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June 15, 2007

Can Economic Liberalism and Social Conservatism Co-exist?

Matt is being reductive in his idea of how democracies work. Many don't, after all, possess only two parties. And in those that do, the two parties can contain many different wings. In any case, it's odd to say that "a survey of two-party dynamics would indicate that something roughly resembling the American pattern is the rule rather than the exception." Even in America, that's only occasionally been true. The Dixiecrats and, at times, the Populists, were both strong American political movements that were economically liberal but quite socially conservative. The Populists hated the demon rum (and occasionally the Jews), and the Dixiecrats hated the black people (and occasionally, the Jews). Both, however, were concerned with the wages of of the white working class. And speaking of hating the Jews, the Nazis had a pretty strong redistributionist ethic as well. (And yes, yes, Godwin violation, but sometimes such things are necessary.)

As for the international comparisons, I lack the data, so let's open this up: Are there some strong, socially conservative, economically liberal parties out there?

June 15, 2007 | Permalink


When you talk about the Dixiecrats and even the Populists(TM) (not to be confused with real populists), the powers-that-be who stoked the fires of racial and other hatreds were not economically liberal -- indeed, they stoked those fires precisely because they wanted to distract people who otherwise would be real populists from their plight in order to maintain the quasi-feudal economic status quo. Many Dixiecrats ostensibly, e.g., supported Roosevelt's efforts to (re)build the South (and were glad to have the money flowing into their neck of the woods), but key Dixiecrats worked behind the scenes (and sometimes not so behind the scenes) to prevent any real change to the feudal status quo in the South.

And racism was a part of it. This is hardly economic liberalism combined with social conservatism -- it's economic conservatism mascarading as that combination.

Posted by: DAS | Jun 15, 2007 3:14:29 PM

I will throw my support, minimal though it is, behind the candidate that stands foursquare behind the demon rum.
For too long has its cause languished!

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jun 15, 2007 3:29:29 PM

Israel? Aren't some of the orthodox/ultraorthodox parties in favor of a massive welfare state?

Leaving Israel aside since it's such an outlier, what about India? I don't know enough about India's politics one way or the other.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 15, 2007 4:20:36 PM

Ezra, As DAS suggested, you need to read a little more New Deal history. Dixiecrats were more represented by people like Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi and Carter Glass and the Byrds of Virginia -- who used racism to cover up their representation of the landed plutocrats (who included them) than by the southern economic populists, of which there were a few like Tom Connally (who was considered socially moderate for his time and place). Genuine Southern economic populists like the Louisiana Longs were also relatively progressive socially (Huey outraged Dixiecrats by giving blacks meaningful access to the social welfare spending he did, and his brother Earl promoted exceptional access to equal voting rights).

Much of the domestic political story of FDR's presidency after his first term was about his effort to realign the Dixiecrats and other conservatives (like NY Sen. Royal Copeland) out of the Democratic party and the Republican moderates (like Willkie) into it.

Posted by: Steady Eddie | Jun 15, 2007 4:24:48 PM

Christian Democracy is basically what you're looking for, I think; In Medias Res is an interesting blog that looks at U.S. politics from this perspective, though very heavy on philosophy.

Posted by: Dan Miller | Jun 15, 2007 4:35:19 PM

How about the Democratic party in most Southern states. Yes the Dems have lost alot of ground in federal elections but there still a large population of large old school dems in the south. Both Alabama and Louisiana have majority Democratic legislatures. Case in point is Sen. Ben Nevers in Louisiana who in the same year drafted an abortion ban similar to the South Dakota ban AND crafted an anti Wal- Mart bill similar to what passed in Maryland.

Posted by: j | Jun 15, 2007 4:56:14 PM

As Nicholas Beaudrot pointed out, I believe that Shas in Israel (whose voters are mainly poor orthodox Sephardim) is quite economically leftist while also being a religious party.

Also, the Christian Democrat parties in continental Western Europe basically started as parties of Catholics who supported the welfare state but didn't want to align with the Socialists because of the latter's anti-clericalism. (In the Low Countries they even had their own Catholic labor unions). After WWII they became the de facto party of the right because the traditional right was massively discredited through its associations with Nazism. As religion and Marxism have both become less relevant to European life, these tendencies have become less pronounced and they've become more conventional center-right parties. (A good overview of all this, like many other good things, is found in Tony Judt's Postwar).

I do agree with Matt's basic point, though, that the normal left-right axis has a lot more coherence to it than it's often given credit for.

Posted by: Jose Peterson | Jun 15, 2007 5:19:18 PM

David Frum explained this pretty well in Dead Right:

"It is not so easy to put together a politics that defends the individual against both
big government and majoritarian morality. Political thinkers have been at work on this job
since John Stuart Mill, who warned that a conformist society can practice a 'tyranny
more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by
such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much deeper into the
details of life, and enslaving the soul itself'. And, almost without exception, they
have found the dilemma unsolvable, as in fact Mill himself did - he ended his days as a
To understand why this should be so, consider a not unrealistic situation involving just
a few of America's civil rights laws. Suppose a young couple in a conservative town
believes that marriage is a hypocritical instiotution, and determine to live together
without it. They attempt to rent an appartment together - and no landlady will accept them.
The young man is fired from his job, the girl is told to her face by her boss that she is
a slut. When he hears about their immoral way of life, the owner of their favourite
restaurant refuses to seat them any longer. Eventually the two have a son. When the boy
applies to the local private college, he is denied a scholarship because of his
illigitimacy. None of these manifestations of moral outrage involves any action at all by
any branch of government. Every one of them would have been legal - and quite likely to
happen - in the United States forty years ago. Every one would be illegal today"

Posted by: Chris | Jun 15, 2007 6:09:21 PM


One way to get clarity on this is to take a feminist perspective, where the socially conservative positions are obviously in direct conflict with women's economic independence. After WWI, Britain, besieged by both first wave feminists and socialist, adopted welfare state policies designed to help women be better wives and mothers, but only that. Your "Nazi redistributionists" had much the same goals, to reinforce traditional achetypes and roles.

"Social conservatism" and "economic liberalism" have conflicting goals:stability vs dynamism, respectively. Or should, at least. The goal of a welfare state or state socialism should be to empower its members to change the social structures, institutions, and relations of the society they inhabit.

This is the contradiction of the Keynesian liberal welfare state:formed as a reaction to Fascism and Communism, its goal was to pacify and depoliticize the working class. For a while, the pre-Keynes unionism retained momentum, but soon enough the worker identified with the state and its representatives, which gave her what the unions used to fight for.

Liberal pluralism also confuses class interests.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 15, 2007 7:18:58 PM

Does Fianna Fail in Ireland fit this description? From what I understand, they tend to be culturally right-of-center and economically left-of-center.

Posted by: Ben Webster | Jun 15, 2007 8:48:27 PM

Well around hereabouts (Rome) there used to be a strong socially conservative egalitarian party called the Christian Democrats (before that they were called the partito popolare). Might not have seemed all that egalitarian compared to the Communists, but, let's just say they weren't free market fanatics.

Oh and Solidarity in Poland, what about them ?

But that was long ago.

I'd say that religious sentiment is too weak in most Democracies outside of the USA for socially conservative egalitarian parties to win.

My sense, from over here, is that the Republicans are tying themselves into knots over the uhm pelvic issues.

I go with socially liberal and egalitarian.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Jun 15, 2007 10:13:36 PM

How about Hamas and Hezbollah?

Posted by: John Nanney | Jun 16, 2007 2:04:47 AM

Aren't the Republicans economic liberals -- i.e., minimal state interference in the economy? On the other hand, if you mean socially conservative and economically left wing, it's worth noting that the Canadian CCF/NDP had its roots in the progressive Christianity of the Social Gospel movement. Whether this strong religious aspect counts as social conservatism is debatable, I suppose. But this is where Canadian universal health care has its origins.

Posted by: mijnheer | Jun 16, 2007 2:53:24 AM

"Are there some strong, socially conservative, economically liberal parties out there?"

The Conservative Party in the UK. Especially under Maggie Thatcher. Privatization, breaking the unions (and some but not enough of the similar professional organisations), floating the currency etc etc.
Also banning the "promotion" of homsexuality in schools or with taxpayers money etc etc.
Economically liberal and socially conservative, as you asked for.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Jun 16, 2007 7:06:15 AM

"Are there some strong, socially conservative, economically liberal parties out there?"

No, not in the developed world. Not one.

Posted by: David Weman | Jun 16, 2007 9:26:27 AM

To be more precise, there aren't any parties that 1) are more socially conservative than the median voter, 2) more leftist than the median voter 3) is (say) one of the four largest parties.

Posted by: David Weman | Jun 16, 2007 9:30:11 AM

Except Sinn Fein, maybe. A special case. Or Fine Gael, but they're mostly just centrist and ideologically incoherent. Irish politics is weird.

Various nationalist/populist parties in central and eastern Europe (plus Le Pen) aren't at all economically right wing, without being for social justice, exactly. Maybe some of them would count.

Posted by: David Weman | Jun 16, 2007 9:41:26 AM

"The Conservative Party in the UK. Especially under Maggie Thatcher. Privatization, breaking the unions" ...Tim Worstall

See Ezra, This is why you need to be clearer on what you mean by "economically liberal". Very repressive regimes can provide food, health care, etc and safety nets should always be a means for the left, not the ends.

OTOH, when the workers have power, the safety net should follow.

And the individual independence of Welfare Capitalism just creates an isolated alienated single voter.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 16, 2007 1:18:26 PM

When Matt mentions most democracies having a two-party dynamic, I think he means that they have a two-side dynamic. Even in multiparty systems, the parties tend to coalesce into two coalitions, or two dominant parties.

The Lib Dems do manage to garner a significant portion of the vote in Britain, but neither they nor their predecessor parties has held power or served as the opposition since the 1920s, and they aren't expected to anytime soon. Ditto for the Parti Quebecois and New Democrats in Canada (though the PQ were in fact the opposition for a brief period in the 90s, when the conservatives were divided). To use his American slavery example, the Whigs needed to self-destruct before the Republicans and Know-nothings could fully emerge, and even they soon coalesced into a single party.

In coalition-based governments, we nearly always see Labor/Mapai-led coalitions of leftist/dovish parties or Likud-led conservative/hawkish parties in Israel (though there are exceptions within the coalitions). Kadima has changed that, but this is an aberration and I don't see that situation continuing beyond the next election. The same goes for Italy, India, France, and Germany, where there are either a gazillion small parties that form coalitions occupied by the usual suspects, or two strong conservative/leftist parties that ally with a much smaller party. Again, the Grand Coalition between the CDU and SDP in Germany is an aberration.

Genuine exceptions to this rule are systems with dominant parties (the LDP in Japan) and a few genuine multiparty systems (Mexico, though the PRi has been steadily declining since the late 90s).

Posted by: Craigo | Jun 16, 2007 3:43:06 PM

As for the international comparisons, I lack the data, so let's open this up: Are there some strong, socially conservative, economically liberal parties out there?

This what you're after?

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Jun 16, 2007 11:17:26 PM

Uh, Tim Worstal, I see where you're coming from, but this is the 21st Century after all (actually had to go back and correct that from "20th"). "Classical", "Manchester" or "19th Century" are the preferred qualifiers for the type of economic liberalism you're talking about.

Posted by: MikeN | Jun 17, 2007 3:44:04 AM

Should add: as I'm sure you already know (with a smilie).

Posted by: MikeN | Jun 17, 2007 3:46:19 AM

Does Fianna Fail in Ireland fit this description?

As David Weman suggested, Irish parties are really hard to fit into ideological pigeonholes for all sorts of reasons, not least their historical origins.

The blanket term 'Christian democracy' is certainly useful, though probably more in its Latin American incarnations than Europe.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 18, 2007 1:13:54 AM

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Posted by: aizheng | Jun 18, 2007 2:41:41 AM

Philosophically, there's no reason the two can't coexist. Both economic liberalism and social conservatism are about controlling people and treating them as infants. And although the Democratic elite tends to be socially liberal, the Democratic base(esp. African-Americans and blue collar workers) are much more socially conservative.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jun 19, 2007 11:09:24 AM

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