I’m often asked to explain why I am a liberal Democrat. Why am I not instead a Democratic Socialist? Are liberals just communists in disguise, as Trump and many more radical right wingers always try to label liberals as being?
Liberals Democrats, Democratic Socialists and Communists all share similar critiques of the capitalist economic system. The difference is that liberals think that the flaws of capitalism can be reformed. Democratic Socialists and Communists think that the flaws of capitalism cannot be reformed and the system needs to be replaced with something more humane.
As a liberal, I believe that capitalism has great benefits but also great flaws. If you ignore capitalism’s flaws, those flaws grow and eventually overwhelm any benefits that the system has to offer. History has shown that the boom and bust cycles of a capitalist system can unleash economic forces that overwhelm the ability of our most vulnerable citizens to cope.
Living in Silicon Valley, I see very clearly the stark contrasts between the benefits and flaws of capitalism. Sleek high tech companies and gentrifying neighborhoods contrast with a growing homeless population and struggling blue collar workers trying to keep pace with ever rising rents.
I ascribe to the philosophy that New Deal liberals had in the 1930s: the federal government has a responsibility to help its most vulnerable citizens from the worse effects of a free market system. The various programs introduced by the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society helped many poor Americans survive the worst effects of poverty and helped give many poor and blue collar Americans have economic opportunities that they wouldn’t have had with unregulated free markets.
I don’t believe in utopias though. Liberal Democrats have been wrong about some things and not all liberal programs have worked. But overall, I think l liberal Democrats have done much to try to insure that capitalism benefits everyone and not just a few.
My critique of capitalism is influenced by two sources: Catholic Social Thinking and the writings of Charles Dickens. Unlike Karl Marx, Catholic Social Thinking and Charles Dickens are making a moral critique of capitalism rather than a revolutionary critique. Both the Catholic Church and Charles Dickens saw that without moral constraints, a system based on maximizing profits and the pursuit of self interest is going to cater to the worst forms of selfishness and greed. This selfishness and greed destroys social cohesion by creating a dog-eat-dog world where the wealthy show no compassion for the poor and class conflict inevitably results.
The Catholic critique of capitalism began with Pope Leo XIII’s papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. The popes that followed Pope Leo XIII were all very different, but all of them, whether they were reform popes or traditionalist popes, were just as critical of capitalism as Leo. Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope John XIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evanellii Gaudium, all amplify Rerum Novarum’s critique of capitalism’s flaws and its devastating effects on the poor and lower classes.
Charles Dickens lived during the time of England’s industrial revolution, when the poor and working class suffered while providing the labor that made England the most prosperous nation in the 19th century. Dickens’ books, like A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Hard Times, all showed a deep compassion for the poor and it also offered a scathing critique of the British economic system. His books would inspire activists and leftists like Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Howard Zinn, and Dorothy Day.
A video of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal
A video of the Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum’s critique of capitalism, its influence on Catholic Social Teaching, and the attempts of the Jesuits to implement its message of social justice
Here is a video by the British Library on Charles Dickens’ book Oliver Twist that expresses Dickens concern for the poor and his attempts to use his books to instigate social reform
Here is a video by the British Library where Michael Slater explains the background behind Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol and Dickens attempt to draw attention to desperate poverty in Victorian England
A video exploring the homeless problem in Silicon Valley
A video exploring the struggles of blue collar workers to pay rising rents in Silicon Valley