Four of the five front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination profess some version of social democracy. This has produced considerable excitement.
The rhetoric suggests most commentators have little idea about the origins and meaning of the term. Given they generally cannot provide a coherent definition of its precursors, capitalism and communism, they haven’t disappointed this observer.
Adam Smith, “The Father of Capitalism,” described a system where people and companies make most economic decisions and own most of the property. The means of production remain in private hands and are operated for profit.
A major advantage of capitalism is that the prices of goods and services are determined by the operation of an unconstrained market.
The system evolved naturally out of the development of movable property or capital during the early renaissance. Capitalism depends upon the ability to convert goods to means of exchange, thereby allowing trading money and promissory notes.
This became necessary when feudal systems collapsed under a variety of pressures ranging from the plague to the extravagance of empires.
Because capitalism requires the concentration of wealth, inequality among individuals becomes inevitable. This concentration of wealth ultimately undermines the state, either indirectly by private quasi-legal structures or explicit corruption.
The erosion of state power and impoverishment of laborers led Karl Marx and Joseph Engels to advocate an alternative system, which became known as communism. This system argued for the sharing of wealth by individuals in accordance with their needs.
The idea is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian traditions: Acts 2:44-45 says “All the believers were together and held everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
Unfortunately, even then, not everyone willingly participated.
Luke reports that Ananias and Sapphira held back property, which resulted in fatal smitings. Two thousand years later, Kulaks in Soviet Russia refused to turn over grain to the state. Joseph Stalin executed millions and seized their property. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed under the inefficiency of central planning and a corrupt bureaucracy.
Clearly, neither unfettered capitalism nor communism provides a viable mechanism for governance. Social democracy blends the systems through an interaction of a democratic polity and a capitalist mixed economy.
The system works to create a society where the economy is predominantly capitalist, but with state regulation providing for the general welfare. The state guarantees services such as health care, education, and retirement programs.
A re-distribution of wealth through equitable taxation pays for the programs, in the name of social justice.
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg are all variants of social Democrats. They contrast with Joseph Biden, a moderate Democrat, who appears to place party loyalty above social justice.
Donald Trump re-incarnated himself as a Republican in 2012. His views are difficult to ascertain beyond a belief that “I am your voice. I alone can fix it,” whatever “it” is. He egotistically insists that his ideas are the best. This fascistic claim shouldn’t be tolerated by Americans.