Social Democracy v. Socialism


We heard some Conservative Americans on the radio complaining about the rise of socialism. To them “socialism” is a very dirty word. It is about on par with child molester. I really think the issue of socialism will be very important in the next Presidential and Congressional elections.I hope so.  Many Conservatives think the Democrats are handing them the next election because they are going so radical. Is that true?

I know Trump has already been active in referring to the Democrats as leftists, or, even worse, radical socialists. They point in particular to Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and worst of all–the Green New Deal. Talk about a bevy of boogey men. Republicans think they are being handed the next election on a platter. As a result I think it is a good idea for us to be clear about what a socialist is and is not.

What is a socialist?  This is not as clearly defined as one might like. When I went to university we defined a socialist as a person who believed that the means of production should be owned by public. That does not mean there should be no private property, but I still think it goes too far.  I thought the definition had changed since then, but I have not found a better one. According to this definition, a socialist believes the infrastructure of production–such as factories, businesses, and the like should be socially owned, not privately owned.  In this sense of the word I have never been a socialist. Even in the days of my misspent youth.

I have been more attracted to the term “social democrat.” I would say that a social democrat is one who believes that the public should have significant control (not ownership) of the important private property, such as the means of production, but including other things–that can have a substantial impact on society.  Social democrats don’t want to own all these things. But they do want society to have social control exercised in a democratic manner over the vital instruments of social influence. This includes the means of production but many other things as well. “Democratic” means are important to distinguish Social Democrats from Communists. Communists clearly demonstrated how things go awry when democratic means are abandoned. Without democracy the apparatchiks are as bad as the capitalists.That control must be used for significant social goods, such as greater equality (not absolute equality), greater freedom, and greater fraternity. These are really the goals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Some aspects will have to be controlled fairly tightly. Others hardly at all. The amount of control will vary greatly depending on how influential the instruments are and how pernicious their effects.

Social democrats don’t have a strict ideological position on what needs to be socially controlled and what not. As a result social democrats don’t have a principle such as ‘that government is best which governs the least’—the principle of libertarians and neoliberals.  Nor do Social Democrats believe by rote that people should be allowed to do anything provided it does not harm other people–classic liberalism. The people will democratically decide from time to time, how much control to exercise in particular circumstances and this can always be debated freely in each case under consideration. Social Democrats, unlike Socialists, Communists, or neo-conservatives are not governed by rigid ideology but by rational decision making on a case by case basis based on evidence, data, and careful thinking.

Social Democrats will not hesitate to use government as the means to their social democratic ends. Social Democrats do their best to keep out bias in decision-making. Social Democrats don’t have a recipe; they have a technique–i.e. reasoning based on the best evidence, analysis, and logical reasoning. These goals are humble and modest. That is one of the reasons I like them. Those are some of the reasons I call myself a social democrat.

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