An Ideological Comparison: Democratic Socialism and Libertarianism


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Democratic Socialism and Libertarianism are two ideologies that occupy space near the edges of the ideological spectrum with legitimate representation in U.S. politics. Both ideologies recognize a certain level of individual freedom, and a role for the state while having significant disagreements on the size and qualities of that role. In fact, Democratic Socialism is a superior ideological system because of its theoretical understanding of human beings as intrinsically social and empathetic creatures, as well as its pragmatic ability to achieve a greater level of equal opportunity for the citizens of the state.

The simpler of these two ideologies, Libertarianism, is quite close to a classical version of Liberalism. The Libertarian explanation for the world in which we live is in part based on the mythical Lockean State of Nature in which individuals are isolated, rational, and self-interested creatures. Like other Liberals, Libertarians explain conditions of our world as a collection of choices and changes made by individuals, for individuals; and they see the preservation of this individualism as key to retaining our freedoms.

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John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle plays a role in evaluating social conditions and the state for most modern Libertarians. Mill’s Harm Principle essentially states that an individual is free to do as they please so as long as their actions do not harm any other individual. Modern Libertarians hold views similar to these in many ways, particularly with regard to issues relating to the regulation of markets and private property rights. In a Libertarian view, a society that allows people the greatest right to do as they please irrespective of others is the best society.

Liberalism broadly orients people to believe that people are more similar than they are different. Libertarians take this a step further by claiming that our cultural, national, or racial identities ought not be recognized by the state. This is easily seen in the Libertarian opposition to affirmative action programs aimed at increasing the equal distribution of academic opportunities among racial groups. Dr. Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and radical environmentalist, writes in his 1991 book Affirmative Action at Work: Law, Politics, and Ethics, Libertarians argue, ‘the use of racial classifications in public policies, including in affirmative action policy, pose[s] a great threat to individual liberties.”

Libertarian social programming revolves around the promotion of individual freedom. Like others within the Liberal spectrum of ideologies, Libertarians are generally against ascribed status, religious conformity, and economic privileges; however, Libertarians are unique in that they sponsor individualism even if it means the end of society as a whole. In Terrence Ball’s Libertarian vision ‘Market-topia’ society is merely a “Fictitious entity believed by collectivists to be real,” and people would be better off if we had no concept of it. Thankfully Democratic Socialism offers people a definition of society that rests more fellowship than isolation.

Like other Socialists, Democratic Socialists explain the world we live in now by portraying the world as massively interconnected by industry, as well as divided among economic lines. In general, Socialists see the people of the world divided into capitalists and workers, the former of which having a much greater level of economic opportunity and choice than the latter. Socialist often explain the actions of individuals not simply by focusing on that individual’s choice, but by examining the multitude of conditions and circumstances surrounding an individual which limit their choices and led them to their actions.

Evaluating the quality of social conditions also stems from class divisions and equality among people for Democratic Socialists. If conditions in society are strongly and distinctly divided on lines of economic or social class, that society would be considered unjust; whereas a society no divisions among people based on class would be considered ideal. Democratic Socialists differ from other types of Socialism in that they do not condone for the revolutionary transition from a class-divided system to a classless one, rather they are proponents of the idea that Socialism should be achieved through gradual, democratic, and morally humanistic change. 18th-century German philosopher Eduard Bernstein and his predecessor Immanuel Kant, both believed people were not simply to be used as tools to achieve one’s own goals, no matter who they are, “thus capitalists are immoral in using workers as human machines and communists are immoral in proposing to use them as cannon fodder in the coming revolution.

For Socialists, orienting people is again about understanding an individuals role and perspective in a society stratified by class. The choices and viewpoints an individual makes and holds in a society sharply divided along class lines are highly dependent on the class that the individual is in, and so in order for the individual to understand society as a whole, they must first understand that they belong to a class of people with unique needs and concerns not necessarily shared by the other classes. For example, one reason Socialists in America have a difficult time orienting people to understand the divide between capitalists and workers is that “Socialism is working-class movement and ideology, and surveys show that most Americans—whether blue- or white-collar—think of themselves as belonging to the “middle class.” (Ball P&D p.206)

The final component of any ideology is the programming it provides for social change. Generally, Socialism aims to bring about a society with as little class division as possible, and the individual’s role in that is entirely dependent on their orientation within a class of society. For example, wealthy business owners will have to take much different action than a poor industrial workers in order to bring about a more equal society. Democratic Socialists, however, condone working within the system for a relatively slow pace of change, and a retaining of moral responsibility. In the words of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen, that means that in our quest for justice, we must ignore superficial differences of gender, race, and religion among many others, because as individuals we have all been “effectively taught to deem [our] sentiments and actions right…perhaps the only difference is, that we were born in one country and [they] in another.”(Ball I&I p.260) Owens words are a sincere and simple expression of the Socialist ideals of fairness and equality; these words are more valuable today then perhaps ever before.

In the face of Libertarianism, social democrats believe that human beings are not atomistic isolated creatures, we are intrinsically social and entirely dependent on our cooperation and individual sacrifice, in order to create agriculture, construct cities, coalesce armies, or even form religions. To portray the Socialist view of modern society and the world in which we live in today, I refer to the observations of the 18th and early 19th-century French social thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, who appreciated the role of industry and science in the fast-industrializing world. He said that life in a fully industrialized world would be “enormously complex, depending as it did on the coordinated knowledge and skills of many different types of technicians and experts. In such a society it made no sense to speak, as the Liberals did, of “the individual”. The isolated individual is a fiction” (Ball P&D p.152). Saint-Simon’s predictions about the complexity of the industrial world proved to be true, however the modern technological world is likely more interconnected than he ever imagined. In particular with the invention of the global internet which has allowed the actions of one individual to be seen and heard by thousands of people in the world within minutes.

Libertarians, on the other hand, could not have a more different view on society with respect to the concept of the individual. Libertarians are convinced that humans are simply self-interested and atomistic, while all of recorded history indicates that people live in groups and cooperate.Libertarians vision of the individual is not without worth though, particularly with regard to the tendency for a democracy to become a tyranny of the majority. In a democracy, it is possible for a group representing the majority of a nation to vote for policies or actions which do harm to a minority or their property, and this is a legitimate concern. Libertarians share their concern for this with more moderate Liberals like John Stuart Mill, who argues that the best way to ensure against a tyranny of the majority is to educate individuals and encourage individuals to think for themselves. (Ball I&I p.67)

Secondly, I would like to discuss the sacred American ideal of ‘freedom’, and its relationship to these two ideologies. In political discourse, freedom has two main meanings; one is the positive meaning, the freedom to do something; the other is the negative meaning, the freedom from something. Libertarians, and Liberals in general, are much more concerned with the negative meaning of freedom. In Mill’s 1859 essay On Liberty, he states his view for the role of government in the lives of individuals, “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”(Ball I&I p.166). A textbook example of a state going against Mill’s ideas is the catastrophic failure that was the prohibition era in the 20th century U.S. as well as the current ‘war on drugs.’ In the U.S. and most of the world over, policies that criminalize drugs continue to represent one of the greatest sources of state violence and repression of negative freedom.

Socialists, on the other hand, are less concerned with negative freedoms than they are with the positive freedoms, freedom that “each [person] exercises through the help or security given [them] by [their] fellow-[people], and which [they] in turn help to secure for [others].”(Ball I&I p.127) The English philosopher Thomas Hill Green first said these words in his 1880 speech titled, “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract,” and by them, he meant that freedom is not only the choice of an individual to do as they please but also the freedom to feel safe in your day to day life. This idea is quite similar to the ideas of classical conservatives like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott who believed that society requires delicate balance and stability in order to stay afloat. For example, if a Libertarian capitalist were to abruptly move their factory to a new location if this would prove profitable for them, forcing all of their workers and their families to find a new source of income quickly, or risk starvation and homelessness. In a Socialist view, this is unjust and the negative freedom of the capitalist has greatly diminished the positive freedoms of the workers.

Lastly, I would like to focus on the distance between these two ideologies in terms of their view of “free markets” and economic policy in society. Libertarians condone for complete abandonment of all government regulation on industry, as well as the abolition of taxation for in the words of American Liberal philosopher Robert Nozick, “The policy of using taxation to take money from some people for the benefit of others, for instance, is “on par with forced labor.”(Ball I&I p.90) Libertarians believe that unregulated markets are the best way to ensure equality for they allow people the greatest level of choice in life, and some like Terrence Ball go as far to say that justice should be defined as “Noninterference in market transactions; actions, arrangements and/or decisions conducive to the functioning of free markets.” And injustice inversely defined as “Interference with and/or regulation of market transactions.”(Ball I&I p.178) Most reasonable people would agree that there are some things that there should be some regulations on industry, but Libertarian fundamentalist and infamous Chicago School Economist Milton Friedman does not see it that way. Freidman wrote in his 1980 book Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, the “free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people. That’s the secret of the enormous improvements in the conditions of the working person over the past two centuries.”(Edsall) While it is true that capitalism and markets have served a purpose over the course of history, the image brought to us in Terence Ball’s modern vision of a “Market-topia” shows us a hellish world in which the market has free reign, where “organ brokers walk the halls of the private hospitals, keeping close watch on the dying,” “blackmail is regarded as a free-market transaction,” and children haggle with their mothers over the price of a kiss. (Ball I&I 178-180)

For Social Democrats, the ethics and validity of a free-market economy are ripe for criticism. The ‘enormous improvements’ in working people’s lives came only after the government regulated extremely dangerous factory working conditions, outlawed child labor, and gave workers the right to organize among other things. Before these government regulations, children and adults alike worked countless hours in around deadly machinery and were reduced to slave-like working conditions. That is why for Social Democrats, no commodity needs regulation more than Labor, that is the labor sold by individuals in exchange for a wage. The labor that is the bedrock of industry and to which all of the productive capacity the world harnesses is owed. To better explain the unique need for labor regulation, I refer again to the articulate observations of Thomas Hill Green, “Labor, the economist tells us, is a commodity which attaches in a peculiar manner to the person of man. Hence restrictions may need to be placed on the sale of this commodity which would be unnecessary in other cases, in order to prevent labor from being sold under conditions which make it impossible for the person selling it ever to become a free contributor to social good in any form.”(Ball I&I p.128) Conditions like these existed in many industries at the turn of the 19th century and continue to exist in many parts of the world that do not have strict standards for workplace safety. We only have our government regulations to thank for the protection of people at their workplaces.

Other industries or sectors of society that Democratic Socialists nearly all agree need to be protected from capitalist enterprise or provided by the government include general infrastructure: sewer systems, clean water, roads, fuel and energy; education, healthcare, environmental protection, senior welfare, maternity care, mental health, the punitive system and prisons, and others. As T.H. Green puts it, “no body of men should in the long run be able to strengthen itself at the cost of others weakness.” (Ball I&I p.128) This means that privately industries like health care insurance, which profit off of the weakness, ill health, and misfortune of people are immoral and wrong in a Socialist view. Similarly, the prison system, if allowed to be privately run provides means for a group of capitalists to profit off of people being imprisoned, incentivizing the implementation of harsh penalties and cruel punishments on the public. In a Democratic Socialist view, this is also immoral, and inadmissible.

All the industries or services aforementioned are, in a Socialists view, better off controlled by the bureaucratic processes of government than they are being left to the whims of the capitalist free-market because the lives of the people depend greatly on these goods and services, and their consistency of cost and supply are deterministic to the future of the lives of individual people as well as the nation as a whole.  

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