Let's define fiscal conservatism

Lots of people claim to be for fiscal conservatism, but it always seems to devolve into a No True Scotsman conversation.

Person A: Such-and-such claimed to be a fiscal conservative, but he raised spending.

Person B: Well, he wasn’t a True Fiscal Conservative.

Person A: But he said he was!

Person B: That doesn’t matter.

So, what is your definition of fiscal conservatism? Does it involve deficit spending? Balanced budgets? Does it require low taxation or is it pay-as-you-go? Can a fiscal conservative raise taxes? Can a fiscal conservative increase spending? Does is require free trade?

Is the Republican Party fiscally conservative? The Democratic Party? The Libertarian Party? None of the above?

Name some people who, upon entering office, demonstrated fiscal conservatism. Give examples of their fiscal conservatism.

For me, conservatism of any kind means holding to a status quo (thus, “conserving”). Therefore, fiscal conservatism means fiscal steadiness — following common sense fiscal rules like saving money for future need, very limited credit, spending no more than you take in. On a larger scale, it can also mean such things as backing currency with hard commodities (like gold, for example).

I don’t think of conservative and liberal as opposites. I think the opposite of liberal is authoritarian, and the opposite of conservative is distributive, which is a word that I think reflects the notion of changing or moving things around, say in the form of wealth redistribution. In fact, if we put distributism on the left, and conservatism on the right, we can put liberalism at the bottom and authoritarianism at the top and end up with the famous Political Compass.

I would understand fiscal conservatism to mean pay-as-you-go, with an emphasis on reduced spending. I would understand economic conservatism to mean the same as economic liberalism (in the commonwealth sense), i.e., supportive of free makets and tending towards laizze-faire.

Without going into politics, American conservativism has never been much about being “safe” or “steady”. In the U.S., there is no such thing as a conservative, only two branches of crazy radicals whose ideas somehow overtook the world.

But regardless, the problem for us “fiscal conservatives” is that a lot of politicians play to us to get votes when they first run they stab us in the back. Not all of them, and we tolerate the need to bend principle to get anything done sometimes, but geez does it sting. I personally more admire the ones who despise us openly but bargain to get votes than the ones who lie about it.

Bush sometimes talks about it, but he isn’t and never was a fiscal conservative; he’s actually pretty leftist in social programs and spending patterns. So too with many of the conservatives from the “Republican Revolution.” And while a few Democrats are on board, most just don’t understand or care about our position. (Do not mention Obama. No, he’s not, and it will not help the thread.)

On the whole, we favor reduced taxation, but even bigger cuts to and less waste. We favor less government regulation in the market, but more general and effective ones. By “general,” I am referring to the numerous exemptions, tax breaks, and deliberate loopholes. By effective, I am referring to the fact that many government market regulations either don’t do anything or do it badly, but still complicate things. In short, fewer laws but better-written ones.

On the debt side, we don’t like it. Not that Uncle Sam shouldn’t borrow, per se (because good credit is very valuable), but I want to reduce the deficit to a more manageble size. Our debt is perfectly normal in scale compared to other comparable countries, but I’d like to see us get our house in order a bit more, which will actually free up more cash for good stuff.

The last few years of budgeting have been a nightmare for us, since Congress seems incapable of doing anything other than passing a last-minute budget they don’t understand.

Interestingly, I looked up “fiscal conservatism” on Wikipedia and found that while the article describes economic conservatism as a synonym for fiscal conservatism and describes fiscal conservatism in largely economically liberal terms (laissez-faire capitalism, etc.) and the talk page features one member claiming that fiscal conservatism, economic conservatism, and economic liberalism are all synonymous, there are several other members there who agree with me that fiscal conservatism is distinct from economic conservatism/economic liberalism.

Another member noted that ther is, rather confusingly, no term for political liberalism with regard to economic policies. Socialism is the traditional term, but it is too extreme for American liberals, who are really economic moderates. I suppose economic progressivism would be the best term for American left-leaning moderates. (I.e., liberal Democrats.)

I take fiscal conservatism to mean nothing more than avoidance of government deficit spending – which does not necessarily imply small government or low taxes; a fiscal conservative might in principle tolerate a very big and intrusive government, so long as taxes are high enough to pay for it all without borrowing.

The purest fiscal conservative to make a serious presidential bid in the last 20 years was Ross Perot, who wanted to slash spending and raise taxes to get the deficit under control.

I agree. Fiscal conservatism is closely related to economic conservatism, but they are not the same. Fiscal conservatism, for some reason, is more concerned about balanced budgets, which are typically impractical in a modern economy. I don’t want to go down that thesis, so I’ll leave it there.

Economic conservatism is more concerned about free markets. Government regulations is automatically seen as a market distortion, which typically is a bad thing. IOW, a strong case should be made to implement a regulation. The preferred regulation for economic conservatives are taxes. Taxes should be used to influence behavior, not social engineering. Reasonable people will disagree as to what extent taxes should be at, but it should be based on consumption (i.e. if you’re not doing the activity, you won’t be taxes). Fiscal conservatives are typically ok with general broad based taxes.

Economic liberalism is traditionally the most radical of the three, typically espousing free markets with absolute minimum regulation, which is seen as automatically bad.

American left/liberal economics can only be seen as socialist. When I say “socialist” I don’t mean Soviet Union, that was more of a command economy. At it’s lightest, it’s closer to Canada/Ireland, at it’s worst, it’s Soviet/China.

In principle, but in practice we find this possibility contrary to stable-state events. That is, it can’t be done in the long run because bad influences mess with the government’s ability to maintain fiscal responsibility (a perennial weakness of governments for eons).

True. Had he not been a nutcase, he just might have won, or had enough influence on the election to affect public discourse. C’est la vie.

Do American liberals really propose anything similar to the socialist policies of Canada or Europe, though? I don’t know enough about international politics to make that call, but my sense is that they do not. Nor is socialism used as a term in the United States to describe the policies advocated by our more liberal politicians, except by those on the right seeking to paint them as extremists. I think economic progressivism is a much better term for those reasons, though economic moderativism would alos be fine, since American liberals, AIUI, are mostly economicly moderate on a global scale, even if they tip slightly towards socialism on some issues.

For liberalism, the amount of regulation is not the issue; it’s the kind. What should be regulated is, in liberal terms, “coercion” — that is, the initiation of force or deception. How much regulation there should be is however much is necessary to accomplish this. No less, and no more.

I would say fiscal conservatism goes beyond simply balancing the budget. It has to include a clear vision of taxation solely for the purpose of funding government activities (not for reasons of social engineering), and a general commitment not to think up new ways to spend tax dollars.

If your first response to a social issue is to throw my paycheck at it, you are not a fiscal conservative no matter what the deficit is like.


UHC is a pretty socialist concept. Depending on the extent, so is certain forms of progressive taxation and, in general, regulations based on social engineering rather than consumption.

I don’t think I’ve heard of economic moderativism. However, I do agree that economic progressivism is probably a more apt description of the American left/liberal, though, in school, if a student conflated the progressivism with socialism, I don’t think anyone would have minded.

I agree. And it’s one of the reasons I think that Americans will gradually accept more things with the “socialist” label. Eventually.

Which is probably why no one is really proposing anything universal.

That’s because I just made it up!

What do you mean by “really”? Clinton proposed it in 1993. Obama is calling for it right now. I’m sure there are other calls out there for socialized medicine.

Clinton’s proposal failed precisely because of the American fear of anything socialist. Obama’s proposal isn’t universal health care, although it is hopefully a step in that direction. Nor is it socialized medicine. No one AFAIK has seriously proposed true unversal health care since Clinton failed, much less a socialist method for achieving it. (UHC doesn’t necessarily mean socialized medicine, but socilized medicine is almost certainly the only way to actually achieve UHC. Clinton, Obama, and McCain are all proposing decidedly non-socialist plans to extend health care in teh hopes that we will approach UHC.)

To me, the first rule of fiscal conservatism would be that the government must establish as close a connection as possible between the money it collects and the money it spends.

The second rule would be that while a free market is the best economic system, it’s not necessarily a naturally occurring one. Sometimes government intervention is needed to create the conditions for a free market.

The third rule would be that any kind of extremism in the economy usually leads to problems in the end. The government needs to watch for rising extremism and act to dampen it before it goes too far. And the government itself can create its own forms of extremism and needs to be watched by its citizens.

The fourth rule is that any attempt to introduce artificial factors into the economy should be as limited as possible. They may be needed occasionally but they should as small and as temporary as possible.

The fifth rule is that not all issues are economic issues and therefore some problems require non-economic solutions.

The sixth rule is that if you find a conflict between theory and reality, you should ignore the theory and pay attention to reality.

To me fiscal conservativism means nothing more or less than the idea that the government should be conservative when dealing with matters of the fisc. Therefore, in my mind, a person is fiscally conservative when he/she tends to prefer small government over large government. If a person identifies a problem and automatically thinks that some new government program or the expansion or increased funding of an existing program is the way (or the primary way, or the first way that comes to that person’s mind) to fix or ameliorate that problem, that person is not a fiscal conservative.

My answers to your specific questions are in bold in your post.

ETA: I just read the posts above. I’m happy to use a new word to describe these views if anyone has one for me.

Fiscal conservatism to me means…

a) First and foremost, you don’t spend more than you’ve taken in. It is not fiscally conservative to spend and spend and thereby run a deficit; but neither is it fiscally conservative to cut taxes and cut more taxes and thereby run a deficit.

b) You do not rapidly expand the rate of taxation, as doing so quickly will choke off the economy. Even a very good governmental program, properly funded by appropriate tax increases, becomes a bad idea if it shoots the tax burden sky high.

c) A true fiscal conservative believes that the workings of the unimpeded market economy are appropriate and not something in need of amelioration. It is not fiscally conservative to deliberately redistribute wealth simply for the sake of redistributing wealth, or in the name of equality or fairness.
Disclaimer: I myself am not a true fiscal conservative. I ascribe to a) and b) but although I do not believe in marxist Band-Aids, I do not believe in the principles in c) and actually do think the market economy is intrinsically dehumanizing.