The right kind of fiscal conservatism

In politics, especially in Alberta, the term ‘fiscal conservative’ is often bandied about, almost always with positive connotations. To be fiscally conservative is, it seems, a good thing — something one should want to be.

But should we want to be fiscal conservatives? The answer to this question depends on what ‘fiscal conservative’ means. Its meaning may seem obvious, but when trying to make an explicit definition, it becomes clear that there are two different possible meanings, only one of which we ought to promote.

On the one hand, fiscal conservatism can mean straightforward fiscal responsibility. In other words, keep the books balanced. Don’t spend what you don’t have unless absolutely necessary (like in a recession). This is sensible and for reasons too obvious to need stating, we should want to be fiscally conservative in this sense.

But fiscal conservatism has another, more contentious meaning. Indeed, proponents of this second type of fiscal conservatism often wrap themselves in the flag of fiscal responsibility, but in reality they are using fiscal policy to advance their ideologically conservative policy interests. They lower taxes, thus reducing government revenue and necessitating the cutting of government programs. They repeal what they refer to as ‘costly’ regulations and generally attempt to reduce the size of government. In essence, they seek to turn the welfare state into the ‘night watchman’ state, where the government only looks after the barest minimum possible, generally leaving everything to the ‘free market’ and everyone to look after themselves.

To some readers, this may not sound so bad. But this type of fiscal conservatism is destructive and detrimental, letting those less fortunate languish in their state and assisting only those already near the top of the socioeconomic ladder. This is made all the worse when it is upheld as the paradigm of ‘fiscal conservatism,’ as if these policies were the only way of running a government that is responsible in its taxing and spending. Of course, advocates of this view are often faced with the dilemma that their tax cuts cause a revenue shortfall which can only be paid for by eliminating programs like social security, health care coverage or unemployment benefits that few citizens actually want eliminated. The result is a financial situation that is anything but fiscally responsible.

But even if the defenders of the ‘night watchman state’ view of fiscal conservatism could make cuts to the social programs they despise so much, it would be grievously wrong to do so, for it would be to shirk the basic responsibilities of justice. The programs that make up the welfare capitalist state ought to exist because certain responsibilities are placed on us by considerations of justice. In a nutshell, justice demands that we do our best to create a situation where the least well-off are the best-off they can be. The circumstance we are born into is pure chance, so whether it is good or bad it is undeserved — those in unfortunate circumstances later on in life often do not deserve their lot. Therefore everyone is entitled to the basic circumstances which will allow them to live humanely and to work to make their lives what they want them to be. (This but scratches the surface of what justice demands of us politically, but this in a short article, not a book. Others have done it far better than I could — for example, John Rawls.)

Conservatives will be unmoved by this, but the problem is that they often argue for their position against a caricature of the welfare state. The welfare state need not be wasteful, nor need it keep us always mired in debt. Indeed, in the past in this country we achieved quite an excellent hybrid between support for free enterprise and a concern for social justice. Following harsh measures in the mid-90s, the Chretien government was able to balance the federal budget and in the late-90s had resumed greater funding of social programs while keeping the books balanced. Modern liberalism’s dual concern for the freedom of the individual and social justice avoids the excess and fiscal deficit of socialism as well as the neglect of the underprivileged (and the middle-class, as we are seeing now in the United States) found in libertarian conservatism.

So should we be fiscal conservatives? A good liberal is a fiscal conservative in the first and praiseworthy sense. But a fiscal conservative in the second sense is really only an ideological conservative, who, as suggested by many examples from Brian Mulroney to George W. Bush, is anything but fiscally responsible.

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