Is it still possible to think big in western democracies about social and economic change in a way that substantially improves the lives and freedoms of most of society? We see the deprivation and indifference of the economic system that has governed most industrialized countries for the past century and a half, leading to gross inequalities, inequities of human wellbeing, and poverty. And we have seen the terrible nightmares created by Leninist-Stalinist Communism. We value freedom, human equality, and human flourishing, and we value democracy. Is it possible to effect a transition to a different economic structure that complies with the values of democracy, individual freedom, and human flourishing?
This was the ambition shared by the socialist movements of the English socialist groups and parties of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And many of those men and women had a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the complicated tensions that exist between the values of democracy and freedom, on the one side, and fairness and equality, on the side of economic life.
What might we want from a reformed progressive economy -- whether it is called social democracy or democratic socialism? Most generally, we would want a set of economic and political institutions that ensure that all members of society are in a position to develop their talents and aspirations, exercise their freedoms, and function as full citizens within a robust democracy. We would want secure protections of the rights of all persons, within a robust system of law. And we would want a public sector that actively works to address failures of the economic system to deliver the prerequisites of these values.
Several key issues stand out as highest priority.
- tax policies that constrain wealth and income inequalities to some reasonable level
- economic policies by government that work to ensure high employment rates at decent wages
- a robust system for universal provision of the prerequisites of productive life in an advanced democracy -- education, healthcare, adequate nutrition
- robust social arrangements for preventing and addressing poverty in children and adults
- strong assurances that the least-well-off members of society are fully enabled to live decent lives, based on a reasonable income floor and provision of public services
- strong assurances of equal opportunity for all members of society in employment, housing, healthcare, and access to social services
- provisions for disability, unemployment, and retirement security
- assurance of effective political equality, including constraints on the power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations to determine the outcomes of policy-making and legislation
Elizabeth Durbin's New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism is an excellent and detailed examination of the economic thinking of British socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, including that of her father, Evan Durbin. And it is important reading for our own generation, when a major reshuffling of the economic relations of capitalism currently seems to be off the table. Two intellectual influences were especially important: a tradition of English trade union activism challenging the power and position of the owners of wealth, and the Keynesian revolution that suggested, among other things, that economic institutions could be modified and managed. Whereas neoclassical economics essentially maintained that only complete freedom of action by economic actors ("laissez-faire") would give rise to "efficient" economic outcomes, these two traditions suggested that regulation of economic activity could be both successful and beneficial for society as a whole -- including the working classes (31-32).