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December 04, 2010


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Do socialists typically rant?

Jon Elster, Michael Harrington, John Roemer, Anwar Shaikh, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West (arguably, on occasion), Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, David Miller, G.A. Cohen, Paul Baran, Harry Braverman, Erich Fromm, Paul Sweezy, Diane Elson, R.G. Peffer, Olufemi Taiwo, Paul Buhle, David Schweickart, Alec Nove, Michael Luntley, Gar Alperovitz, Manning Marable, Daniel Singer, etc., etc. Some of these fine folks are no longer with us, yet none of them can be called conspicuous for their ranting.

John Rawls, the Liberal philosopher par excellence (at least in our time), spoke approvingly of "liberal socialism," indeed, there's nothing strange about one being a Liberal (or liberal) AND a socialist, as are, for the most part, both Social Democrats and democratic socialists:

Of course there's liberal and Liberal and Obama is certainly the latter, as it encompasses libertarians and coservantives on the Right and Social Democrats on the Left. However, as you insinuate, he's proven to be a rather big diaappointment as the former, especially with regard to foreign policy and the National Security State. Unfortunately, he's becoming more of a Clinton-like New Democrat, which means he hopes to defeat the Republicans by co-opting big slices of their regressive, reactionary, oligarchic socio-economic and political agenda.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

errata: conservatives; disappointment

Jonathan H. Adler

I recognize that by the standards of leggal academia President Obama is not particularly liberal, but is that the right standard? If the President is more liberal than the majority of Americans, and significantly more liberal than the median voter, then why is it inappropriate to call him a liberal? Is there some other relative measure of ideology we should be applying? Or is there some absolute measure of ideology out there?


Patrick S. O'Donnell

I think Obama was elected by a majority of the electorate, and his campaign often relied on political rhetoric that signaled he was indeed quite “liberal,” certainly in the sense that it was to the left of the ideologically “centrist” New Democrats (indicative of a movement by some liberals toward the other side of the aisle in the ‘geography of the assembly’ and an attempt to constrict the parameters of what counts as ‘moderate’ or reasonable among liberals), and so in that sense we can say he is (or was) not more liberal than the majority of voting Americans.

All the same, our standard of what is liberal should be more reliable and objective than the fickle and volatile preferences of the hoi polloi, at least if we expect our politicians to be capable of some semblance to what James MacGregor Burns understood by leadership (transformative and otherwise). It would thus seem prudent if not proper to rely on a standard of what is “liberal” with some historical precedent, commencing, for example, with the New Deal and thus expressive of a principled commitment to the fundamental premises of welfare capitalism, premises that are, in turn constitutionally and philosophically sanctioned or politically legitimated by the Preamble and fundamental principles found in the (‘living’) Constitution (according to the likes of such interpreters as Sager, Fleming, Barber, Seidman, Sunstein, Dworkin, Murphy...).

So, welfare states generally hence roughly embody commitment to six moral values: 1. promoting economic efficiency; 2. reducing poverty; 3. promoting social equality; 4. promoting social integration and avoiding social exclusion; 5. promoting social stability; and 6. promoting autonomy.* These might provide us with a useful objective and practical or political standard of assessment for what counts as “liberal” (distinct from but not unrelated to ‘Liberal,’ as in Liberal political philosophy and theories). Now there are several basic types of welfare state regimes but there exists a “broad consensus across all of [them] on this list of desiderata.” The United States exemplifies institutionally and ideologically one the three basic types of such regimes, the classically liberal model, “rooted in capitalist economic premises and confin[ing] the state to a merely residual social welfare role.” The other two types are the social democratic welfare regime (Scandinavia and elsewhere) and the corporatist welfare regime (Germany and Austria and across the Catholic world).

In several respects it would seem that Obama is weak or at least vacillating in regard to firmly upholding ALL of our six fundamental moral principles, according instead, by design and default, absolute privilege to neo-liberal market policies that embody the so-called Washington Consensus and therefore capitulating to the economic and political interests of capitalist investors and financiers, allowing them to define the contours and substance of the public good (propounding in turn the remarkable proposition that ‘government’ is responsible for all that ails us). The ideological claptrap about deficit reduction from both sides of the aisle is the latest instance of this capitulation (see the excellent series of posts at Dorf on Law by Neil H. Buchanan for explanation and elaboration), further evidence of abandonment of the neo-Keynesian economic premises that are part and parcel of welfare state regimes and allows our conception of “economic efficiency” to be coherently connected to its other moral and political values.

*See Robert E. Goodin, Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels, and Henk-Jan Dirven, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1999.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

erratum: "part and parcel of the welfare state regime...."

Bernie Sanders for President!


Add John Kerry to the number of the deluded:


You wrote: A remarkably large number of Americans live under the delusion that Barack Obama is a liberal.

That is a hilarious typo. You might want to fix it.

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