A tale of two conservatives

Here in Canada, we often distinguish between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives.

To be regarded as socially conservative is a political liability here. The Canadian Alliance Party (now defunct) could not make inroads in Ontario and Quebec, mostly because the party was committed to socially conservative positions: e.g., opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

On the other hand, to be fiscally conservative is an asset. The Government of Canada ran up huge deficits from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. Now every party pays lip service to balanced budgets (even the socialist-leaning NDP), because voters won’t have it any other way.

In this post, I will argue that social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are antithetical to one another. That wasn’t the case in previous generations. But changes in our culture have now driven a wedge between social and fiscal conservatives.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. A social conservative aims to preserve traditional institutions and mores. Opposition to gay marriage is a clear, current example. Expressed positively, it is an attempt to preserve the traditional understanding of marriage and family. This resistance to change is rightly labelled conservative.

Fiscal conservatism is something quite different. Fiscal conservatives are committed to “small” government: lower spending and less regulation of institutions and individuals. In the political domain, this would seem to be the core meaning of conservative. Consider the following two quotes:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

This is a classic expression of a conservative approach to government. Solutions will come from individuals, not government, if government grants individuals the freedom to seize the initiative. On the other hand:

We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.

The second quote opens the door to a very different approach to government: “bigger”, more costly: government that is more of a presence in people’s lives.

The first quote is from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981; the second, from a speech by George W. Bush in September 2003. Two Republican presidents; two different ideas about the role of government.

President Bush was articulating a vision that he describes as “compassionate conservatism”. He failed to act when compassion was actually at issue, in New Orleans. But he has followed through on his interventionist inclinations in other circumstances, which we will consider below.

What happened over the course of this generation, from 1981 to 2003, to effect such a significant change in the orientation of the Republican party? The balance of power tilted away from traditional institutions and mores toward alternative models.

Social conservatives in the USA were first stunned by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since then, they have been mobilizing against a further advance of what they perceive as immorality. But social mores have continued to drift to the “left”. They have reached a new high point (or low point, depending on your perspective) in court decisions allowing same sex marriage.

Back in the 1960s, people who favoured women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, etc. had to actively fight to achieve gains. Now such causes seem to have a momentum of their own.

Conservatives rail against “activist” courts. I understand the way they are using this word, from a legal perspective. (I have an undergraduate degree in law.) But, from a social perspective, I think “activist” is a misnomer.

Courts are responding to changes in society. This is “activism” only from a conservative perspective. One could argue that the courts were slow to recognize women’s rights, and slow to recognize black rights. Whenever change comes, it will be too hasty for some people, if too tardy for others.

The point is this. Once upon a time, conservatives could afford to be passive. Various activists demanded that society change; conservatives responded by sitting on their hands. Public officials could preserve the status quo by doing nothing. “Small” government was adequate means to achieve a conservative end.

But this isn’t an adequate response any more! The balance of power has shifted, to the point where conservatives must actively resist the swelling tide. In this context, “big” government is called for. Government must loom large in people’s private lives: the coercive powers of the state must be mobilized to keep people in their designated boxes.

Same sex marriage is the clearest example. Court decisions allowed it; President Bush solemnly promised to amend the Constitution to preclude it.

Most Canadians believe that marriage is primarily a private matter. As Prime Minister Trudeau famously said, “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” When the state dictates that I am not free to marry the person of my choosing, the state is morphing into Big Brother.

This is big, interventionist government on a grand scale. Not when human suffering is at issue (“compassionate conservatism”), but when traditional mores are at issue (social conservatism).

(Update. Here’s another example: the state using its coercive powers to ban the sale of “any device … useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs”. For a trenchant comment, see here.)

I am spinning a tale of two conservatives: Ronald Reagan, with his philosophical commitment to small government; and George W. Bush, with his commitment to big government.

Once upon a time, fiscal and social conservatism were compatible. Fiscal conservatism necessarily entails small government. Social conservatism used to entail small government, too.

But society has changed. Social conservatism now entails big government — interventionist government — government that does not balk at overruling courts, installing conservative judges, and (directly or indirectly) enforcing the norms of a bygone era.

Not least when it comes to sexual mores. Sexuality looms large in this culture war, precisely because sex is a private activity. Does the state dare to intervene in people’s private lives? Sex is the inevitable battle ground, the likeliest place for that question of political philosophy to arise. Welcome to the brave new conservative world.


• p.s.

The Conservative SoulI must give credit to Andrew Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul, for providing the seminal thought on which this post is based. The two quotes (of Reagan and Bush) come from Sullivan’s book.

Sullivan self-identifies as a conservative, even though he is gay and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. He argues that he is a true conservative whereas the Republican Party, in its current incarnation, is not conservative.

I don’t share Sullivan’s commitment to conservatism, but I think this is an important subject. American politics affect people globally: not least, here in Canada. I will have further thoughts on Sullivan’s book in subsequent posts.

• p.p.s.

I should note that I personally support same sex marriage, but I continue to regard abortion as a social evil.

I doubt that recriminalizing abortion is the right solution. Nonetheless, I do not believe the status quo is defensible, since it provides no legal recognition whatsoever to the unborn. (That’s the situation in Canada; I’m not clear on the US context.)


19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. whig
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 19:59:34

    We have discovered in our American experience that the so-called fiscal conservatives are not more trustworthy than the social conservatives. This is not to say that we should be careless with finance, but you are being sold a bill of goods and it isn’t truthful. War and peace are the issues of the day, and the fiscal conservatives have been the financiers and advocates of the police/warfare state.


  2. whig
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 20:01:05

    I think you would better understand the issue of abortion if you knew how much more common rape is than the public figures show.


  3. Stephen
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 20:34:50

    To be clear, I’m not a conservative of any stripe. Sullivan hasn’t changed my opinion on that, and I don’t know why you think I’ve been sold a bill of goods.

    Canadians strongly prefer a government that is centrist, by our standards — wildly left wing by American standards. Our country redistributes wealth from wealthier provinces (Ontario and Alberta) to poorer provinces (all the others!) via “equalization” payments. Redistribution of wealth is an inherently big government practice, and that’s just fine by me. (Even though live in Ontario.)

    As for abortion —
    I don’t want to get deflected into a fruitless debate, but I’ll flesh out my position a little more. I could tolerate abortions for rape and incest victims and pubescent girls. If we could make significant progress on the other instances of abortion, I would be well satisfied with that!


  4. whig
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 20:44:36

    Stephen, I’m not going to debate you, I’m just telling you the fact that a large percentage of rapes are unreported. Ever. And many victims won’t even tell a single person.


  5. Bill
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:04:36

    I’m not sure that this post was meant to bring up the debate over abortion, and I agree It will likely “deflect into a fruitless debate” should we continue down this path, enticing as it may be. That said, it is related to the fiscal conservatives and social conservatives’ position and provides a useful example. I think I may pick up Sullivan’s book.

    What I am about to say may be contentious, but it seems there is a muddying of ideological conservatism and political conservatism here. Associating political conservatism with ideological conservatism may be a mistake. Is not morality more associated with ideological conservatism?

    It is very possible that a person described as ideologically a conservative may be violently opposed to the political conservative position. While supporting personal freedoms, freedom of the individual, is a conservative ideology, however political conservatism tends to be protective of the morality of the group that supports their position, usually the Christian right, or is this just the work of George Bush? Having a conservative soul may not make you vote conservative. Not having read Sullivan’s book is he associating republicans with conservatism, if so he may not be 100% correct?

    It is also interesting that as 49erdweet highlighted in a recent email to me, the relation of ideology to politics has changed over time as to be a Klansman in the past you had to be a democrat. In the past the line between conservative and liberal changed in many ways.


  6. whig
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:07:53

    Bill, conservatism is not more moral than liberalism. In practice, it is more likely to be hypocritical.


  7. Bill
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:15:01

    Very true, but they seem more concerned with the moral debate, and political conservatives tend to see themselves as the defenders of common morality.


  8. Bill
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:19:15

    A good example of the seperation of political and ideological conservatism can be found in the works of Ayn Rand. I’m not sure modern day political conservatives would be 100% please with the society Rand envisioned.


  9. whig
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:37:07

    Ayn Rand was a fiction writer.


  10. Bill
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 14:09:31

    Ideology is an organized collection of ideas not facts and is somewhat closer to fiction than reality. Most people that read Rand are reading her for her ideas as much as the story. The theme of “Atlas Shrugged” is “The role of man’s mind in society.” Rand upheld the industrialist as one of the most admirable members of any society and fiercely opposed the popular resentment accorded to industrialists. Like Psychologist B.F.Skiner’s Utopic application of psychology in the novel “Walden Two” for the Philospher Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” was just the mode of communication. Ayn Rand is as much a philosopher as a fiction writer. So what’s your point?


  11. Stephen
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 15:48:10

    • Bill:
    Sullivan certainly doesn’t confuse the label conservative with the Republicanism of the Bush administration.

    Sullivan considers himself a conservative in the mould of Burke and Oakeshott. He thinks Bush and co. have lost sight of what conservatism actually is.

    For Sullivan, conservatism is rooted in doubt about the ultimate questions of life. No one has the answers. So government should not force every citizen to conform to one idea of the good, but allow each citizen to search out the answers for him- or herself.

    It may be true, in theory, that an ideological (= social?) Conservative may repudiate the Republican party. But in practice, in the USA today, ideological conservatives seem to vote Republican almost exclusively.

    For example, people seriously doubt whether Rudy Giuliani is electable as Republican leader because he is pro-choice.


  12. whig
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 16:28:08

    Bill, Ayn Rand was not a philosopher of reality. Her ideas are interesting but wrong.


  13. Bill
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 01:01:07

    I tend to agree but Philosophers do not often deal with reality.

    Though I don’t agree with Rand I would never claim her ideas to be wrong I would simply say I disagree with them. Philosophy is concerned with method not reality. For example metaphilosophical relativists may claim that any statement can be counted as a philosophical statement, as there is no objective way to disqualify it of being so.
    Your judgment of Rand is too broad.


  14. 49erDweet
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 18:56:44

    Whew, I don’t know if I should grab this merry-go-round brass ring, or not. But having little sense, it seems I will.

    stephen, I do agree that GWB has stumbled far from the path of traditional conservatism. More than that, I think you – too – misread conservatives when you say, “conservatives responded by sitting on their hands“. That is the consensus world view, all right, but is ill-informed as to what was actually going at the time within conservative societies. Just because “government” was being involved, doesn’t mean things weren’t being accomplished. What other, (NGO if you will), resources were quietly but effectively being brought to bear on problems will likely never be fully known. History and the media frequently fail to follow or understand this trail and credit conservatives with solving societal problems using non-public means. In fact, they are frequently criticized for doing so. Much the way William Wilberforce was at first criticized by English merchants two centuries ago for trying to deprive them of their financial right to profit from the slave trade.

    Virtually every private hospital and college founded in this country in its first two hundred years, and when you look around most are still here, were put into place by “conservatives”. Working quietly for the future, and betterment of their neighbors and community. Without government funds.

    Where you and I differ so greatly is in your (apparent) unproven belief that “government spends money better”. My experience is just the opposite. And I think the failures of the City of New Orleans and State of Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina – helped in no little way by the additional ineffectiveness of GWB’s friend “Brownie” – are proof enough of my thesis.

    Anyway, that’s enough pot stirring today. Interesting subject and post. Cheers


  15. 49erDweet
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 18:58:30

    second par. third sentence, add word “not” between “was” and “involved.


  16. Stephen
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 22:05:28

    I didn’t say that conservatives sat on their hands with respect to the sick or the uneducated.

    Like you, I have a high respect for the Christian faith. Mother Teresa was certainly conservative, but she didn’t sit on her hands when it came to the poorest of the world’s poor.

    I referred explicitly to women’s rights, black rights, and gay rights. A conservative, by definition, is someone who doesn’t want society to change: who resisted the demands of women, blacks, and homosexuals to grant them equality.

    (Here I do not identify Christians and conservatives. I presume Christians could be found on both sides of each issue.)

    There was a time when conservatives could preserve the status quo by being passive; now they have to actively fight change. That’s the argument — it has nothing to do with hospitals or colleges.


  17. whig
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 22:48:01

    Would you say that a fiscal conservative is someone who doesn’t want to see economic change? This of course perpetuates classism and racism, as well.


  18. Stephen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 10:28:08

    That’s open to debate, Whig. Fiscal conservatives don’t believe that government should use the tax system to redistribute wealth. To some extent, that has the effect of entrenching economic differences.

    But a fiscal conservative may give liberally to charity. And they almost certainly applaud those who get an education despite the obstacles in their path, then work hard and create wealth for themselves.

    Fiscal conservatives argue, with some justification (see the USSR) that socialism and communism stifle economic growth, ultimately to everyone’s detriment.

    As usual, you’ll find me occupying the middle ground. I don’t buy “trickle down” theory, but I think it’s true that the economic system has to reward initiative. And I think there comes a point where the redistribution of wealth stifles an economy.

    But the American system where, for example, millions of people have no health insurance —?

    Any society that abandons the poor and the ill to their fate is guilty of grave immorality, in my view.


  19. whig
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 12:36:31

    Thanks, Stephen. I agree but would point out that the idea of redistributing all wealth has never been a liberal idea. You are becoming an identifiable liberal yourself, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.


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