Socially liberal fiscal conservatives, or the definition of an oxymoron

This is a guest post by Elisa, who blogs here.

We’re not going to hear any “sensible” politician call for a restriction in British abortion rights any time soon. Not in the tragic wake of the killing of Savita Halappanavar. And, tellingly of our political institutions, certainly not in the wake of the American election and its solid message that social conservatism is not marketable right now.

What we hear about instead is this new breed of “socially liberal fiscal conservative”. It was only a few weeks ago that George Osborne assured the nation he would not support a lower time limit on legal abortion. The Republican party is “soul searching” and everyone – over here at least – agrees that to survive in modern America, what they need to change are their social attitudes, not their fiscal politics.

Like those two things – social attitudes and fiscal politics – are completely discrete, as though there wasn’t a clear intersection between them.

Let’s look at abortion, which is often considered the litmus test of social liberalism (even though I don’t see how a woman’s right to bodily integrity and even life is a liberal value – it’s just the way things should be). Any meaningful right to choose an abortion has to mean the right to a safe abortion and the right to a free, easily accessible abortion. It’s not a right that can exist in a vacuum; it presupposes that access to healthcare is freely and universally available. It would be a bitter irony if only the rich could afford choice in this case.

The same is true of a raft of other supposedly liberal (for which read moral or sensible) provisions; access to contraception is the prime example, but it is also true of anything associated with that most fundamental yet highly contested of freedoms: the freedom to love and to use your own body in love as you please. Osborne says he supports gay marriage, but if you really believe in gay rights and what they represent – the idea that people should be able to make love with any consenting adult they choose – then you have to believe in (sexual) health services and want condoms and dental dams all over the place.

And that means someone has to provide these things, for free. If you believe in free love, you have to believe in a government that spends. If you believe in free love, you have to believe in taxing the rich (because that, notoriously, is where the money is). If you believe in free love, you can’t be a fiscal conservative.

You can’t be a fiscal conservative and believe in gender equality either. To name but one flaw in the idea: women will not be the economic equals of men until having a baby without the support of a man no longer means penury, as it all too often does in a society which does not provide free and universally available childcare. Again, this would mean government spending and taxing the rich – hardly “fiscally conservative” but necessary for any “liberal” society.

The list of ways in which fiscal conservatism is incompatible with social “liberalism” goes on and on. Any social conservative would be glad to hear me say so – to them I’m sure I would basically be saying that gays and sluts caused the deficit. But if even the Tories are trying to pander to us gays, sluts and libs, then the tide must be turning against those social conservatives and in favour, well, of basic rights and equalities. And if those basic rights and equalities create budget deficits and financial crises (I’m not necessarily saying that they do), then something is wrong with the system. I’m looking at you, neoliberal capitalism.

Not only can you not be fiscally conservative and a decent human being – I mean socially “liberal” – maybe you’ve also got to be a revolutionary.

Photo of a pink piggy bank with a wad of twenty-pound notes stuffed into it by kennysarmy, shared under a Creative Commons licence.