Catalyst | 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 here. First, there is a certain amount of 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, and largely limits 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 the role for markets, 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 need safe-guarding. They believe that for social harmony, a certain amount of continuity needs to be maintained with the glues 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 injustice for the cause of greater social harmony, there is certainly a space that social conservatives occupy in any healthy democracy.

In most rich nations, there are strong political parties which have 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, with many of them in power right now. 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 clearly 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 several 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 path 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 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.