John McAndrew

On Conservative Values: Fiscal Conservatism

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Let’s begin with fiscal conservatism, then. It begins with integrity. You do excellent work. Not good work: excellent work. You know that your reputation, livelihood and security depend on the work you do. You take pride in the quality of your work: what you do and how you do it. You mind the details. You build good relationships, preferably with others who do excellent work. Where that is not possible – because you know the world is not Utopia and is made of all kinds of people with different priorities and abilities – you make sure those relationships do not imperil your work or reputation.

Your goal in doing good work is not early retirement. Why would you live to stop doing something that you love doing, are good at doing and that meets a need? Good work is a very good answer to the question of the meaning of life. It is part of what is meant by a good life. If your work is so onerous that you can’t wait to stop, why are you doing it? Good work is its own reward. You preserve capital: your energies are finite, too.

Conserving your capital means conserving your money, your employees, your supplies, your time and your reputation. You are a grown up: you know life will challenge you. Obviously, even with all precautions taken, you can still lose your capital, but you don’t risk it intentionally or capriciously. Victims of tsunamis and earthquakes and thieves may have been fiscal conservatives, but life just isn’t fair. Living is risky enough – which is exactly why you don’t risk your capital, why you don’t live on credit. You save for rainy days because, sometimes, it floods. You take care of your employees and your customers if the former are doing good work and the latter pay their bills because you have no business without them. You set priorities. You fix problems, you don’t deny them or cover them up. Because you mind the details, you know where you can afford to be flexible: you know the potential downside. Perfect storms happen, but you don’t sail into questionable weather with no bilge pump, a radio that’s shorting out and a rookie crew.

The concept of “Too Big to Fail” is as antithetical to this – or, I would say, any – understanding of conservatism as it can be. The very idea of pumping more money into a bad investment, or into a company or person who has proven to be untrustworthy, is ludicrous from a conservative point of view. Conservatives don’t put that many eggs into one basket to begin with. Conservatism assumes that we conserve those resources on which our lives and livelihoods depend; they are finite and the world makes us no guarantees. If you have children, they will need them, too; conservatives do not leave their families in the lurch. Fiscal conservatives know the value of a worthy struggle: they may not give their children a free pass, but they won’t handicap them by using, much less wasting, what their children will need to make a go in a difficult world.

The same principle makes monopolies as anathema to fiscal conservatives as a table with one leg. There may be arguments to be made for one company taking over another, but there are limits. There is stability in diversity. There are no synergies in monopolies; no serendipitous cross-fertilizations can occur in monocultures.

Gratuitous spending is no better. It’s waste, too. If there is anything more antithetical to conservatism than waste . . . I’ll get around to it. Waste, inefficiency and disposability are all predicated on the assumption that There Will Always Be Enough. Or, perhaps, on its corollary, that We Will Always Be On Top. If conservatism is, at its foundation, the principle Thou Shalt Not Squander, then waste, inefficiency and disposability are not conservative values. In fact, they aren’t values at all: they are sloppiness and short cuts in business suits.

Conservatives don’t buy cheap crap. They don’t make it or sell it because they have pride. They don’t buy it because it doesn’t work, it wears out too soon, it’s a bad use of our limited resources, and it supports those doing mediocre work at the expense of those who deserve our business – Any Questions? Every basic tool should be built to last the better part of a lifetime. Planned obsolescence is just Orwellian double speak for shoddy workmanship. It sure as hell isn’t conservative. It isn’t liberal, either. It’s bad business. Making something designed to fail lacks integrity.

Conservatism does not write blank checks, so it cannot be considered either pro-business or anti-business. It knows that business can be done well or poorly. It is pro-good business. It demands that respect and patronage be earned.

Fiscal conservatives invest first, and then spend. Investment is different from speculation. Speculation looks for a quick return on money in the next quarter, if not in the next hour. Investment stakes a part of our livelihood on our values. It provides support to a long-term venture that needs it to thrive. Short-term successes of others based on shady or shoddy practices do not distract conservatives. Investment for the long term is a stabilizing influence on an economy. Fiscal conservatives know to avoid anything that reeks of get-rich-quick schemes. They deride those who take risks to make themselves rich quickly, instead of making provision for their values – and their children – for the long haul.

Investing contrasts with spending money on industries and companies that don’t need it, that are not competitive, and that are not investing in their own R&D. That is not conservative, it’s preservative: it maintains something in a state it was in while everything around it changes. Like putting something in formaldehyde: it’s no longer alive, but it looks pretty much like it did when we first put it in there. Think of the American auto and energy industries. Think of any company or industry that has a big lobbying presence in Washington. The ownership of Washington by big business has been bad for government, but arguably not as bad as it has been for business.

It occurs to me that there is another, unrelated school of thought that shares many of the principles of fiscal conservatism as I have described it. It is called Permaculture.

Permaculture is a design concept with broad applications that is best known and most widely applied to gardening and agricultural practices. In a nutshell, what brings it to mind is Permaculture’s insistence that, if you frontload your project with a lot of work in its early stages, and mind the inflow and outflow of resources all along the way, you can build a system that, barring disasters, will take care of you for the long term with a gradually declining need for long hours of work. In Permaculture, waste is defined as being a resource in the wrong place at the wrong time. It might also be described as a resource as viewed by someone without sufficient imagination to recognize its usefulness. Permaculture is also all about preserving the energy within a system for as long as possible, encouraging synergies, and not emptying the system of the resources that make it run in the first place. It saves seeds: very conservative.

Here are the principles of fiscal conservatism as I see them:

  1. The World is Risky: Don’t Make it Riskier.
  2. Thou Shalt Not Squander.
  3. Do Good Work.
  4. Reward Good Work.
  5. Invest First.
  6. Do Not Tolerate Waste.
  7. Save Your Seeds.

I contend that these principles derive from the meaning of the words Fiscal Conservatism. Insofar as policies do not reflect these principles, I don’t see how, absent Orwellian doublespeak, they can have any meaningful relationship with the term.

I further contend that policies derived from these principles are needed now, are timeless, and the lack of any support for them from either of America’s main political parties is what has landed us in the crisis we still have not acknowledged (lip service doesn’t count), much less addressed.


  1. libcon [lib’-kahn] n. a leftist who seeks to conserve what “conservatives” desire to destroy, to wit: social security, funded public education, the environment, scientific objectivity, social welfare, equal rights for women, the Constitution of the United States, strategic alliances, the minimum wage, gun control, and child labor laws. 2. any such person attacked on Fox News. 3. [informal] a dangerous radical.
    -Charlie Baxter
    “The Future Dictionary of America”

    This faux dictionary definition always gives me a laugh, despite its limitations. One thing I appreciate about your post (a thing that the libcon definition falls short of achieving) is that you write about the value of creating fiscal security without relying too heavily on liberal/conservative political tropes. I’m of the bleeding heart liberal variety, but I still think the idea that democrats and republicans are polar opposites is a bogus strategy for media revenue. I love that this post begins to define a new culture in which fiscal values are clarified; you make a call for defining what is acceptable fiscal practice before we get caught up in defining ourselves. Now, that’s an awesome definition!

    I enjoy the conversation about the balance we must find between taking risks and conserving our resources. The risks we take to improve our lives and the lives of others are often good investments. In my personal life, I’m pleased with the results of borrowing and spending large quantities of money on education, getting (my wife) pregnant, slowly making my home self-sustaining, and helping my friends when I’ve been able.

    Have you read “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Patel? It’s the best book I’ve read in the past couple of years. (I’m currently working on educating myself about the ways that health insurance companies/personal injury insurance carriers are killing us. And talk about a financial toilet. Becoming a medical biller–along with spending a month in the hospital a few years back–have been quite an education. The idea of changing a dysfunctional system feels much more hopeful than forever working within this system. However, the reading itself has been infuriating, and Patel’s blend of elucidating the current reality and then outlining a plan for positive change is sorely missed.)

  2. Fiscal liberalism = fiscal conservatism….with other people’s money! 🙂

  3. Thanks, Lauren, for both comment and thought-provoking questions. (You may regret how much thought you provoked.)

    I am reluctant to try to define fiscal liberalism, except to say that I would not define it as the opposite of what I have described as fiscal conservatism, any more than liberalism is the opposite of conservatism. I agree that neither conservative nor liberal are inherently bad. Or good. I don’t so much want to set the two ideas up as a binary pair or as polar opposites, so much as I want to foster, among a readership that consists mostly of liberals, a new way of looking at old terms that tend to evoke well-rehearsed adverse reactions. We hear the term “fiscal conservatism” and think of giving big business free reign; of deregulation of those with the most fiscal power; of cutting spending on social programs and increasing spending on things that blow up. Yet none of those associations derive from the meaning of the words themselves, but from the common usage. Language evolves, and meanings of words change. But there are limits. If you get to the point where you use the word “cat” for something that barks or quacks, I think a case can be made for revisiting the traditional meaning of the word to restore an accurate usage. I contend that my definition is akin to insisting that, if we are to use the word “cat,” it must be applied to something that purrs. There are other words that can be used to describe barkers and quackers. (You can call Obama a socialist, or Bush a Nazi, too. But not if you want to use the words in their original, accurate senses.)

    As for fiscal conservatism and risk-taking of the sort in which we are engaged, I would have to say that such risks may be absolutely antithetical to fiscal conservatism. A fiscal conservative fundamentalist might never leave even a bad job if they had no savings on which to rely. On the other hand, there is nothing hypocritical or inconsistent about a fiscal conservative weighing their options and making a move for a better quality of life, even if it means making less money, so long as one does not become dependent on someone else for one’s livelihood. I don’t think that being a fiscal conservative implies that the size of one’s bank account trumps all other considerations.

    Insofar as I discussed anything that competes with finances for attention, I was making the boundaries of the term “fiscal conservatism” perhaps a bit more permeable than should be permitted. (Unrehabilitated liberal: always bending the rules!) There are times, usually crises, when one’s fiscal well-being must take a back seat to other considerations.

    On a macro level, a fiscal conservative may readily agree to go into debt to fight something like the Nazis – but they would have a sense of all their resources, fiscal and non-fiscal, and what the risks are of going into debt to fight versus preserving capital and letting Nazis run amok. A fiscal conservative may choose to go into debt, but it would be literally a question of life-and-death that would make them do so.

    On a micro scale, when we begin to talk about time and quality of life, we enter a place where we have to decide whether fiscal responsibility may, in fact, impede our responsibility to other values. Such moments are appropriately portrayed in myth and literature as dangerous and irresponsible breaks with the way things are, and there are often, if not always, prices to be paid. Such moments are, really, the antithesis of fiscal conservatism, if not of any kind of conservatism. Think of a musician who leaves Bach behind to perform jazz, or a rock-and-roller who leaves celebrity behind to compose symphonies; or the heir to an ice cream empire who leaves it all behind because he knows, and cannot live with, the health consequences. On a cosmic scale, it is like Siddhartha leaving the palace, or Francis of Assissi stripping naked in the square. (Of course, these days, starting a new religion is a viable business model. Those poor renunciates had no idea how much money could be made from properly-marketed sacrifices.) Such risks, whether restricted to a particular life or far-reaching in their consequences (and who can know in the moment?), are inherently non-conservative. But that doesn’t make them bad. 😉

  4. first, very thoughtful and well constructed post.

    second, two questions:
    – given this definition of fiscal conservativism, how would you define fiscal liberalism without equating it to purely bad business as you have described above? because my thought is that neither conservative or liberal is inherently bad and that either could be used for good or evil.
    – how would you talk about the decisions we have both recently made in our lives to take huge risks to improve our quality of life? you mentioned briefly that any work that isn’t work you love isn’t worth doing, but i am currently risking all of my capital (at least the monetary kind) to redirect my life in a way that is more in line with the kind of life i want to live but it is definitely not conservative…

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