Friday, February 27, 2009

Liberal Socialism

For a number of years I have told people that I'm not a liberal. This is mostly for amusement, as I can follow it up with the zinger that liberals are too conservative for me. And this is true: self-identified liberals are more often than not to the right of me.

But if we're speaking precisely, in terms of just what political liberalism means, then I am as much a liberal as I am a socialist. I am a political liberal and an economic socialist, and I think it is perfectly possible to be both at the same time.

My liberalism is much like that of John Rawls; this ought not be surprising since Rawls thought that his liberalism was compatible with democratic socialism as well. I don't necessarily agree with the full sweep of Rawls's constractualist justification for liberalism, but I agree with the practical outcome of it. Among the Rawlsian liberal tenets I agree with:
  • All citizens should be free and equal and live in a society that is a fair system of cooperation.
  • All citizens should have the familiar rights and liberties, which should be given priority over the general good.
  • All citizens should have access to the basic goods that allow them to make use of their liberties. In practical terms this means equality of opportunity (in education and training, as well as in running for political office), fair distribution of income and wealth (little income inequality and a guaranteed minimum income), full employment, universal health care, and publicly financed elections.
  • Political power ought to only be used if it is derived from basic laws that all citizens would generally agree on.
  • Laws should be justified only by reasonable argument, not by appeal to any "comprehensive doctrine" such as a religion or worldview.
Additionally, I am comfortable with Rawls's two-part conception of justice-as-fairness:
  • First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.
  • Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.
The socialism I favor is fully compatible with Rawlsian liberalism and justice-as-fairness. Rawls himself says that liberalism requires either a "property owning democracy" in which the government ensures widespread ownership of the means of production and broad access to education and training, or democratic socialism which is essentially the same but with worker-managed firms. This sounds a lot like David Schweickart's economic democracy, a rather congenial market socialism that features public ownership and control of investment through public banks and a capital assets tax, worker-managed cooperative firms, and a market for distribution of goods and services.

I do not think that a Rawlsian liberal state combined with democratic market socialism are utopia. However, I also don't think that my utopia is the same as everyone else's. There are over 6 billion conceptions of utopia in the world. A liberal socialism something like that described above is as close as I think we can come to allowing all people to pursue their own conception of the good without preventing others from doing the same.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read

This is a list from 2002 by China MiƩville, but I happened to stumble across it once again and was struck by how few of these books I've read. Given that I am a socialist and a science fiction nut, one would think I'd have devoured quite a few, even accounting for my general dislike of fantasy. Of the fifty, I've only read Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, Ken Macleod's The Star Fraction, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, though I've at least read other books by some of the authors listed.

In any case, I think I've got some books to hunt down.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Executive Council

What say we end the cult of presidentialism? Take a page from the Swiss and elect not a unitary president but an Executive Council to make executive decisions that ought not be placed in one person's hands. Here's my proposal:

The Executive Council would consist of seven equal voting members. These members would be directly elected by the people through single transferable vote. However, there will also be a provision that no more than three council members can be from the same political party. This will ensure that there are always at least three parties represented in the council, even if only by one member. Additionally, and probably most controversially, I would mandate that no more than four members may be from the same sex or ethnic group. So (even assuming present electoral prejudices) the council would always have at least three female and three non-white members. The candidate with the most total votes will serve as Council President to preside over meetings and represent the US for ceremonial and diplomatic purposes, but this president would not have any real additional powers.

As best as I can tell, with an executive council as described above and based on the trends in the primaries and the ultimate votes, the 2008 election would have resulted in an executive council consisting of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Cynthia McKinney, and Gloria La Riva. The latter two get in under both the sex and ethnic group clauses, and one is covered by the third-party clause. Obama would serve as Council President.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Late Feudalism

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson likes to call capitalism "late feudalism" to remind us of its historical origins. And feudalism it remains, with a small group of economic lords doling out a comparative pittance to the rest of us. It is the ultimate confirmation of this comparison that those most responsible for generating the current economic crisis can have the privileged audacity to complain about hypothetical $500,000 a year salary caps when they ought to be fired. If there is any doubt that those with the money continue to rule, let it be dashed apart by the face that consultation continues with "leaders" in the financial sector to help resolve this crisis: the very leaders whose overwelcomed input into the arrangement and operation of our economy that led to the crisis to begin with.

We do not need the "wisdom" of these sorts of alleged leaders. We need to break the mold of late feudalism entirely, and even as we work with the skeleton of our economic system, we need to fill it with entirely new organs and cover it with new skin. There must be a fundamental change in the underlying assumptions behind how our economy is meant to function. It cannot be simply a tool for increasing profit. It must be engaged in serving the people that make it run. It has been centuries since we decided that people ought to have a say in the decisions that affect them, and now political democracy and political participation are the standard to which we continually strive. It is time we realized that the same arguments that were once leveled against kings ought to be turned on those that command our economy as well. The time has come for economic democracy.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Wrong Kind of Change

Look, I've given President Obama the benefit of the doubt. He is still unarguably better than President McCain would have been. He has managed to enact some genuinely progressive and welcome policies in his brief time in office. But he has also made some catastrophically bad choices, and his appointment of right-wing nutjob Senator Judd Gregg to head the Commerce Department is quite possibly the worst. The Commerce Department is supposed to enforce fair trade practices that Gregg opposes. It is also supposed to exist, of course, which is surprisingly something Gregg also opposes. And now a Republican governor gets to select a new Republican senator to replace Gregg as well.