#2: Bob Barkley on Social Democracy

By Bob Barkley, March 2009
Last week I was participating in a discussion group called Socrates Café. It is normally an older set of folks. This time there was a young man present, the youngest and quietest of all in attendance. Toward the end of our time together someone thought to ask him what he thought. He simply asked, “What is social democracy? And what will it take to get there?” We were all taken with the question and discussed it briefly before parting ways until our next get-together.
But the question dogged me enough that I sought a more satisfactory answer than the ones we offered up that night. Following is what I have come up with.
Simply defined, as I understand it, social democracy is a democratic state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practice and recognizes individual requirements and aspirations.
Or, in more detail, Wikipedia describes it as “a political ideology of the left or center-left that emerged in the late 19th century from the socialist movement and continues to exert influence worldwide. The concept of social democracy has changed throughout the decades since its inception. Historically, social democratic parties advocated socialism in the strict sense, achieved by class struggle. In the early 20th century, however, a number of socialist and labor parties rejected revolution and other traditional teachings of Marxism and went on to take more moderate positions, which came to characterize modern social democracy. These positions often include support for a democratic welfare state which incorporates elements of both socialism and capitalism, sometimes termed the mixed economy. This differs from traditional socialism, which aims to end the predominance of capitalism altogether. Social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of programs that work to counteract or remove the social injustice and inefficiencies they see as inherent in capitalism.”
By its very nature, social democracy would be viewed by most people as “left” of where we find ourselves in the US at this early date in 2009. But it is neither socialism as traditionally thought of, nor is it communism which critics find to be a convenient label for it.
It is interesting that in Black’s Law Dictionary there is no definition of either social democracy or socialism. However, in its definition of “social contract or compact,” it mentions Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the Greek Sophists as all agreeing “for mutual protection, to surrender individual freedom of action,” and that “Government must therefore rest on the consent of the governed.” And Black’s further defines “democracy” as, “That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation, as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy.”
All this sounds an awful lot like Lincoln’s, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish….”
And, as one reads the list below, it is important to stress that balance is most always crucial to developing a political/economic system. In the end, social democracy is driven by a sense of community, which simply translates to “accepting that we all belong together.”
With that basis to guide me, and my own instincts, I was led to conclude that to be successful, social democracy anticipates at least the following:
1. Freedom in the broadest sense, though short of unconstrained individual license
2. Reasonable equity between owners of production and the workers as to who benefits from any enterprise’s success
3. Government transparency to the greatest extent practical with any questions leaning far toward full disclosure
4. Public education that is open, highly supported, theoretically well-conceived, which emphasizes teaching about the dynamics of forces operating beneath the political surface, teaching a broad range of fundamental values, and that recognizes that the primary purpose of education is the preservation and nurturing of a love of learning – out of which all other aims will be best served
5. Higher education that emphasizes deep thinking and liberal arts and away from being little more than a factory for the production of compliant, unquestioning, unthinking, corporate robots
6. Social justice
7. Reasonable but significant corporate regulation – including reversal of the Supreme Court decision that establishes rights to the corporation parallel to those of the individual citizen
8. The absence of special interests inordinate control and influence of government
9. Assuring all citizens of basic human needs such as reasonable housing, sustenance, and health care
10. Widely shared public service – such as all young people providing 2 years of such service (including both military and non-military community and national service)
11. Absolute separation of church and state – particularly the restraining of public policy influence of religious zealotry and extreme fundamentalism
12. Public financing of political campaigns and a system of responsible turnover in public office that assures both full access and limited opportunity for exploitation
13. Regulated and balanced media ownership and programming to avoid consolidated domination of the media
14. Our economy is now global, and our society must adjust to fit this changed and still changing world
15. State control of usury practices
16. Adoption of sensible standards regarding the compensation packages of corporate executives such as limiting them, through taxation policies, to 50 times that of a minimum-wage full-time worker
17. Protecting local commerce through reasonable tariffs and trade policies
18. Progressive taxation policies that allow for the sharing of wealth between the fortunate (the worth-more) and the less fortunate (the worth-less) while still allowing responsible accumulation of wealth (Both the “worth-more” and the “worth-less” are suffering from inordinate sense of entitlement.)
All that said, I was asked by one reviewer to describe what was the role of government in all of this. Right after receiving that question I read a short piece by economist Dr. Robert Costanza of the University of Vermont that quite serendipitously provided me the answer. http://www.commondreams.org./print/40015
Consequently, I would conclude this paper by adding that while much is implied throughout the preceding list, the bottom line role of government is to protect against excesses. This would mean protection from excess accumulation of wealth and power on one extreme and protection against excess poverty and hopelessness on the other. Government must facilitate a shared vision of society – of quality of life – and move responsibly to assure its development.
Robert Barkley, Jr., is the retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association and served as the Interim Executive Director, Maine Education Association. He is a former teacher and coach, and a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work. Currently he bills himself as a Counselor in Systemic Education Reform and has served most recently as a long-term Consultant to the KnowledgeWorks Foundation of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the first teacher organization staff member to become an examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the premier business award in the US, which is administered by the US Department of Commerce. He is the author of two books: Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders, and Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents. He lives Worthington, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, and may be reached at RBarkle@columbus.rr.com.