09/30/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Mix-and-Match Politics Plague College Conversations

There are places where I avoid talking about politics: first dates, holiday visits with my Bill O'Reilly-loving grandmother, job interviews, etc.; but there are also places where I love to talk about politics. College is one of those places. College campuses are full of intelligent, educated young adults, many of whom have formed their political opinions independently of their parents and other childhood influences. Unfortunately, there is one political standpoint, popular among college students, that is illegitimated by its self-contradiction.

Enter the "social liberal but fiscal conservative (SLFC)." She's most likely a young voter who misunderstands what "social" means. The SLFC tells me that she is "economically conservative, but totally okay with gay people getting married," as if gay marriage is the only social issue that matters. Her misunderstanding of what makes a social issue is revealed when I ask, "Well what about welfare, homelessness and the minimum wage?" and SLFC replies with a long lament of the death of the American work ethic.

To be "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" is to deny that economics is, by definition, a social science, and also that today's social problems are based on money and its relation to political power. To cite a decline in work ethic as the reason for welfare's existence reveals the SLFC's misunderstanding of how social, political and economic systems function in a manner that makes them dependent upon one another.

The SLFC is proud that many states have legalized gay marriage, but she maintains that the American Dream is alive and well, and therefore, social programs like welfare and Medicaid should be halted in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. She fails to realize that sustainable equality for the minority groups she holds dear, and for herself as a woman, will be realized with the help of government spending on social programs and the social safety net.

Without a fiscally liberal outlook, social equality cannot be advanced. Government-funded social programs are essential to diminishing inequality, and these programs cannot be funded if corporations and the wealthy continue to receive tax cuts. Social programs allow access to health care, contraception and temporary benefits for those who do not reap profit from the current system in the way that the SLFC's family does. Public schools, arguably one of the most important tools for social change, rely on fiscal liberalism to increase future prospects for all students. The SLFC herself fails to understand that structural and institutional inequalities bar people from being as successful as her own family is, regardless of how hard they work.

Most SLFCs have not even done enough research to know that their particular political ideology has a more concise name -- libertarianism. They believe that they are diverging from their parents' conservative social views by supporting the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, but their so-called "liberal" ideology is circumscribed by their unwillingness to accept the necessity and legitimacy of government-funded social programs.

Though they say that they stand with the solid liberals on social issues, SLFCs, sometimes called the Next Generation Left, are toxic to the true liberal philosophy. While the SLFC standpoint might help elect more liberal leaders, these leaders will balk when faced with the reality that social responsibility costs money that the wealthy are unwilling to spend.

The SLFC maintains that her standpoint is a legitimate and viable political ideology without understanding what it means to be "socially liberal." In the end, the "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" outlook is a cop out designed to make one's political views sound more attractive. Juxtaposing "social" liberalism with fiscal conservatism creates a myth of moderation, which serves not to alienate either political camp.

The SLFC is an all-too-common species among college students, and she is deliberately difficult to oppose. Conservatives agree with her economic philosophy, and liberals' qualms are often satisfied by her support of gay marriage and of decriminalization of marijuana. But these beliefs do not a liberal make. The "social liberal but fiscal conservative" misses the point of liberalism by refusing to acknowledge the role of economics in social problems. Like Bill O'Reilly and my grandmother, the SLFC is a conservative, regardless of how adamantly she denies it.