau promised fiscal restraint – well, except for a small, modest, tiny deficit, for just a few years.
Tom Mulcair, meanwhile, attacked Trudeau for even considering a deficit, and campaigned on balancing the budget.
If politicians as disparate as these five can all be described by the same phrase, either our political language is broken, our politics is broken, or both.
Spoiler: It’s both!
To underline the problem, take a look at the political landscape in Canada right now.
The federal Conservative leadership race has one reliably libertarian candidate in Maxime Bernier. But outside of Mad Max, if you want to support someone who is more socially liberal, you’re either stuck with someone who is fiscally flaccid, or doesn’t seem to have any policy positions at all.
In British Columbia, Christy Clark’s election campaign is based on big-government spending on infrastructure projects that will supposedly stimulate the economy and create jobs. Her government has hiked taxes and increased provincial debt for capital projects from $45.2 billion in 2011 to $65.3 billion in 2016 – a 45 percent increase in the five years she has been Premier.
In Saskatchewan, Brad Wall was a credible fiscal conservative while oil prices were high, but when the province’s revenue declined and he was faced with a choice between higher taxes and spending cuts, he chose a little of both and started breaching Canadian internal free trade rules by offering corporations subsidies to move to Saskatchewan. As for social liberalism, well, the government still owns the liquor stores, and it banned strippers in bars a couple years ago – enough said.
In Manitoba, Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister got elected because voters finally grew tired of the NDP’s tax and spend government. In office, he has proposed his own new carbon tax which may or may not still go ahead, and has increased government spending almost as quickly as the NDP did.
In Ontario, despite the dire poll ratings of Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals, Patrick Brown seems keen to contest the next provincial election by copying as many Liberal policies as possible. Carbon tax? Yeah, sure! Rent control? Why not!
Finally, in Alberta, consider the sad case of the provincial PC Party. After the 2015 election debacle many party loyalists concluded the party had lost its way and no longer stood for anything. So, as part of an effort to ‘refresh’ their brand, and outline what they believe in as a party, they went so far as to add the “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” phrase directly into their party constitution as a foundational principle.
But take a closer look at the accompanying explanation of that principle and rather than a clear statement of philosophy or ideals, you’ll find only a series of generic statements like:
“a government that creates a fair and competitive environment that provides opportunities”…”respect for taxpayer dollars”…”respecting and protecting human rights”…”a responsive, innovative education system”…”stewardship of the environment for future generations”.
Almost any mainstream political party, in any province, and in any country in the western world, could sign up to these principles.
Trump, Clinton, Harper, Trudeau, Mulcair, Clark, Wall, Pallister, Brown, Bernier, Chong, Scheer, Raitt, Leitch, O’Toole – every one of them could sign up to these principles.
Not because they agree with the principles, but because they’re so vague it’s practically impossible to disagree with them!
And that’s the key to this puzzle – the phrase “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” has become so commonplace it has lost all meaning.
Most people who claim to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal are actually neither. In reality, they tend to be fiscally moderate and socially moderate.
Occasionally, you meet someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about politics and philosophy, and genuinely just happens to fall in the middle on a lot of issues.
Too often, though, people who end up in the middle on everything are there because they don’t have a guiding philosophical basis for their views, and so they randomly fall on a bunch of nice, moderate, flexible policy positions based on friendly-sounding values.
But these nice values are loaded with inherent contradictions.
Many espouse things like equality and fairness, while decrying ideology, unaware that equality and fairness are themselves ideological, and represent different ideologies depending on how they’re implemented.
Our political language is broken and people don’t know how to describe their views, because they don’t really understand their views and why they hold them.
In turn, this ambiguity in our political language reflects a broader problem in our political system; that ideology is out of fashion.
To be ideological is now seen as a negative. But an ideology is just a set of consistent beliefs and ideas. To be un-ideological is to hold a series of inconsistent views without a philosophical underpinning, perhaps for political expediency.
Politics has become so lacking in ideology, principles, or even policies, that you can call yourself pretty much any political descriptor you want, and people either won’t know what you mean, or will let you get away with it.
If you’re ideological, if you hold a consistent set of beliefs and ideas, and wish the public policy of this country did too, then it’s time to ask yourself some questions:
Are you fiscally conservative because you believe government is too big, is involved in too many aspects of society, should get out of all business, and stick to only those things that are genuine public goods, as defined by economists as non-rivalrous and non-excludable?
Or do you call yourself fiscally conservative because you generally think government should be careful with taxpayer’s money, and think public good means anything good for the public?
Because most of the NDP and Liberals believe that too.
Are you socially liberal because you believe that people should be free to do whatever they want so long as they’re not hurting anyone else, that victimless crimes should be abolished as an oxymoron, that drugs, prostitution, euthanasia, gender identity, and the like should all be individual choices not controlled by the state, that free speech includes the right to say something that might offend someone, and that individual privacy is paramount, not something to be traded off for security?
Or do you call yourself socially liberal because you think that society should help the genuinely needy, that we should have clean rivers, and that LGBT Canadians should be treated fairly and equally?
Because most Conservatives believe that too.
As fashionable as it is to be non-ideological in Canadian politics today, the solution to this problem is actually more ideology. We need more citizens and activists who recognize the philosophical underpinnings of their political beliefs, we need journalists who can explain the differences to the public, and we need politicians who can appreciate and understand their opponent’s views, as well as clearly articulate their own.