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.

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