January 15, 2005

Conflict of Values within Social Democracy

In a well-intentioned post on the "Bad Attitudes" blog, Moe Blue points out what he sees as a "collective amnesia" in the Democratic Party as far as its basic values are concerned. As a reminder, he then goes on to list what the Party has stood for during the last century. I felt something was lacking while I was reading through his list. Although, as I said, he is well-intentioned in that he wants the Party to halt its right-ward drift, he in fact demonstrates exactly why Social Democracy has continued to drift right-ward in the last hundred years. Humanism nourished SD's original vision, and humanism calls for an absolute and unconditional value system. Stressing the values that Moe lists is not the remedy for SD's ailment, because those are not even values. They are the program that SD has developed for itself over the said period. They are, therefore, conditional and instrumental. The "collective amnesia" should instead refer to the fact that Social Democrats have forgotten that their original stance consisted of a set of items with intrinsic, unconditional, and non-instrumental value. The Right has no problem thinking of what it stands for as having intrinsic value, so why not the Left? The following is Moe's list (the text within quotation marks), together with my parenthetical indications of the intrinsic values that have been abandoned along the way:

1-"Give the poor and impoverished a hand up to lift them out of poverty because more people with more money makes our economy grow." (And not because doing so is a primary responsibility of a just society)

2-"Guarantee that all citizens are equal before the law because justice is the only path to social stability." (And not because justice is a good in itself)

3-"Promote science and education because they are the foundations of prosperity." (And not because having an educated and cultured citizenry has intrinsic value)

4-"Maintain strong alliances around the world because true security comes from being surrounded by friends, not enemies." (And not because peace is an indivisible aspect of human happiness)

5-"Create, enforce, and protect the rights of workers because America is not about enriching the few while crushing the many." (And not because there is nothing that should take precedence over the rights of producers of wealth, that is, the workers)

6-"Protect the environment because our children will have to live in the world we leave them." (And not because the environment has intrinsic value independently of whether there are human beings around or not)

7-"Keep the government out of the lives of citizens because the most fundamental right we have is the right to be left alone." (And not because the government's job description does not include a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens)

Of course, perhaps a more fundamental decision for the Democratic Party is whether it wants to be a Social Democratic party in the first place, or whether it wants to languish in its New Deal legacy. The New Deal, to those who know what it was really about, was fundamentally anti-worker and anti-progressive.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant Post. It reminds me of George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant"...Have you read it?


Al S. E. said...

Thanks, Anon, for your comment. I have heard of the book you mentioned, but I have not read it. The worldwide effects of the catastrophic US political situation, and especially the process that led to Dubya's "re-election," has forced US politics into the center of my attention, even though I am not an American. Like millions of people around the world, I now find myself in the paradoxical position of a highly-involved spectator.

bucci said...

Two thoughts came to mind: (1) Maximize opportunities for pursuit of the good life, in the classic Socratic meaning of the term. The good is inrtinsically valuable. (2) Interesting philosophical aside: The Archimedean Assumption more or less states that all systems of value are translatable. If you can stomach the math, check out... http://www.math.cornell.edu/~henderson/courses/M121-F01/Week1.htm I'm 100% certain I don't fully understand the math, but I do understand the "softer" version.

Al S. E. said...

Thanks very much for your comment, Bucci. I read the post on the subject of value in your blog. My own education went only as far as early twentieth century philosophy. So I don't quite understand how the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic value has been overcome in decision theory. For instance, I don't think I would trade my cat for any amount of anything else, although she is not even a very good cat! As to maximizig opportunities for pursuit of a good life in the Socratic manner, that seems simply to mean maximizing intrinsic value, which is I think the type of point of view I was presenting in my post. I am afraid I am still stuck in the 19th-century distinction between deontological and utilitarian ethics. Enlightenment as to what lies beyond would be appreciated. I will check the reference you gave, though, and see how far it gets me.

Ken Grandlund said...

An interesting post to be sure. Both the list and your inclusions make a good point about the current state of the political parties and their abandonment of good, basic values in favor of confusing and misdirected policies. This path can only be changed by the people who abhor the utter lack of common sense and instead of blithely buying in to the sound bite society, insist on taking a stand, however small, to make a change.

Al S. E. said...

I do appreciate your kind words, Ken, and I was glad to see a comment on this particular post after a bit of a lull. But I am sure you have gathered that although I am not a partisan of either conservatism or liberalism, I am not non-partisan either. I don't think there is any essential equivalence between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The Right, especially as it exists today, does not stand for any socially redeeming values. On the other hand, the Democratic Party, if one may for a moment think of it as the party of the Left, does have a chance of moving in a direction that we can both support.

zealott said...

If one Democrat in the US actually stood for these values, I don't think they would make it through the primaries. Look at Lieberman, he kinda had values, and he went nowhere.

Maybe in other countries it's different, but here in the US, I get the impresssion that Democrats are anti-values. After the election, a bunch of Democrats tried to jump on the values bandwagon, the trouble is, they didn't know what it is.

You clearly know what values are. It would be good for you to influence your brethern in the US. I think that if the Democrats here actually figured out what values are, and actually voted for candidates that have them, it would help to balance the political situation that so many see as a problem.

By the way, the values listed here are exactly the values of the US Republican party. Maybe not officially, but you would see it in their works if you were not blinded by pride.

Isabella di Pesto said...

However, these laws going into affect that hinder our freedoms aren't because of the Bush era.The majority in Congress, THE REPUBLICANS, have passed these laws. Take your head out of the sand.

8 years of Clinton killed our military.

If that were true, how do you account for the swift victory the military had in marching to Baghdad? It is universally accepted that we have the best military in the world. The military success of the 2003 Iraq invasion was a result of Clinton's administration. If he had weakened it as you suggest, there would have been no success. You can't build up a military force of that sort in just 2 years.

Now everyone is whining because the Iraq campaign is taking so long.Wrong again. People are criticizing Bush for not taking the advice of the MILITARY and placing more troops on the ground. He listened to civilian advice, (Rumsfeld and the neocons) not the generals. That's why the Iraq debacle is such an overwhelming failure.

Most of the laws that are being past to impede our freedoms aren't Bush's fault. Its the liberal law makers in congress.This is a totally uninformed statement. The Republicans have a majority in BOTH houses. The Republicans are the ones creating legislation, not the Democrats. Where have you been the last 4 years? Or do you get your information from FOX? If you do, I understand your ignorance on these matters.

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macdonald said...

I think you have to remember that if government does not act many of the results you suggest you want to achieve will not happen. Therefore, your desire to get government out of the lives of the people is misplaced. There is a place for government in regulating what we do to achieve the goals we collectively (or a significant majority) believe are important. Even Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations recognized there was a role for "government".
As for the invasion of Iraq - the failure is not lack of soldiers - the failure of Bush was to refuse to listen to those who have tried this before. Invading a country does not mean you will get the result you want. Containing a country until its people decide to take matters into their own hands has a better prospect for success - an example is the world's response to South Africa.

Crabbi said...

Hey Al,

Terrific post - couldn't agree more. Moe Blue's list (to my mind) represents the attitudes of the Clintonite wing of the Democratic party - moderate and pragmatic. Whatever happened to the idea of doing good for the sake of doing good? I'm also reminded of those hideous business gurus of the 80s and 90s who talked about "values" and doing the right thing, blah, blah, blah. Sounded good (for those who never learned how to behave ethically in the first place), until one realized that the objective wasn't a more harmonious work environment, but big, fat profits.

While I miss Clinton desperately these days, I hope one day that we can see a truly progressive party, whether it's the the Greens or a retooled Democratic party.


PS Great blog, too!

Al S. E. said...

To Macdonald: Thanks for your comment, but I think you misread my post. The main text of the numbered items themselves are not my proposals. Rather, they are, according to Moe Blue of the Bad Attitudes blog, a summary of the Democratic Party’s own platform. My alternatives are in parentheses after each item of the platform. For instance, the Democratic Party, according to Moe, says “Give the poor and impoverished a hand up to lift them out of poverty because more people with more money makes our economy grow.” My proposal is: “Give the poor and impoverished a hand up to lift them out of poverty because doing so is a primary responsibility of a just society.” I would be interested in receiving your comment on this post after taking this clarification into account. As to your point about containment versus invasion, I think this is an irrelevant dichotomy. The primary objection to the Bush administration’s behaviour has been its unilateralism. There is absolutely no commonality between Iraq and the old South Africa. The entire world helped the South African people bring down the Apartheid regime. The Saddam regime’s downfall was brought about by two countries and their mercenary “coalition of the willing.”

Al S. E. said...

To Crabletta: Thanks for your comment and support. We all miss the Clinton period and the feeling we had that a highly intelligent and sane man ran the US. At the same time, what you call his moderateness and pragmatism, and I call his business-friendly philosophy, the sum total of which equals opportunism, spelled the ruin of the Democratic Party. An aggressive program honestly based on the kind of progressive values that you and I support might have saved both the Democratic Party and the world. I remain hopeful, but not because of any great expectation of reform in the mainstream parties, but rather because of the possibly unprecedented political ferment at the grassroots level.