Sunday, February 10, 2008

I like Dana, but here's why I won't be a Social Democrat

One of the less enticing characteristics of the Delaware blogosphere is the vituperative tendency of posters (anonymous and otherwise) to attack those they disagree with by parodying their political positions. Sometimes it's funny in a biting, over-the-top way, but it rarely moves the argument forward.

I'm a Libertarian, and I expect to have to make my arguments stand or fall on their own merits, not the flawed perceptions of a Libertarian point of view that other people have. So it's always annoying when somebody bases his or her argument on, "well, those fringe Libertarians who believe in letting people starve are at it again...."

All of which brings me to Dana Garrett and social democracy. Dana pulls the trigger as fast as anybody, and he doesn't equivocate about his beliefs, your beliefs, or my beliefs. And, as a result, he gets portrayed as either a Marxist, a Collectivist, or a Socialist no matter how much he sputters that what he is closest to being is a Social Democrat (which in this country is often most closely described by the term Progressive).

But where I think Dana makes his biggest error is that he assumes that when he says Social Democrat that this term actually means something to his rhetorical opponents. What I've come to realize is that it doesn't. In the general back and forth of the Delaware Blogosphere, most of the people writing have no intellectual conception of the difference between a Social Democrat and Karl Marx himself.

And I realized that I was a little hazy on the precise meaning of the term myself. I could just ask Dana, but that of course would be too easy, and besides--as I have differences with classic purist Libertarianism I am sure he has personal differences on some levels with abstract social democracy. So I looked around, and as much as I hate to admit it, the most succinct and apparently accurate definition of Social Democracy is found on Wikipedia (but get there today in case the article changes):

In general, contemporary social democrats support:

A mixed economy consisting mainly of private enterprise, but with government owned or subsidized programs of education, healthcare, child care and related services for all citizens.

Government bodies that regulate private enterprise in the interests of workers, consumers and fair competition.

Advocacy of fair trade over free trade.

An extensive system of social security (although usually not to the extent advocated by democratic socialists or other socialist groups), with the stated goal of counteracting the effects of poverty and insuring the citizens against loss of income following illness, unemployment or retirement.

Moderate to high levels of taxation (through a value-added and/or progressive taxation system) to fund government expenditure.

Social democrats also tend to support:

Environmental protection laws (although not always to the extent advocated by Greens), such as combating global warming and increasing alternative energy funding.

Support for immigration and multiculturalism.

A secular and progressive social policy, although this varies markedly in degree. Most social democrats support gay marriage and abortion rights.

A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights and where possible, effective multilateralism.

As well as human rights, social democrats also support social rights, civil rights and civil liberties.


The political philosophy is generally seen as emerging thus:

Social democracy is a political ideology that emerged in the late 19th century out of the socialist movement. Modern social democracy is unlike socialism in the traditional sense which aims to end the predominance of the capitalist system, or in the Marxist sense which aims to replace it entirely; instead, social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of state sponsored programs and organizations which work to ameliorate or remove injustices purportedly inflicted by the capitalist market system. The term itself is also used to refer to the particular kind of society that social democrats advocate....

One way to delineate between social democratic parties (or movements) and democratic socialist ones, would be to think of social democracy as moving left from capitalism and democratic socialism as moving right from Marxism: in other words, a mainstream leftist party in a state with a market economy and a mostly middle class voting base might be described as a social democratic party, while a party with a more radical agenda and an intellectual or working class voting base that has a history of involvement with further left movements might be described as a democratic socialist party.


I think, if I am correct, that this is also close to what has sometimes been called "welfare state capitalism."

Put in more Libertarian language, the argument would be that unfettered capitalism creates such societally harmful externalities that an external government entity must regulate them for the common good. The free market, in this model, pursues profit rather than social justice, and the worship of property rights is harmful to the civil rights of workers and minorities.

Assuming that I am correct in this analysis (and, oh, won't Dana let me know if I'm not), then my initial pragmatic Libertarian response begins thus:

1) "A mixed economy consisting mainly of private enterprise, but with government owned or subsidized programs of education, healthcare, child care and related services for all citizens." The first problem for me is that this is not really a "mixed economy," but capitalism and the free market shoe-horned into the edges of a series of government monopolies. When you put together all of the Progressive proposals for government-guaranteed services they come very close to absorbing as much as (if not more than) half the capital resources of society. Like the US Post Office or Canadian single-payer health care, private competition with the government monopoly is either not allowed or strictly regulated in favor of the government system. Moreover, social democracy pre-supposes that the argument is over regarding whether or not the government should guarantee these services to all people.

Even where, such as in the case of universal public education, we have a true mixed system, most Progressive or Social Democrat advocates want a far greater, more prescriptive role for the Federal government than currently exists. This appears typical of many such arguments, which often means in truth that they only really trust the State (as opposed to "the states") to have both the power and moral legitimacy to oversee such programs.

2) "Government bodies that regulate private enterprise in the interests of workers, consumers and fair competition." My difference of opinion here is with the extent of regulation and the definition of the "interests" that are at issue. What constitutes "fair competition" and does the government get to define it? If so, what checks exist to prevent an authoritarian government taken hostage by one group of special interests "Legislating" restrictions so draconian that they throttle economic activity.

3) "Advocacy of fair trade over free trade." Both terms are gross oversimplifications based on ideological perspectives rather than serious economics.

4) "An extensive system of social security (although usually not to the extent advocated by democratic socialists or other socialist groups), with the stated goal of counteracting the effects of poverty and insuring the citizens against loss of income following illness, unemployment or retirement." This in America has often been referred to as "the safety net." Social Democrats tend to see the safety net as a fundamental right; one of the things that most truly bothers me about this ideology is that it therefore redefines right as something not inherent to the human being that government can't remove, but as a collectivist responsibility/guarantee of what the government will transfer property from some citizens to others. How bizarre can this process get? Just think about the fact that the FCC has mandated the change to HD TV transmission in 2009 and is now sending people vouchers (paid for with my tax dollars) to subsidize them in making the changeover. When the hell did TV reception become a government guaranteed right?

Thus government becomes at once the definer, granter, and guarantor of all human rights. That scares the hell out of me, as well as reversing the idea that citizens hold the sovereignty as an inherent right and only delegate portions to the government.

5) "Moderate to high levels of taxation (through a value-added and/or progressive taxation system) to fund government expenditure." Social Democrats and Progressives tend to see the power to tax as the power to do good. I tend to agree with classical theorists that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

The modern reality is that the US is already in the moderate level of taxation to which the quotation refers, while much of the rest of the industrialized world (Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and Japan) is very much in the high taxation level already, and starting to show the strain. Even the European Central Bank has now reached the point of arguing that European welfare-state capitalism levels are beginning to strangle those economies.

6) This has not been a thorough response to social democracy or progressivism--more like general top-of-the-head thoughts that come to mind as I read the definitions. The entirety of this blog more accurately represents my personal rejection of unmitigated welfare-state capitalism.

But it is critically important to our democracy that we argue with the actual positions of our political opponents rather than lampooning them for immediate, salacious crowd appeal. That's why, in this post, I spent far more time defining social democracy that I did arguing with it.

2 comments:

Dana Garrett said...

Bravo! You got it. That's what I believe mostly. I have just a few quibbles here & there, but you are so much on target that to mention them would be to cavil.

Here's is one thing that is a bit different about me. You write:

"This appears typical of many such arguments, which often means in truth that they only really trust the State (as opposed to "the states") to have both the power and moral legitimacy to oversee such programs."

The part about the "the State (as opposed to "the states")" is where I can often differ from other Social Dems. I prefer local control when feasible and if actualized.

Also, we social dems differ from liberals in that we try to control for the harm caused by some capitalist enterprises up front through regulation; whereas liberals tends to deal with the consequences of the harm through social programs. I'm not against social programs obviously, but I'd rather reduce their necessity and extent through regulation.

Also, if a capitalist enterprise isn't harming others, then I think it ought to be left alone. And I think there are some things the private sector will always do better than the government and visa versa. To me determining which is which involves many considerations but the chief considerations is entirely pragmatic.

If you could send me to something that explains pragmatic libertarianism I'd appreciate it. I had never heard of it before until you mentioned it.

Steve Newton said...

I did more of that early on, probably before you were reading here.

Try these

http://delawarelibertarian.blogspot.com/2007/12/darwins-market-realistic-libertarianism.html

http://delawarelibertarian.blogspot.com/2007/12/libertarian-fringe.html

These two capture some of it, although my views are always modifying (that used to be called learning from experience before politicians decided to label it waffling).

As my mother always told me: Absolute consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.