Liberal or Social Democrat?

Liberal or Social Democrat?

Is there a difference between a liberal and a social democrat that amounts to a distinction? If there is, is it a distinction with merit?

Michael Walzer is a social democrat; it is an honorary badge. For a long time, he wore his badge while driving an antique Volvo—the second-hand car for mature social democrats.

Sidney Morgenbesser, a master of fine and funny distinctions, tried to answer our question with a quip: A liberal believes money should be taken from the very rich and handed over to the poor. But he stands exactly at the point at which no money should be taken and no money should be given. In contrast, the social democrat believes she, too, has to give money.

Social democrats are more concerned about the distribution of income than are liberals. For the social democrat, it is not just taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Rather it is about caring about equality all the way down the slope of the income curve.

There is another quip, the source of which I don’t know: a social democrat is a socialist who compromised with reality, whereas a liberal is an anarchist who compromised with reality.

Liberals moved from defending free trade against the yoke of privileged protectionism in the nineteenth century, to promoting the active interference of government in the market. At the same time, social democrats moved away from the ideal of public ownership of the means of production to a mixed economy of private and public enterprises, tethered to a welfare state.

Those who may lament the watered-down versions of these ideologies shouldn’t forget that there was a rather noble reason why the dilution occurred: both had a deep commitment to gain power solely by democratic means. Parliamentary democracy calls for constant compromises, which tend to dilute messages and blur distinctions.

But the relation between liberalism and democracy is not complementary, like fish and chips. Liberalism is in tension with the popular understanding of democracy.

Liberalism is an active concern with individual rights (civil rights and human rights) especially vis-à-vis the state. In almost all nations, with the exception, perhaps, of the Scandinavian countries and Holland, the concern about such rights is confined to the cultural elite and is not shared by those who understand democracy as the rule of the majority and the possibility of changing the government with-out using violence.

Neither is social democracy a frictionless combination: it had to combat revolutionary skepticism about the possibility of achieving structural change only through democratic means. Yet both liberals and social democrats are committed to democracy, with its constant demand for compromises. And they should be admired for that.

Indeed, democratic parties should be judged not by their platforms but by the quality of their com-promises. It is not so much their ideals that should be scrutinized, bu...