The Cardus Daily

Social Liberal, Fiscal Conservative

Peter Menzies  |  June 18, 2012  |  Economy, Politics

Over coffee the other day with a former colleague, he emphasized that his politics were conservative, but progressive. I pointed out that, really, that was hard to argue with. After all, we’re all in favor of progress, aren’t we, and the debate needs to be around what ideas actually constitute progress.

He sought, however, to clarify. “To be clearer,” he said, “I’m a fiscal conservative and a social liberal—I think that’s where most people are at. Social conservatives frighten me.”

Not that I am a social conservative—my views on most social issues such as abortion, gay rights and health care are decidedly European—but I didn’t pursue the conversation further because it was clear that he could not or would not be open to the idea that conservative principles might actually be capable of creating progress in the world in terms of, for example, wealth creation, prosperity, charity, justice and freedom.

He was a social liberal and, to him, that was the only path to progress. But, he emphasized, “a fiscal conservative.”

So that got me thinking—an admittedly dangerous thing these days—about what the best historical examples might be of fiscally conservative, socially liberal governments. And I couldn’t find any.

Certainly the Trudeau years marked great “progress” for the nation’s social liberals, but there wasn’t anything remotely fiscally conservative about them. As I recall, the argument at the time was that debt was a short term “investment” in the nation and would result in an expanded economy which would allow us to “grow our way” out of debt.

Some of my Red Tory friends may have wanted to argue for the Mulroney years, in that the government was able to return to a balanced budget in terms of its operations and the continued growth in debt was due only to interest on debt amassed over the previous 20 years of deficits. But as I recall saying at the time, I didn’t think that would fly at the bank if I went down to get a credit card so I could pay the mortgage and maintain a balanced household operating budget. Oh, and tax increases in the 1980s were outrageous.

The 1990s have some definite possibilities. Those were the prime time years of fiscal conservatism in Alberta, Ontario, and federally. The Chretien years, I thought, might be proof that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism were not inherently incompatible. But on further examination, there is little evidence those years produced anything particularly liberal in a social sense. To the extent that the cause of social liberalism was advanced in those years, it took place through the courts and judicial activism. Indeed, both Chretien and his successor, Paul Martin, resisted pressure from within their supporters’ ranks to initiate one more grand liberal social program—a national day care system was heavily promoted—primarily because it was inconsistent with fiscal prudence. Indeed, it wasn’t until the courts made it inevitable and conservative union threatened that Martin acted on same sex marriage and planted it as the ultimate political wedge issue which it remains to this day.

So I don’t think those years could be declared anything other than socially neutral or laissez faire.

I pondered some provincial governments too, but couldn’t come up with anything—fiscally conservatism is quite rare—except maybe, for one term, the B.C. Liberals. It would appear that while fiscal conservatism, while compatible with a laissez faire approach to social issues, is both philosophically and practically inconsistent with social liberalism. The fact that most people, like my friend, are completely comfortable embracing the fashion of an illogical philosophy for living is a whole other story.



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