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Columns

Down With the Dichotomy

If you're truly liberal, you're fiscally liberal

By Megan O. Corrigan

"Socially liberal, fiscally conservative."

This explanation of one’s political convictions is so often heard on Harvard’s campus that it has begun to lose meaning, when in fact, its meaning matters greatly. Raised in an era of moderate Democrats, extreme Republicans, and Greg Mankiw, many see government spending as something to be extremely wary of. But while large deficits are certainly dangerous and austerity has its merits, this statement of belief rests on a false dichotomy that offers refuge from the full implications of fiscal conservatism.

The term “socially liberal” indicates that someone is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage; “fiscally conservative”, on the other hand, indicates an unwillingness to spend public money. (While fiscal conservatism may have once meant that tax revenues and expenditures should be in balance, that meaning has since changed; in today's parlance, it indicates opposition to tax or revenue increases.) By declaring oneself a combination of the two, a person is attempting to both claim the moral high ground and demonstrate political savvy. It's a statement that tries to reconcile do-gooder inclinations and the economic theory learned in an intro class.

Unfortunately, this claim of fiscal conservatism fails to acknowledge the accompanying social implications. To be fiscally conservative implies support of limited government spending on welfare, healthcare, social security, and other necessary human services.

Thus the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” catchphrase indicates commitment to liberalism only when it does not cost money. It is easy and convenient to support changing laws that don’t require funding—sure, let gay people get married; let women have the right to an abortion.

But what about women’s access to paid-for daycare and maternity leave? What about healthcare for the poor, housing for the homeless, treatment programs for addicts, and access to good public education for every child? The idea that these policies are fiscal rather than social is absurd. Supporting them while claiming “fiscal conservatism” is also absurd. The truth is that social justice requires funding. Government investment matters. Society should spend—intelligently—a lot of government money.

For a more extreme example, look abroad. In India, where I spent last semester, the government is thoroughly underfunded, and the money they do spend is frequently lost to corruption. Their roads are extremely unsafe, schools are completely overrun, and the healthcare system leaves all but the richest with almost no services. The water that flows through the taps carries cholera and other pathogens. India desperately needs smart government investment, and they needed it yesterday; India needs safe sewage disposal systems, housing for the millions that live in makeshift shacks or on the streets of Delhi, school systems that effectively prepares students for the modern world, and so much more.

All of these social interventions—reforms and programs that could change millions of lives for the better—will cost a lot of money. But it's money worth spending; Vice President Hubert Humphrey famously said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Humphrey’s diagnostic is a good one. So before blithely claiming "fiscal conservatism" as a virtue, consider accepting responsibility for a true social liberalism—liberalism that includes everyone: The needs of poor working moms, disabled people, the elderly, and the mentally ill. You might even support raising taxes. It could keep you from owning a second boat, but you'll support policies that will yield a rising tide. Be fiscally liberal.

Megan O. Corrigan ’16 is a History concentrator living in Winthrop House.

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