People who are not very political often ask me what is the difference between a liberal and a conservative? What is the difference between a liberal Democrat and a democratic socialist? I’m not a political scientist. But this is my take on what differentiates liberal Democrats from conservative Republicans and democratic socialists. Since there are big differences in many different areas, I’ll just focus on how their economic philosophies differ. I’ll start with liberals and conservatives since their differences are more stark.
Both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans believe the capitalist system is the best system for a prosperous society. Liberals, though, believe that capitalism has flaws as well as benefits. Liberals believe that the federal government must intervene in the economy to help its most vulnerable citizens from the worst aspects of the free market system. If the government doesn’t help, free markets often unleash economic forces that overwhelm the ability of individuals and whole communities to cope.
Conservative Republicans believe that government intervention in the free markets is always counterproductive and causes unintended negative consequences. Conservatives believe that people should patiently allow economic downturns to run its course and allow free markets to recover. Many conservatives believe that charities and religious institutions (like churches, synagogues and mosques) should aid the poor and those struggling from economic distress rather than government social programs. Conservative fears of big government derive from the anti-Federalists of the early American republic, who did not like the authoritarian monarchies that they saw in Europe.
Liberals criticize conservatives as having too much faith in free markets and having too little appreciation on how the free markets flaws can damage individuals and communities. They agree with economist John Maynard Keynes’ criticism of conservative philosophy: people may not have the patience to allow free markets to heal. Keynes noted that Europeans struggling through the Great Depression were very vulnerable to the appeals of demagogues and the false promises of fascists like Mussolini, Franco and Hitler. Without the intervention of the federal government, liberals believe that struggling people could lose faith in capitalism and turn towards a more authoritarian direction.
The differences between liberal Democrats and democratic socialists is much more subtle than the differences between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Liberal Democrats and democratic socialists are both to the Left of the political spectrum and both share a similar critique of the capitalist system. The difference is that liberal Democrats believe that the flaws of capitalism can be reformed through government intervention. Democratic socialists believe that capitalism’s flaws cannot be reformed by any measures and that a more just and human economic system needs to replace it.
Liberals see free markets as an indispensable part of any prosperous society. Communist China didn’t thrive until it introduced free market reforms in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Because of those free market reforms, China was able to lift millions of its people out of poverty and create a middle class of around 300 million people. Prosperous democratic socialist countries like Sweden and Denmark have a free market element in their economies.
The big debate between liberal Democrats and democratic socialists is what is the proper balance between government intervention and maintaining a private economy. Democratic socialists believe that the government should take control over more aspects of the economy than liberal Democrats do.
Both liberal Democrats and democratic socialists believe that it is important to curtail the power of corporations in the political sphere. Liberals believe that corporations are inevitable, but there needs to be checks and balances to their power. Over the past 40 years, liberals have seen the natural checks and balances to corporate power (like unions, regulatory agencies, consumer actions groups) decline and as a result, corporations have gained undue political influence to reconfigure the economy so that it benefits a relative few at the expense of many. Liberals believe if the economic system doesn’t benefit the vast majority of its people, then the system needs to be reformed.
If you notice, liberals talk about corporations the way conservatives talk about big government. They often use the same criticisms and each makes valid criticisms about both entities. Each taps into a different aspect of American traditional thought. Liberals are tapping into the mistrust of big business and moneyed interests that was often expressed by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Conservatives are tapping into the mistrust of the federal government that was expressed by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine.
In this 2013 youtube video, Yuval Levin gave a lecture for Hillsdale College on his book “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left”. Levin believed that the debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine exemplifies the modern debate between the Left and the Right.
In this 2012 youtube Ted Talk video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right, or center. In this eye-opening talk, he pinpoints the moral values that liberals and conservatives tend to honor most. Jonathan Haidt studies how — and why — we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded.
In this 2017 Vice video, Liberals and Conservatives came together to work through differences of opinion and see if they can find middle ground by discussing Trump, voting, and partisanship.
In this 2019 One America News Network youtube video, Chloe Salsameda breaks down those differences between democratic socialists and traditional Democrats.
In this 2019 interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Bernie Sanders talks about his difference with liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Warren is a capitalist who believes that the capitalist system can be reformed. Sanders is a democratic socialist who believes that capitalism should be replaced with a different economic system that is fairer and more humane.