In the previous post, I focused on how the rightward drift in America’s political economy has led to a political polarization that is more imaginary than we care to admit. In this post, I want to focus on how economic conservatism is secretly turning us all into social conservatives.
As much as it pains me to admit this, I had a libertarian phase. It was 2006. Unemployment was low and the stock market was hitting new peaks every day. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I had not yet studied enough economics to realize that many assumptions on which “market fundamentalism” was based were empirically unfounded. I am and have always been convinced that social liberalism is sensible, if only for the fact that, in a broadly democratic society, socially liberal views keep a person more or less on the good side of history. But insufficient study of undergraduate economics had put my fiscal/economic views on shakier footing.
Like many libertarians, I was content with separating my economic views and my social views. In fact, the two-axis model of political categorization was pioneered by David Nolan (a founder of the Libertarian Party) and distributed by Advocates for Self-Government, a noted libertarian advocacy group. If you ask me, this form of categorization is a convenient model to allow libertarians to look like they’re not actually conservatives, and thus win adherents who would ordinarily write them off. This plan seems to have worked. Unfortunately, economic concerns cannot be teased away from broader political concerns quite so easily. Economics and politics are inherently interlinked- no economic structures or organizations can exist without a political/institutional basis to house them. This has been the view of countless economists throughout history. With a more substantive view of the political economy, it is difficult to categorize libertarians as anything other than conservative advocates of that status quo.
One could broadly claim that the libertarian focus on the market forces them to neglect issues like poverty and social inequality which disproportionately affect the working classes, thus causing systematic intolerance toward a large sector of society. Similarly, there is overwhelming evidence, perhaps best presented in the Price of Inequality and Capital in the 21st Century by Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty respectively, that growth in capital markets almost always favors the holders of capital, causing wealth concentration, which can cause disproportionate political power and democratic deficits in the absence of sufficient campaign finance laws. For me, these two points are enough to characterize economic conservatism as inherently socially conservative, but these are broad judgments, and it would help to consider a few concrete examples.
Libertarians are opposed to gender-based equal wage laws on principle. Their defense for this (which tends to be their defense for any of their views) rests on the fact that such equal wage laws constitute an unwanted intrusion into the free market. Similarly, libertarians are philosophically opposed to anti-discriminatory laws in hiring because (you guessed it) they constitute an unwanted intrusion into the free market. But, in any free market, an economic actor is just that- an economic actor and nothing else. No non-economic aspect of their personality should come into play, and their wage should be determined only by market forces. So, clearly, whatever is keeping ethnic minorities out of jobs, or female wages below male wages, is actually a reflection of some sort of institutional status quo. It could even be argued that these institutional realities might themselves constitute an intrusion on the market which prevents people from being paid their market wage. As such, libertarians use the free market defense to maintain an inequitable and inefficient, culturally-based status quo. Does that sound like social liberalism?
Living as we are in a Friedmanite America, progressives can alleviate their guilt by rightfully supporting such socially liberal causes as racial equality, environmentalism or LGBT rights. But economic and social views are not as easily separable as we like to think. As long as we continue to ignore the systematic economic issues our country faces- persistent unemployment, inequality of opportunity, poor public transport provisions and systematic exclusion (among others)- many of which disproportionately affect the working class, we will continue our lurch toward an oligarchical, quasi-fascistic economic and social organization.
For the record, my libertarian phase ended when I read The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, which you all should too, especially as it’s freely available online.
In the next post, I’ll try to discuss just why things turned out the way they did.