Economic conservatism vs. social conservatism

Mint has a great editorial today on the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological conflicts:

The BJP needs to get over this dichotomy. The bulk of Indians today are concerned with livelihood issues. Since the mid-1990s, cultural nationalism of the kind championed by Advani at one point has lost salience. It is time for the BJP to transform itself into a party of economic conservatism, one that argues for free markets, secure property rights and a minimalist state. India cannot afford to have a party in power that does not pay attention to sound macroeconomic management. [Livemint, June 11, 2013]

There are a few things that need to be elaborated on here. First, there is some subjectivity in the application of labels like conservatism and liberalism for economic philosophies, even before we bring in social concerns. There’s fiscal conservatism on one end, which advocates for healthy public finance with minimal debt spending, and moderate, balanced government budgets. There’s economic liberalism on the other end, focusing on strong property rights, a large role for free markets and individual action, limiting the state’s role to the provision of public goods and the correction of market failures. A lot of fiscal conservatives do believe in economic liberalism and a free market economy, but the two concepts are not necessarily wedded together.

Second, over and above these, there’s the school of liberal conservatism, that blends fiscal conservatism, economic liberalism and a socially conservative outlook. Social conservatives are often driven by the understanding that society (and institutions) are inherently fragile, precious and require safe-guarding. They believe that for social harmony, a certain amount of consistency needs to be maintained in the social fabric. They believe in preserving the ties that bind people together: family, religion and customs. Whether or not one agrees with this worldview, or be willing to compromise on individual liberty and justice for the cause of greater social harmony, there is certainly a political space for social conservatives to occupy in any healthy democracy.

In most rich nations, there are major political parties with the aforementioned liberal conservative base. The Republicans in the United States, the Conservatives in United Kingdom, the Christian Democratic Union in Germany are all examples of the same. Several of these liberal conservative parties are in power right now around the world. Thanks to this, people often assume that those who espouse the cause of social conservatism also care about economic freedom. Consequently, there are frequently calls for the Bharatiya Janata Party to do the same, and there is a lot of disappointment when they don’t.

Economic liberalism and social conservatism go hand in hand in richer nations as their social stability is dependent on them continuing to be rich and prosperous. This is not the same for a growing country like India. As the Mint editorial rightly states, “Embracing free markets and its cognate political position—liberalism —is bound to weaken cultural nationalism.” Economic freedom and growth are very likely to empower new groups of people (like Dalits), chafe at established social orders, and overturn social mores – be it women working during late hours or filing for divorce more often.

So can the BJP transform from a socially and economically conservative party to one that socially conservative but economically liberal? How will it chart the course to get there, given that the ordinal axes that explain Indian political ideologies are very different from western ones? Or is a new, yet-to-emerge political formation the best vehicle to champion the liberal conservative cause? Or, is fiscal conservatism minus a support for free markets and property rights a compromise platform that the BJP can take up?

The coming months and years will tell us.

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4 Responses to Economic conservatism vs. social conservatism

  1. Venkatraman Krishnan June 12, 2013 at 4:31 PM #

    Well written article. However social conservatism does not mean that the state can let social practices impinge on personal liberties. The argument that economic liberalism and social conservatism will conflict with each other due to social tensions arising from empowerment of Dalits is misplaced. If there is any such rise the state must intervene to restore order and guarantee fundamental rights to all. Social conservatism can not be inconsistent with personal liberties. Social conservatism and social harmony are two sides of the same coin.

  2. John Lofton June 18, 2013 at 4:45 AM #

    FORGET, PLEASE, modern conservatism. It has been a failure because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless. In the political/civil government realm it has ignored Christ and what Scripture says about the role and purpose of civil government. Thus, it failed. Such secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    

”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.

    

“American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    In any event, “politics,” for the most part today, is whoring after false gods. It will not save us. Our country is turning into Hell because the church in America has forgotten God (Psalm 9:17) and refuses to kiss His Son (Psalm 2.) See, please, 2 Chronicles 7:14ff for the way to get our land healed.

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