My political philosophy: Practical Democratic Socialism

I call myself a “practical democratic socialist.” “Practical” means what works is what works, human nature is human nature, and these two things trump any ideology. “Democratic” means that I believe in our republican system of government. I don’t believe in armed revolution, government by the proletariat, the melting away of the state, or any other such notions. “Socialist” means that I believe the government should control assets for the greater good of the nation, the level and methods of control varying and depending on what works.

I am not a Marxist; I haven’t read Marx. I probably should for my edification. I’m certainly not a communist, as I believe the concept of private property is intrinsic to human nature. In terms of liberal-conservative, I’m all over the place. I don’t believe that what is commonly termed “gun control” works; hence, the government should give up on it. I think abortion is evil and should be regulated to some extent but not banned (wouldn’t “work”). I’m 100% against the war on drugs. I’m for affirmative action and slavery reparations. I believe in gay marriage and polyamorous marriage. I believe that income redistribution is essential to the function of a modern economy. I hate complexity and Baroqueness and capriciousness in regulation. I’m for free trade (I think we should throw out the tariff schedule and have an across-the-board several percent import tariff as a user fee for US ports and facilities). I believe in a strong social safety net. I believe in a market economy, but one that is regulated for the greatest good. The government needs to get off the back of religion in this country; it’s getting close to oppression of religious belief. Medical care for all is the most pressing issue for our nation right now.

Basically, the above makes me leftie on average, but I’m not a knee-jerker. Rush and Ann are mostly fools, but sometimes they have a point. In general, however, I prefer the liberal side of the media.

In addition to any of the above, the following are some political thoughts that I’d like to debate, which I think are of a more interesting and original nature.

We are already a socialist country; this talk of “capitalism” is bunk.
By the standards of the past, we are a socialist country by any standard. I read somewhere that every element of the 1928 platform of the Socialist Party had been fulfilled (things like an 8-hour work day, etc.). Government regulations like the minimum wage are socialist in character. The amount of GDP that is from the government justifies the claim. The government, through Medicare, Medicaid, VA, and other programs provides 45% of the medical care in the country (cite from a presentation I saw when working in the drug industry; it’s probably higher now). The income redistribution the government performs is socialist in nature.

We are not socialist enough in many ways (medical care) while being overly controlling or socialist in others (immigration, war on drugs). We are not so socialist as many European and other countries.

People still cling to the idea that we are “capitalist,” and we ought not be communist or socialist. First, the nation was never explicitly founded as a capitalist country; the concept didn’t exist then. Cite. In general, the insistence that we are capitalist contains, or ultimately consists of, bugbearism: We are not like those commies whose economic systems were a failure.

Our failure to come to terms with our socialism has lead to the schizoid character of modern politics. The Pubs pay lip service to small government but spend like drunken sailors. They will not be able to practice socialism effectively until they lose their shame of it and self-denial regarding it. On the other hand, the Dems are deemed left of the Pubs when for all practical purposes they no more “liberal” at all. They have the reputation for being more socialist yet don’t have the cojones to run with that as a differentiator. The practical result is that the Dems and Pubs supply fool the consumer with two different packages containing the same product: socialism practiced ineffectively with shame and self-loathing. It is “socialism that dare not speak its name.”

Ownership is just one form of control.
Typically, socialism is defined as the government owning the assets of production, or something close to that. It is perhaps this definition that prevents us from seeing how socialistic our economic and governmental systems have become.

“Ownership” is merely one concept within the larger set of “Control.” For example, if I have a leasehold interest in your property, you “own” it and I don’t. Yet I have far greater control over it than you do during the period of the lease.

Likewise, the government doesn’t “own” companies in the semantic sense, and yet its form of control over them is very great indeed. It reserves the right to a large chunk of corporate cash flow through taxes. It gets paid before any employees, bondholder, or stockholder. The government regulates how companies will interact with the environment, employees, and with society at large. And the above is, if anything, a vast understatement of the level of control the government holds over companies.

The level of control the various governments (federal, state, local) hold over companies is practical; it works. Other countries have tried other systems that have failed and succeeded in varying degrees. The Post Office is a state-owned or quasi-governmental business that is, in my view, a success. I believe that other industries ought to be state-owned or controlled to a much higher degree (domestic airlines), but the vast majority should be controlled right about at the level they are now.

As a general rule, the less control, the better. Stupid, counterproductive control is bad. Yet we should not also shy away from greater governmental control when such would foster the greater good.

There is no fundamental difference between government and corporations.
Once this truth is understood, the scales fall from the eyes, and one realizes why libertarianism is doomed to failure, among other things.

At first glance, there are big differences in the way power is allocated in our system (and in most systems) to government and corporations. The government is in a superior position to any corporation. Corporations get fined by the government, but they cannot fine the government. A corporation cannot raise an army (no Haliburton jokes, please).

But the corporation is, in reality, merely one other doll in the Matryoshka series. The feds boss the states, the states boss the locals govs, and they all boss corporations. Yet the corporations then exercise control over their assets and their employees. They have rules. They have the power to raise people up or exile them completely. It is only habit of thought that prevents us from seeing them as mini governments, and not very democratic ones at that.

A good chunk of what libertarians and conservatives have to sell is the idea that government is wasteful and value-destroying, whereas corporations are frugal and value-adding. But this notion is certainly contrary to my own observation: I’ve worked for several major, respected companies in the US and Japan and have seen waste, inefficiency, and just general assbackwardsness that would make the Italian Post Office blush. The fact of the matter is that both the government and corporations–any organization, for that matter–is prone to waste and inefficiency.

Yet it seems that the notion that the government is by its nature prone to greater waste is based on the fact that the “market” will destroy a wasteful company, whereas the government cannot be harmed or changed by market forces.

But this criticism must also be counterbalanced by another fact that is difficult to perceive but extremely important. I said above that I have witnessed great waste and inefficiency in large corporations. But theses companies were not unprofitable–and that’s the problem. Imagine two public companies, A and B. The managers of company A are conscientious and always take care to use the shareholders’ assets efficiently. They produce a high gross margin of 50% and keep G&A so low as to produce a net profit of 10% of sales. Company B, however, is different. Its gross margin is also 50%, but it engages in all manner of navel-gazing with consultants (endless studies about the company’s brand, philosophy, values) and refuses to fire deadwood employees. Its gross margin is just 5%.

But I never said that the two companies were in the same industry, did I? If company B is in an industry in which such waste is the norm and can therefore compete with its fellows, there is no mechanism in the economy to eliminate that waste. To the contrary, in very profitable industries (drugs), high net profits can be combined with horrific waste, yet no one complains because that industry outperforms others that operate in a very lean fashion. And then there is the other sad fact that companies tend to be run first for the benefit of the executives, who support each other as a caste in the matter.

In contrast, the government is always a cost center–there is no “profit” that can justify the costs a particular department or bureau is generating (some that sell a product, like the Post Office, may be exceptions). The mechanism for lowering such costs is budgeting and careful oversight. Certainly the government can be wasteful; it often is. But it does not have the above-described ability to hide waste and excess behind profits.

In conclusion.
One we accept that we are operating a socialist government/economy, that ownership is just another form of control, and that there is no fundamental difference between government and corporations, we have gained some of the important mental tools necessary to run a modern polity. We can then get down to brass tacks about what form and level of control is needed in any given situation.

My vision of the good is the individual unburdened and free as much as possible, with most control applying to organizations. It is a major pain for an individual to do his/her income taxes. It is time-consuming and stressful. Yet it is not a personal pain for a corporate accountant to do the company’s taxes (it’s a “job”), and it might even be enjoyable for that person if that’s his/her thing.

In other words, our current socialism calls itself capitalism and oppresses the individual with tax forms, the war on drugs, and an oppressive corporate (= governmental) environment. True socialism will free the individual and place the burden of modern governance where it belongs: on society as a whole.

Welcome to the NDP! :slight_smile:

Good luck deciding what that is, with the information and power assymmetry inherent in any system with a centralised authority, especially taking human nature into account.

Civilization i.e. settled communities, is, what, 10,000 years old?

Apply it in the reverse direction, as well. There is no difference between corporations and government. A corporation’s profits accrue to those at the top.

The core obstacle to good government is human nature i.e. selfishness, short-term planning, laziness, contentedness with apparition of results, lack of ability to sustain organization and synchronization, non-aligned motives and cognitive limits. When you’re dealing with a population of millions, if not billions, policy is statistical, assessment is statistical. Teasing out qualitative needs, which actually matter, is next to impossible, if only because of their diversity. Implementing qualitative results is also impossible, if only because of logistics and resources.

P.J. O’Rourke has written a book about his observations and analysis of governments at the local and national level. The last paragraph of the book is a nice succinct capsule:


Avoid political philosophy, kid, its a mug’s game. Not as bad as theology, sure, but what isn’t?

Just as soon as you get it assembled and looking functional, you run into a situation that requires you to either ignore it or modify it to fit special circumstances. Better simply to have a general set of principles, like advancing the cause of anarcho-syndicalism or furthering the enlightenment of all beings. Something simple like that.

Besides, as soon as you admit any interest in the subject, you find yourself beseiged by eager dweebs who want to press their agenda on you. Pretend utter disinterest, this provides protective coloration and if you’re lucky, they won’t notice you. And don’t forget, everybody is a centrist, and everybody else is an extremist.

'Course, should also note that if you simply have to have a poli sci, the one you got is pretty good.

I don’t agree. I think that the US has a fairly cohesive vision of the “the good” and politicians make as much hay out of the differences that they can.

I think even the cavemen had the concept of my bone, your bone; my loincloth, your loincloth.

Even so. Government first benefits the governors, then the rest of the people.

Well said.

For the most part, yes (some tiny local governments and small corporations excluded). But I would say it was always that way; this is not a modern problem. The government of ancient Rome couldn’t worry about every Lucius, could it?

I don’t understand this part.

This quote didn’t resonate with me. I don’t think the Congress and SCOTUS, for example, or the Indiana General Assembly, are “scum.” I don’t even think George Bush is “scum”–just a very awful and ignorant leader. The Nazis were scum.

I also don’t agree that authority has attracted the worst people. It’s brought out the worst in some good people and certainly attracted the power-hungry. But I hardly think of George Washington and FDR as being the “scuz” of history.

I’m a democratic socialist too, but I’m not sure how ‘practical’ I am - indeed, the very question of what “works” is what governs one’s political philosophy in the first place!

And spot on with the point that ownership of property can itself become a form of tyranny - I’m heartened to see this point being made on this board more often these days. Ownership is simply monopolistic use of resources, and ultimately comes about by one using force, or threat thereof, in order to dissuade others from using that which you claim monopoly upon, be that your house, land, car, innovative idea, or even your very self (slavery, thankfully in the democratic world, being prevented by that force having been trumped by the force of government, ie. everyone else).

As a casual, IMHO-like appendix, I think arriving at a particular political philosophy is essential to finding one’s place in the world, since otherwise one drowns in that quicksand of partisan sniping and tu quoques which sadly characterises so much political discussion, even (or especially) here on the Dope. Personally, I am a [url=]negative utilitarian who considers that suffering can be minimised without unduly retarding the progress brought about by rewarding hard work and innovation. After all, what use is progress if only a select few derive benefit from it, globally speaking? Your taxes, say I, are not your property in the first place: they are the rent you pay everyone else for the privilege of monopolistic use of that which you call “your own”.

Indeed, in response to your comment that property is intrinsic to human nature, I would extend it to all of nature. Natural selection is all about which resources you can monopolise for yourself (or your genes). When resources become scarce (such as a continent like Australia), it is those species which can harness them quickly, even brutally (witness the sheer toxicity of the Australian fauna, and even flora!) who will survive.

What is practical depends entirely on what one is practicing.

Lord above, Lib. That’s one for the ages.

Your point is well taken. And thanks for saying you liked my philosophy.

How true. Liberal seemed to be saying the same thing.

A vision of the good is important. So is learning from history. The communist dictatorships were both failures and successes. They are much bigger failures if, like me, you consider killing millions to achieve political and/or economic ends evil and reprehensible. Likewise, 19th century America seems like less of a success if, like me, you consider slavery evil and reprehensible.

Oh, brilliantly put.

Even so. I think if one is comfortable labeling oneself “conservative” or “liberal” without a string of caveats, one has not done enough thinking about politics. But it’s a pit in human nature’s surface that we love to pick a side and root for it.

Sounds right, but I need to learn more about negative utilitarianism.

Hell yes, well said again. The “mineness” of it is supported by the entire society: the military, the police, the labor society provides for its upkeep, etc. And, of course, the value I add to it as an individual (protection, upkeep, etc.).

Yes, you just expanded my understanding of “ownership.” All of nature indeed. Thank you.

[aside] Australian fauna seems to be made primarily of two varieties: animals that will simply kill you, and animals that will kill you and eat you.

I strongly favor a “worker owned” model, rather like profit sharing writ large. Let the workers collectively own the enterprise they work at, and hire management at rates comparable to their own. (That a CEO should be compensated 100 times or more than the “floor worker” is a nauseating display of labor-elitism. Is there something particularly dreadful about poring over spreadsheets in an air-conditioned office? Feh!)

Capital entrepreneurs can start a business by borrowing, and the workers agree to devoting some of the profit to justly and reasonably compensate those efforts and investments. But there is no good reason why one should live a life of ease and luxry, simply because one’s grandfather was a greedy and grasping scoundrel. If the “work ethic” applys to the poor, why not to the rich?

The thing is, there is nothing to prevent that model from being adopted in a capitalist society such as our own. You, presumably, want to require that it be the only model.

And you’re conflating two things: running a business and inheriting wealth. Are we to presume that you have no objections to the situation of Michael Dell, billionaire that he is? Given what you said in the first paragraph, we would presume you do. But what of the non sequitur about greed in the second paragraph?

And I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that all business owners are greedy, grasping scoundrels, or even that most are. Right? Let’s be clear and not slander an entire class of people just for stylistic effect.

It is entirely possible of adoption, I have personally seen it done. Your inference that I would have it be the only model is, precisely as you put it, a presumption. You are free to make such presumptions, of course, as I am free to disdain them.

I am? I don’t think I am. But I will point out that the elite status proferred to management has no worthy basis beyond white collar snobbery. As far as starting a business, that “enreprenuership” that we ostensibly worship: it is obvious, isn’t it, that the advantage of investment rests with the child that’s got his own?

Hardly know who he is, and care just slightly less. I hold that in a world where money is so urgently necessary, one person possessing a billion dollars is morally absurd. Of course, in an amoral, Social Darwinist perspective, it makes perfect sense, but I reject that position more emphaticly than I can express.

Again with the presumptions? Beyond a critique of my rhetorical skill, have you a point here?

Well, if you were so certain, why did you need to bring it up, save to imply something? Nothing immoral about being born rich, the same does not necessarily apply to dying rich. As a general rule of observation, he who dies with the most toys is a pig.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut. Find it, buy it, kill if you must, but read that book!

Oh, for crying out loud. If you “strongly favor” something, what are we supposed to make of that? So, let’s be specific then: Do you or do you not, Mr. elucidator propose that worker ownership of coporations be made mandatory? If not, what exactly do you propose and how would it be different from the system currently in place in the US?

Inhereted wealth is a sufficient, but not a necessary condition to start a business-- even a successful one. I’m trying to understand the system you are proposing. You seem to object strongly to inherited wealth, and I’m trying to understand just how much you object to the accumulation of wealth. In order to do that, it’s necessary to separate the two.

Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computer, was meant to be an example of someone who started a business w/o inheriting wealth.

Should it be illegal? How much money should one legally be allowed to own given that some other people need that money.

Only to understand exactly what point you are trying to make.

Imply? Whatever would I be implying?

Is there something wrong with restating something to ensure that one has understood the original post? Isn’t that a common method of discovering if two people are truly talking about the same thing?

That I strongly favor it. I’m not all that complex, John

Nope. Don’t even think it should be necessary to make it mandatory, I think its value speaks for itself. Besides, it would be irresponsible to make it mandatory until practical application reveals all the ramifications. But there’s nothing particularly radical about worker-ownership programs, its not much more than profit sharing writ large.

I propose, in general terms, a system and method that I expect can and will be further improved and adjusted by such persons with special skills in these things. Which skills I don’t have, and am not competent to propose.

John, you seem determined to approach my proposal with the intent of torturing the suspect until a confession of class warfare is obtained. I will not cooperate. Inherited wealth is not “the problem” anymore than white collar snobbery and the exaggerated compensation it entails is “the problem”. Even when all the running dog jackals of the ruling class are put to the Wall…excuse me, I meant to say “if”, not “when”… there will yet remain issues to be resolved by persons of good will.

If I had to oversimplify, and choose one single root problem above all others for the radical to strike at, I would probably choose the overemphasis we place on property rights. Property rights are one of many, but it does not deserve a place of primacy. I am not a communist, I don’t propose to abolish property altogether.

How will I accomplish my ends? By convincing you I’m right, of course. Failing that, wait till your children go to college and my co-conspirators can warp their innocent minds. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Big Bird is but a small part of the plan!

OK. In the next Gitmo thread, if I post “I strongly favor torture”, I trust you’ll understand that I’m not actually advocating the use of torture, just that I strongly favor it.

As one simple guy to another, you’re simply wrong about my motivation. You made some pretty bold statements, and I’m trying to understand the thinking behind them. I know you claim to eschew an overall political philosophy, and that does allow you the luxury of saying that you like X and not Y simply because you do. No need to distinguish between X and Y in any systematic way.

Pragmatism, pure and simple. Kinda renders the whole debate thingy rather moot, though, doesn’t it?

That’s a germ of an idea, and I know you said you wanted to leave it to people more expert than you to make that idea bloom into, shall we say, a thousand flowers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Ah, but I told you in that other thread that the libertarians are marching to an unprecedented .4% of the vote in '08, and you’re evil plans will surely be thwarted. Libertarians of the world, unite!

Double dog dare you.

Purpose? Purpose? Who needs a purpose, cats don’t have a purpose and kids are even more useless. But that’s not quite it, its more like arguing for a direction that arguing the goal. Lets move in the direction of economic justice, and do the best we can. I think we can do very well, indeed, when…certain impediments…are liquidated…ah, removed.

Not my germ, not my idea. When the people lead, the leaders will follow.

By the time the Libertarians arrive at 4% of the vote, they will schism into at least two bitterly internecine rivalries. Bet me.

You’re too kind. I wrote .4%, not 4%. That is 4/10ths of 1 percent. Soon we will be unstoppable!