What does it mean to be “conservative,” or for that matter, “right-wing”?

Fascism, which we chatted about yesterday, is popularly understood as an extreme right-wing ideology, but this only makes sense if you define “right-wing” strictly as militaristic and/or nationalist.  While it’s true that you don’t find many hippies on the right, this is nevertheless an extremely narrow definition of “right-wing,” let alone “conservative,” because it doesn’t even touch on economic issues, and how can you discuss politics without discussing economic issues?

Economically speaking, fascism has more in common with socialism than laissez-faire capitalism.  It allows for private enterprise, but only with strong government intervention.  A fascist would not recommend leaving anything to the market because the market might decide something contrary to the state’s goals.    In a fascist system, only large corporations can prosper because they’re the only ones who can afford all the government regulation.  Actually, corporations will volunteer to write the regulations that destroy their competition.  (It’s not a coincidence that Wal-Mart came out in support of the Democrats’ health care legislation last summer.)  With the corporations and government in cahoots, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

But wait a minute, isn’t it conservatives that like big business and like to be in cahoots with corporations and dole out the corporate welfare and all that?  Well, Republicans are certainly in cahoots with corporations as much as Democrats are, but that’s because Republicans and Democrats have strong corporatist tendencies.  Republicans generally think they’re trying to encourage prosperity, and Democrats generally think they’re trying to protect consumers, but they’re all playing the government intervention game.  Corporations being in cahoots with government isn’t a fiscally libertarian ideal, to say the least.  So what does that make a fiscal libertarian?

Fiscal libertarianism is usually assigned to the right-wing of the political spectrum.  It makes sense, because it is so heartless.  But it is certainly not fascist.  Libertarians are too selfish to be fascist.  So are fiscal libertarians still right-wing?  Are they more or less right-wing than fascists?  It’s impossible to answer that question because we are using two unrelated definitions of “right-wing” for each group.

What would you call a person with extreme libertarian views on fiscal matters, someone who believed in minimal government regulation, minimal taxation, minimal government services?  Someone who wanted to abolish the minimum wage and the Department of Education (not to mention the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and as long as we’re at it, Transportation)?  You would probably say that person was right-wing because in America we identify libertarian economic policy as right-wing.  What would this person need to do to become a fascist?  Well, he would have to have to become strongly nationalist and advocate a strong military, but he’d also have to do a 180 on his economic philosophy because that free-market crap ain’t gonna fly in fascist America.  Sorry, Steve Forbes!

One might argue that because the distinguishing aspects of fascism that people identify most readily with fascism are militarism and nationalism, that’s all that should really count when you’re comparing people to fascists–that the socialist/progressive aspect is just a minor, inconsequential detail.  But that misses the point of how fascists became totalitarians.  It is hard for a government to be totalitarian unless it is up in everyone’s business, and it is hard to be up in everyone’s business if you take a laissez-faire approach to private enterprise and especially hard if you advocate (and God forbid, achieve) limited government.  The problem with limited government is that it can only do so much.  That is precisely what progressives hate about limited government; it does too little.  (And too often that little bit involves war, something libertarians may argue about amongst themselves in specific instances but generally agree is appropriate work for government rather than the free market.)   So is limited government a right-wing idea?  It’s certainly not a left-wing idea.  But it’s not an idea that exists peacefully with authoritarianism, either.  So we have a semantic dilemma.

Or some of us do.  Most of you don’t care.

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