Social Democracy

The objective of social democracy is to ensure that communal needs are met by channelling some of the wealth created by capitalism.

The term can be used to describe a political system, but is used here to refer to a collectivist ideology which is compatible with capitalism.  This dual meaning is captured in the Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies definition:

“a distinctive body of political thought: an ideology which prescribes the use of democratic collective action to extend the principles of freedom and equality valued by democrats in the political sphere to the organization of the economy and society, chiefly by opposing the inequality and oppression created by laissez-faire capitalism”.

A government can achieve collectivist objectives, providing public services and ensuring that people have a chance of flourishing as well as their talents permit, without intruding upon individual freedom beyond the need to collect tax.  It is possible to provide a robust social safety-net without trying to plan the economy or infringe civil liberties.  Western social democracy allows considerable freedom to markets, uses private providers for some of the services funded by the State, and has an above-average record on tolerance and human rights.

Social-democratic governments have had different levels of success, as noted in the following examples:

●  America’s Democratic Party has collectivist aims, but its progress has been hampered by a deeply polarised political system ( President Obama met stiff opposition in his attempts to ensure that every American had access to health care, for example, and his Affordable Care Act (ACA) is still opposed.  A letter to the American Journal of Medicine reported that:

“opposition to ACA is largely by white Americans. This opposition seems to be associated with increasing political polarization surrounding the Obama presidency, perceived self-interest, and racial attitudes.”

●  Britain’s Labour Party was largely responsible for the introduction of the country’s welfare state, but the National Health Service has been seriously undermined recently by the Conservative Party – as described on this website’s blog.

●  France can be classified as a social democracy although it has large elements of socialism. The French population has a broadly favourable public attitude towards State provision of services and public infrastructure, placing more emphasis on these than either Britain or America.  It has State shareholdings in major industries and services, though, as highlighted in an Economist article on 7 July 2005: French privatisation: In name only?  It also has a large public sector – more than 20% of the active workforce – as described in a BBC article: European economy: How French and German states compare.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6231a.htm.