“Socially liberal, fiscally conservative”

A deeply contradictory and unsustainable belief system

Bri Hatch

Jumbo shrimp, silent scream, pretty ugly. 

These phrases are etched into my fourth-grade grammar notebook as examples of oxymorons: figures of speech that combine two opposite ideas to reveal some greater, deeper meaning. 

I’d like to add a new one to the list: “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” A figure of speech, often passed off as a political belief system, that combines two contradicting ideas — two fiercely competing ideologies. 

Except, unlike an oxymoron, there is no deeper meaning here — except for the fact that this belief system can not actually exist; it is not sustainable. The cognitive dissonance is too much to bear — one side will inevitably have to cave, the other will take ideological priority. 

By now, it is old news (another oxymoron!) that President Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017 while serving in office. And, for 11 of the 18 years from 2000-2017, he paid no federal income taxes at all, according to the New York Times. All the while, he reveled in a lavish lifestyle — taking tax deductions on multiple luxurious personal expenses, like $70,000 in hairstyling costs. 

According to the 2018 data released by the IRS, Americans in the most common income bracket (earning between $50,000 and $75,000 in gross income) paid an average income tax of $4,688. 

The average annual salary of a public school teacher falls into this category — at $61,730 in 2018-2019 according to Business Insider. Yet, a public school teacher is only able to deduct $250 of “unreimbursed trade or business expenses,” such as school supplies, per year. 

Outraged by this comparison? Me too. But this singular instance is indicative of a much larger fiscal trend in America: that the wealthy somehow manage to pay significantly less in their taxes than the average American.

According to an analysis of tax data by the University of California at Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, in 2018 billionaires paid 23% of their income in federal, state, and local taxes — while the average American paid 28%. 

No one likes to pay taxes. Believe me, I would have loved to keep all the funds from my summer job. But, I recognize that it is my duty as an American citizen to pay taxes (an amount rivaling that paid by the president, at that) — especially when they can be used for government programs that benefit all of society — and, even more so, can benefit those less fortunate than myself through welfare programs. 

Now, imagine how much money could be diverted to those welfare programs, or other social justice initiatives, if billionaires paid 5% more in taxes — and, if the very wealthy like Trump contributed their fair share, too. 

According to Rudy Giuliani, written in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, “Fiscal conservatism is based on two fundamental principles — cutting taxes and controlling spending.”

So, when someone claims they are “fiscally conservative,” it signals that their beliefs stem from valuing not just their own tax dollars, but billionaires’ tax dollars, more than the rights and lives of people they claim to support socially. They validate tax cuts for the rich and privileged, while invalidating government spending to aid those who are not rich and not privileged. 

I think part of the problem with the phrase “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative” is that many (including myself before writing this piece) do not really know what each of these clauses entail. So I did some research. 

Fivethirtyeight.com makes the distinction as such: To be fiscally conservative means to support cuts to entitlement programs and the repealing of the Affordable Care Act, while opposing minimum wage increases and environmental regulation. Fiscal conservatives also prioritize minimizing the national budget deficit. 

Socially liberal individuals support abortion access, gay marriage, gun control and amnesty for illegal immigrants — and also recognize the effects of white privilege and, consequently, systemic racism. 

The trouble with identifying as both fiscally conservative and socially liberal is that social issues, especially in America, are inherently economic. For example, let’s take the issue of environmental racism, which asserts that BIPOC are exposed to environmental hazards, such as pollution and toxic waste facilities, at much higher rates than their white counterparts.

Someone who is socially liberal would recognize this as systemic racism, and therefore want to find solutions to that inequality. But, someone who is fiscally conservative would oppose implementing any environmental regulations that could be put in place to alleviate this effect. 

Or, consider welfare programs — which are mostly designed to aid those who are impoverished. Poverty disproportionately affects racial minority populations: of the total Black population, 18.8% fall below the poverty line, 15.7% of the Hispanic/Latino population falls below the poverty line — yet only 7.8% of non-Hispanic whites do, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau report.

A socially liberal person would be in complete support of these programs, recognizing the systemic racism rooted in the causes and perpetuation of poverty. A fiscal conservative however, prioritizing a low budget deficit and condemning tax increases, would oppose them. 

Claiming to care about the lives and rights of minority populations in America, while not supporting funding to provide equal and equitable access to education, healthcare, food security, voting, employment and more is worthless in a society where money carries such immense weight. 

It means nothing to claim to be anti-racist, or to support access to reproductive health care, or to self-identify as an ally without prioritizing funding in policies and programs that assist all Americans — and attempt to alleviate inequity that spans across lines of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability, etc. 

Embracing the oxymoron that is being “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” is akin to performative activism on social media — all talk and no substance. Social equality and economic equality are intrinsically linked — so to support one but sacrifice the other in fear of raising taxes or increasing the national budget deficit is a direct contradiction of beliefs. Thus, the two clauses wind up effectively canceling each other out. 

I’m not advocating for a switch to completely embracing one side of the political spectrum or the other (although I certainly do have my beliefs). It is necessary, however, to recognize the contradictions within a “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” belief system — and determine true beliefs and stances, instead of hiding behind an oxymoron.