Posted on June 9, 2016
“Democratic socialism” strikes me as a considerably better-defined notion than “capitalism” [see June 7th post]. Nevertheless, I doubt if any critic who uses the term can give a definition acceptable to most supporters.
I also doubt if many supporters can give a historically accurate definition of the term.
I think most of us can agree on some things it isn’t:
—laissez faire capitalism. But that is a polar type that does not actually exist anywhere.
—Communism, in the sense of soviet-style central planning.
—government ownership of nearly all means of production, as in classical Communism
—government ownership of no means of production, which occurs only in a non-existent laissez faire economy.
Nearly all socialists would agree that socialism is not
–levelism, i.e. an effort to achieve nearly perfect equality. (Many critics disagree, but they are making a straw-man argument.)
We are on trickier grounds with:
—government provision of all necessities of life, a polar type approached in some Communist regimes. Many socialists would accept this as an ideal, but no actual self-described democratic socialist regime fully achieves this goal. Also, this could actually be accomplished under a capitalist regime using Milton Friedman’s demogrant proposal.
All actually existing industrialized democracies include capitalist features such as private corporations and private banks; welfare-state features such as regulation of industry, income taxes, and aid to poor people; and socialist features such as free K-12 education and free public roads. Kinda hard to draw a clean line between socialist and nonsocialist regimes.
On the other hand, there are wide variations as to toleration of inequality, and “socialists” are those who (relatively to existing conditions) prefer less inequality even at the cost of less opportunity to get very rich.
So it appears to me that “socialism” (in so far as it is a historically coherent notion) refers to a value frame rather than any particular institutional design.
And if so, it does not differ in kind from what we currently call “progressivism.”
However in a statistical-semantic sense, we can rank concepts in order of the degree of value that belief system tends to assign to equality:
communist > socialist > democratic socialist > progressive > liberal > traditional conservative > movement conservative > violent extremist right (where ” >” indicates “places a higher value on equality than”).