“I’m socially liberal but economically conservative” is a cliché that gets passed around by people who want to seem as having a reasoned stance on how to run the United States. Hell, I’m sure I said it way more than once while I was taking intro political science and economics courses during my undergrad. And one of the greatest tweets of all time magnificently skewered the conception more succinctly than I ever could.
hmm well I'd say I'm fiscally conservative but socially very liberal. the problems are bad but their causes...their causes are very good— Dollars Horton (@crushingbort) May 5, 2014
But, unfortunately, this neat little turn of phrase is not just a phrase for people to bandy about when they want to seem smart. It’s the way that the United States has been run for the last 8 years, and if Hillary doesn’t fuck this up, at least four more. Washington has been fairly “socially liberal” these last eight years: legalizing gay marriage, loosening restrictions on medical marijuana, and ending federal private prisons, while maintaining more than a few “fiscally conservative” policies: reduced corporate tax rates, non-single payer healthcare, not raising the Federal Interest Rate, and a bare minimum of banking regulations after the fallout of the recession. The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t work, or more specifically, economic justice and social justice are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate the two. To be truly socially liberal, that is, to work towards the dismantling of systemic oppression, one must also be fiscally liberal, i.e. promoting a more equitable economic system based on people’s needs. The same is true in reverse. One cannot operate without the other.
Before I go any further it would be helpful to explain what I mean by both social justice and economic justice. With these two terms I am trying to capture the idea that humans, just because they are humans, deserve to live in a world/system of government that does not just let them live a life free from oppression but actively works to give them a high standard of living, no matter their position in the world. These two ideas, freedom from oppression and a high standard of living are often wrongly separated from each other as separate goals that can be reached separately from one another.
Social justice cannot exist without a guarantee of even a modicum of economic security. This can be seen throughout history. The immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when the Civil Rights Amendments were passed, supposedly guaranteeing suffrage, citizenship, and all it’s inherent rights to African-American men, looks like a great advance forward for human rights in the United States. But there was no economic justice attached to those de jure reforms, and instead of ushering in a new era of social justice in the United States, sharecropping and Jim Crow came. And while it would be foolish to assume that this was entirely due to economic factors, the lack of viable access to capital or land, helped torpedo whatever changes to the Constitution had been made.
This argument does not only exist in the negative either. The effects of what viable social and economic reforms look like are evident in the movement for fair housing. When Chicago was first starting its housing reform, the program was based around providing affordable housing to everyone in the African-American community who needed it. Housing developments were built and used not just as holding pens for the poor, as we see in the much more destructive housing project movement, but as communities that were available to all but the highest levels of society. Middle class working families lived side-by-side with poorer families and built vibrant communities. Economic justice and social justice were placed hand-in-hand, and it succeeded; but when the “fiscal conservatives” took over and removed the economic justice side of the equation to just focus on “social justice” the whole system collapsed and was ruined.
When looking at attempts to create a more economically just U.S., the lack of effect of reforms without a social aspect is even more apparent. History, once again, gives examples of how a lack of tying racial and economic reforms stalled any real progress. During the New Deal, many economic reforms were introduced to support the middle class and create economic stability and a support structure for the majority of Americans. This however, was not tied to any social reforms. FDR refused to sign anti-lynching or civil rights legislation and most people of color were left out of any economic reforms that happened, meaning that true reform had not happened.
All of this has currently come to a head in our current election. Neither candidate has espoused any sort of platform that would incorporate economic and social justice. Trump, of course throws the idea of racial justice out the window, but Clinton has embraced many social reforms. It is on the economic side where she falls apart, by espousing modern neoliberal economic policies. These policies, a continuation of Obama’s platform, have hollowed out the middle class, created a racialized wealth gap, and weakened the power of organized labor, all in the name of increasing the economic pie. Neoliberals argue that if the “Economic pie” grows large enough everyone will get a slice thereby making it easier to live in the US. However, as becomes more obvious every day, everyone is not benefiting from the growth of the American pie. Take a look at the list of billionaires/millionaires in the U.S.; it is extremely white and only male dominated. People struggle to survive on minimum wage. People have to work two to three jobs just to live. This is because there are no social justice guarantees in the prevailing economic policy of the U.S. An economic system that does not guarantee the safety of everyone in it will always find a group to oppress. Until “growing the pie” becomes “splitting the pie so everyone gets what they need,” there can be no social or economic justice in the U.S.; so Neither Trump nor Hillary has truly created an opportunity for justice.
The solution to creating a world where everyone is free from oppression and has the right to a high standard of living is not to approach it from one side or the other but to tackle both as if they were inseparable. So beware groups/politicians that attempt to just make the 1% look more like the 99%. It won’t be economic or social justice until there is no 1%. The same goes the other way, movements that promote only economic change but not social change cannot be effective in the long run.