Our policy opinions are simply a mixture of our values and our interpretations of empirical research. If two people have different values they can be looking at the exact same research and draw wildly different conclusions. For example if a piece of research shows that prosecuting shoplifting causes more harm than good, a Kantian may shrug this off and say that stealing is always bad, while a utilitarian may suggest that we reduce our policing of shoplifting.
So before we enter a policy discussion, let’s be clear on the underlying values. My morality is driven by the veil of ignorance, the idea that if I could be born as any random person in the world, what kind of world would I design? Surely, I would not want to risk being born in poverty, being discriminated against because of my identities, dying because of my lack of access to healthcare, etc.
Thus, I believe public policy should be used to design a world free of poverty, where every person has access to high quality healthcare, education and human rights, and has the freedom to live and work (or not) where they choose. Activists usually call this collection of outcomes “liberation” because it frees us from having to acquire our basic needs while simultaneously giving us the freedom to pursue our wants and desires. The cartoon below provides a trivial interpretation of the idea.
So how do we get there? In the policy and advocacy world it seems two competing ideas have emerged: socialism and social democracy.
Socialism is the idea that the means of production should be jointly owned by the entire community and that private business should be abolished. Socialists believe that the output of this production should be awarded according to a person’s needs and that this system would lead to a classless society.
Social democracy maintains that people should be allowed to own private capital and that the benefits should be shared via high taxes and redistribution. Today, most social democrats argue for the creation of a universal basic income to eliminate poverty, nationalized health insurance or healthcare, and for free migration of people and goods.
Of course these short paragraphs miss some of the complexities of each idea but even with these brief definitions one can start to see how socialism is in contrast with liberation. While in theory socialism may eliminate many negative freedoms by providing for everyone’s needs it also steals many positive ones. Private enterprise is our freedom to trade some of our own goods and services for others. We cannot be truly liberated if we are banned from starting our own business to pursue our own happiness. If a person enjoys creating their own art or food, they should have the freedom to sell it and others should have the freedom to buy it.
On the other hand, social democracy can emancipate people from all the same negative freedoms without restricting positive freedoms. In short, by combining the freedom from poverty with the freedom of private enterprise, social democracy provides the only path towards liberation.
In future blog posts I will explore the empirical research and economics of socialism and social democracy.