Freedom, Democracy, and Socialism


“How can the freedom of citizens be secured in a socialist state?” asked political theorist William Connolly. In Free to Choose, Milton Friedman makes an automatic connection between the economic freedom and political freedom, implying that socialism by its very existence denies freedom to its citizens. Economic freedom, as defined by Friedman, is laissez—faire capitalism or market activity with very minimal government assistance or regulation. Political freedom, as defined by Friedman, includes the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the right to vote. As a liberal egalitarian, I do not disagree with the basic definition of political freedom which Friedman advocates. However, Friedman asserts that socialist economic systems, whether they are Soviet-style system, social democratic systems, or even liberal welfare states, undermine political freedom. I find this assertion problematic not only because it does not follow logically, but also because it is a commonly held assumption.

The common connection between economic socialism and political authoritarianism is a remnant of the Cold War. Our main point of reference is the Soviet Union (though this may be short-sighted), where one could admit that political freedom was heavily repressed. But it does not follow that the lack of freedom (particularly civil and political freedom) in the Soviet Union was due to its economic system. Instead, it was likely its authoritarian single party political structure. While I may be myself oversimplifying, this fear of socialism in the name of civil and political freedom is a major part of the American ideological narrative.

However, this is not to say that we should not be worried about the structure of socialism. As with capitalism (democracy, liberalism, etc.) some forms are better than others. Likewise, certain precautions need to be taken against all forms of government in order to ensure civil and political liberty. The fact that many socialist regimes have been authoritarian is clearly something which socialists should be worried about, as is Connolly – though this does not mean that they should necessarily give up on socialism.

William Connolly makes four recommendations about how socialist states can secure freedom while maintaining a commitment to socialism. First, schools and other institutions of learning “must be subject less to state control and more to the control of local communities and teachers.” He argues that by diffusing educational authority, there will be a greater amount of diverse and critical thought. It also prevents the state from using the educational system as merely a propaganda tool.

Second, it is important that “publishing houses, the press, and other media retain some independence from state control.” Such protections are needed to keep the state from manipulating the public for the states-sake. State-control of media outlets is not a socialist program, but rather a program utilized by authoritarian governments to undermine dissent.

Third, an independent judiciary is “imperative” for a socialist state, in the way that it is vital in any regime. Connelly says that a significant difference between Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin was the existence in the United States of a judiciary which “was relatively immune from direct executive control.” Now, courts are still imperfect (there is no shortage of examples from American history), however Connelly could more generally have said that what is needed is a meaningful system of checks and balances. A strong and independent judiciary would be an important element of a significant checks and balances scheme, which would also require a strong legislature with the ability to represent the will of the people apart from the disposition of the executive.

The forth recommendation that Connelly makes is that the right of workers to strike should be maintained. The right to strike would ensure that the interests of worker are not ignored by a regime the is supposedly organized to benefit the workers.
In many ways, Connelly is calling for a socialist state with republican protections. In many ways, Marxist theory provides an economic critique which touches on politics but lacks a theory of regime types. This may not be fatal to Marxist theory, but is has complicated effort to establish socialist states.

The separation of powers, the division of powers, the protection of individual rights against government intrusion, and the rule of law are in no way capitalist ideas. One could argue that capitalist regimes have equally undermined such principles. The failure of socialist regimes in the late 20th century has cast doubt upon the prospect for socialism. However, we should not fall for the analysis of Friedman and other libertarians who blame the negatives of socialism upon its economic theory; rather we should look at the failure to establish sound political principles. These principles are under attack today in many places (Russia, Pakistan, and even the United States) where socialism does not exist is a serious way.

By claiming that capitalism produces political freedom ignores the important role of constitutional democratic government, which I would claim is the root of American freedom, despite capitalism, not because of it. We are willing to ignore those protections in the name of capitalism, much in the way that we are willing to ignore them in the pursuit of empire. John Rawls argues against laissez-faire capitalism and welfare-state capitalism largely on the grounds that the inequalities resulting from it undermine the basis for equal citizenship.

In 1977, Connelly asked “is it possible, possible even at the level of theoretical speculation, to institutionalize such a synthesis of socialist and liberal ideals?” He is less than optimistic about the possibility. While I am hesitant to place hope in this as a political reality, theoretically such a synthesis may be the direction that I am heading in. Both liberal egalitarians and proponents of market socialism seem to also be heading along a similar course.

Connolly, W. E. (1977). A note on freedom under socialism. Political Theory, 5(4), 461-472.

Friedman, M., & Friedman, R. D. (1990). Free to choose : A personal statement (1st Harvest/HBJ ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Rawls, J., & Kelly, E. (2001). Justice as fairness : A restatement. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

This post was originally published at Approaching Justice on April 1, 2013

11 replies »

  1. Chris,

    While you and I would likely disagree strongly on many of the points you are making here. I find you post here to be quite fair and balanced. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

    One question that I might have, is that in many ways what you are laying out here seems to be not that far from the current state of things in the US? It seems to me that a capitalist leaning, constitutional representative government is not that far away. Especially when one considers taxation and social spending.

    A second question is that I am having a hard time imagining really taking economic freedom away, since our careers and our livelihood choices seem so fundamental to freedom?

    Thanks for your efforts to express this in such a reasonable way.

    • Eric,

      Thanks for the questions and sorry for the delay!
      “…in many ways what you are laying out here seems to be not that far from the current state of things in the US?”

      We have a pretty gross inequality of opportunity and other inequalities in terms of education and politics. However, it is not all that different from what we have now and it is very much what we find is many European countries. I am not a utopian egalitarian, but a pragmatic one.

      “…. I am having a hard time imagining really taking economic freedom away, since our careers and our livelihood choices seem so fundamental to freedom?”

      I do not see economic freedom going away. I tend to subscribe to a certain form of market socialism. There will and most be private firms. For at least two reasons: 1) to provide innovation and 2) to limit government power. Volvo and Saab are products of such socialism. As is Ikea. Though I have mixed feeling about Ikea…mostly because it involves me making a special trip to Draper. 🙂

  2. I have worked for the US Federal government for most of the last 40 years, but it would have been intiolerable if there were not a competing private sector that limits what the government is able to do in controlling the lives of its workers. I spent 20 years in the Air Force, including many years in which I lived in a government house, bought my food and clothing and gasoline at government stores, got medical care in a government hospital, sent my children to Federally-owned schools, attended an LDS branch meeting in a government chapel, and was severely restricted in my private activities. The reason these constraints don’t get out of hand is the safety valve of the non-governmental sector of the economy. If the government gained monopoly control of the economy, its abuses would become just as bad as any private monopoly, with an added touch of self-righteousness and the ability to not just fire you, but also fire at you, criminally punishing dissent or lack of cooperation. Other institutions like courts and schools become meaningless forms when the real power to control your life is given to a concentrated entity of government, an entity whose primary purpose will always be to preserve its own power, so it can accomplish its many secondary purposes of “doing good”. Remember the sad observation of D&C 121, that the disposition of all men when they obtain power is to abuse it for their own ends.

    Socialism creates for itself the power to defy the choice of consumers, and preserve economic entities that are not needed. Over time, the number of such outdated entities will only grow. The genius of the internet economy is the freedom it gives to individuals to make choices from a nationwide and worldwide array of offers. Having goods and services moving back and forth may strike a socialist as inefficient. Why not have everyone buy only local products and save on transportation costs, on roads and fuel? But the desire to control everyone else’s choices is what creates inefficiencies, whether the desire is implemented by a business monopolist or a government monopolist.

  3. Thanks Chris,

    When I consider affirmative action programs and hiring quotas, I think again we are moving rapidly in a direction that you would like. In many ways and areas it appears that women and minorities have an advantage. They may often not take advantage, but it appears to be there. When I have looked for engineering jobs, it seems like nearly every one of them specifically encouraged women and minorities to apply. Why not any qualified candidate? I also was told by my manager at my current job that they are told to actively seek women and minorities, and if these candidates are even close, to go with them. It seems that things have been moving in a direction that would please you. I think the question is when do these actions go to far?

    I admit to not knowing what market socialism looks like. It is interesting that the term you used does not include ‘free’. Would there even be a thing like ‘free’ market socialism or not? I might have to read a little on this term.

    • I will have to explain market socialism more and will do so in the future. However, I do not see affirmative action as being what I envision at all. Neither is the welfare state. Both are ultimately outgrowths or symptoms of gross inequality. They are also both insulting and they undermine solidarity. That said, I defend them in the current system because they are all there in the American system. Ultimately our special interest style of political and governance makes it unlikely that much will change.

    • Yeah, that is my fault. I am not trying to come up with a program. Ideologies that demand specific programs run counter to constitutional democracy. They also tend to be annoying (yep, I am sophisticated like that). What I am arguing for is a certain type of leftist voice. Sort of like “free market” types. They will never always get what they want. Nobody should get everything they want.

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