Depends on What You Mean by “Social Democracy”

Brink raises the issue of whether or not a “European-style social democracy” is likely to emerge in the United States. In my view it depends on what one means. As he notes, contemporary European social democrats have substantially reined in their ambitions, privatizing state-owned firms and the like. It seems exceedingly unlikely that the U.S. is going to nationalize the mines and everyone seems to agree that airline regulation of the old school is gone for good. Nor does America seem likely to me to adopt German- or French-style labor market regulations, less because the fondest dreams of progressive America are likely to go unfulfilled than simply because there’s fairly little support for such ideas even in America’s progressive community.

What I do think is likely is that the trend toward increasing government involvement in the provision and finance of health care will continue. Similarly with the trend toward government involvement in the provision and finance of preschool and day care. And, again, with the trend toward increasing federal involvement in the finance of primary and secondary education (this last perhaps paired with a more libertarian evolution of the actual administration of schools). These would be moves in the direction of social democracy, but also moves that are very much in accordance with Lindsey’s vision of happy, freedom-seeking postmoderns, and they seem to me to reflect things that voters want.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.