By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Was Jesus a socialist? The early church may have thought so, but its experiment with socialism was short lived. Authoritarian politics prevailed worldwide until the 18th century, when libertarian democracy transformed politics and religion in the Western world. In 1917 Soviet Communism challenged libertarian democracy, but it collapsed of its own weight in 1990, ending the Cold War and leaving China, Cuba and North Korea as remnants of political communism.
Today softer forms of social democracy thrive in European democracies. Socialist policies are gaining popularity in the U.S. while libertarian excesses are fueling radical right politics. These trends underscore the need for democracies to balance individual rights (a libertarian priority) with providing for the common good (a socialist priority). As political debates rage between socialists and libertarians, the future of democracy hangs in the balance.
Individual freedom is essential to the public good, but unlimited freedom, whether political or economic, undermines the common good--just as big government, the traditional target of libertarians, and big business, the traditional target of socialists, can both threaten individual liberty. Big government stifles freedom with excessive regulations and taxes, and big business stifles freedom by creating vast disparities of wealth that threaten the middle class.
Libertarian and socialist politics are neither moral or immoral per se. Both are moral if they promote altruistic policies that balance individual rights with providing for the common good. That includes libertarian opposition to socialist policies that sacrifice economic freedom to create economic equality, and socialist efforts to regulate Wall Street mega-corporations that exploit consumers and threaten the stability of the middle class with vast disparities in wealth.
Individual rights begin with the freedoms of religion and speech. They are first among the fundamental freedoms protected in the U.S. Constitution, but they are denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws in many authoritarian Islamic regimes. Too much freedom of religion is the problem in the U.S. where evangelical Christians are claiming the right to discriminate against homosexuals as an exercise of their religious freedom.
Libertarian claims of individual rights go too far when they violate the law; but there are exceptions. Faith can require that immoral laws be disobeyed, as demonstrated by Dr. Martin Luther King. His peaceful protests against immoral “separate but equal” laws in the South resulted in the passage of civil rights laws that ended racist Jim Crow laws in the South.
Today, radical right neo-libertarians in the Republican Party and leftist socialists in the Democratic Party have polarized American politics along racial and partisan lines. That has left centrists who support balancing individual rights with providing for the common good without a party in America’s two-party duopoly. And Christianity has become more a part of the problem than the solution since most white Christians support radical right Republicans.
Centrist politics are neither socialist or libertarian, but altruistic. They understand the danger of greed and the concentration of power to America’s freedom and democracy, and that the super-rich and mega-corporations of Wall Street are as much a threat to freedom and democracy as big government. Regulation of the unrestrained greed and power of Wall Street should be a common goal of both socialist and libertarian politics.
A politics of reconciliation based on altruistic common values is needed to mediate divisive socialist and libertarian issues and prevent further partisan polarization. That will require a transformation of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party to accommodate political centrists (as they once did), or the creation of a centrist third party. Meanwhile the elimination of gerrymandered districts and use of ranked-choice voting can provide some relief.
Christianity has a major role in promoting altruism in politics. It is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. That love command is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it can redeem American democracy by reconciling its divisive social and libertarian politics.
Stephanie Slade has argued a libertarian case for the common good in a Catholic magazine, emphasizing voluntary action as opposed to coercive government action is consistent with Christian principles. See https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/08/06/libertarian-case-common-good?utm_source=Newsletters&utm_campaign=a64080afd5-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_08_06_08_32&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0fe8ed70be-a64080afd5-58692321.
Professor Sheri Berman has been critical of the rise of democratic socialism with its “idealism and activism generated by intense dissatisfaction within the status quo” and questioned whether its proponents, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, believe in democracy. Berman compared the weakness of radical democratic socialism with the strength of its softer counterpart, social democracy, with “its realism and and optimism that can come from believing it is possible to create a better world incrementally.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/democratic-socialists-are-conquering-the-left-but-do-they-believe-in-democracy/2018/08/10/5bf58392-9b90-11e8-b60b-1c897f17e185_story.html?utm_term=.7571b00210ba&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
George Will has portrayed the rise of socialism in the Democratic Party as more compatible with fascism than with democracy, saying that Trump could teach Ocasio-Cortez a thing or two about socialism. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-could-teach-ocasio-cortez-a-thing-or-two-about-socialism/2018/07/27/f4672a2e-9102-11e8-bcd5-9d911c784c38_story.html?utm_term=.78198a1d732b&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1
CEO pay jumped to an average of $19 M in 2017, an 18% percent increase compared to a 2% increase for the average worker from $53,400 to 54,600. It represents the threat of Wall Street mega-corporations to the stability of the American middle class--as much a threat to freedom as socialist mega-governments. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/08/16/embargo-hold-am-tomorrow-morning-ceo-pay-jumps-million-annually-fears-mount-over-wealthy-pocketing-gains/?utm_term=.6f668268eb54
European socialist policies have done a better job of protecting consumer interests and individual freedom in the marketplace than America’s more libertarian policies and corporate concentration. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/08/17/us-democracy/?utm_term=.e2cebc6f5193&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1
James Burklo has distinguished between the religious freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and the religious freedom claimed by white Christians that would enable them to discriminate against others. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/celebrate-and-defend-real-religious-freedom/
On how the concept of “right” changes the meaning of “religious liberty,” and how “in the hands of the Trump administration, the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians--specifically white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base,” see https://www.pressherald.com/2018/08/03/right-changes-meaning-of-religious-liberty/.
David Brooks has advocated multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting in our two-party duopoly. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/voting-reform-partisanship-congress.html. Brooks has also advocated third party candidates who would redistribute power downward to local communities. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/30/opinion/third-party-2020-election-localism.html.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have advocated ranked choice voting. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/give-ranked-voting-a-shot-our-democracy-would-benefit/2018/06/14/73c59356-6835-11e8-9e38-24e693b38637_story.html?utm_term=.6e95a3819e3c&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1; and for the New York Times, see https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/ranked-choice-voting-maine-san-francisco.html?emc=edit_th_180610&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=588540110610.
Michael Gerson, a long-time Republican, has urged moderate Republicans to vote strategically for Democrats in House races this year to prevent Trump’s takeover of the GOP. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-only-way-to-save-the-gop-is-to-defeat-it/2018/08/09/dc70b75a-9c10-11e8-b60b-1c897f17e185_story.html?utm_term=.cd310c4cbcaa&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
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