Freedom and Socialism

Freedom and Socialism December 27, 2010

“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.

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