Stuff I find slightly meaningful and close to achievable

From Social-Democracy to Social-Liberalism : What I do not believe in

After a very nice discussion with Erik Engheim, who is a proponent of Nordic-style Social-Democracy, I decided that I would write down a couple of things about my politics, but also about my history and self.

As some of you may know, I used to identify as a Social-Democrat.

This was from 2014-2018, I used to be respectively 17 years old and changed my mind around my 20th-21st birthday. First and foremost, let me clarify: calling yourself “liberal”, or even “social-liberal” is far from politically neutral in France.

Most people from the center to the center-left, hell, even right-wingers raise an eyebrow when you tell them you think liberalism is cool. In my own current party, very good people I appreciate have a little freeze when you tell them you are social-liberal.

In spite of this, I still like to call myself this because of a few reasons:

This series of posts will be dedicated to explaining why I hold some of those beliefs. This first post is dedicated to what I do not believe. This might help some make sense of what I share and what I do not share with others.

Most subtitles are phrased in a negative way : “X is not Y”. This doesn’t mean I believe the opposite (“X is Y”), this is just stylistic repetition — each sentence means that I do not think “X is Y”.

Socialism isn’t evil – it is just unconvincing

When I read some pages about some less well-known strands of socialism, such as Fabian Socialism, Liberal Socialism or several versions of Market Socialism, I tend to agree with a fair bit of their ideas.

I have found very inspiring and smart people defending these men and women, and even the most staunch anti-communist should ask himself whether the ideologies that allowed the London School of Economics to exist, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singaporean Miracle or the policies championed by New Labour are something to abhor.

The main reason Socialism feels so “neutral” or “uninteresting” to me is probably linked to my ambivalence towards what philosophers call “Ideal Theory”. To quote a few lines from the article I linked:

The idea that a vision of an ideal society can serve as a moral and strategic star to steer by is both intuitive and appealing. But it turns out to be wrong. This sort of political ideal actually can’t help us find our way through the thicket of real-world politics into the clearing of justice.

The thesis is that not having a “Grand plan” and trying to stick to it is actually what leads to “utopia”, and trying to reproduce mental models of what ought to be often backfires.

Inequality isn’t a “non-issue”

Inequality is very much important, and even the staunchest free-marketeers will concede that the economic fabric of human societies break down when Gini is high enough. This is precisely the thought process behind Sammuel Hammond’s “free-market welfare state”. Sam is not very progressive, nor is he social-liberal. He just has half a brain.

Even Hayekians will agree information asymmetry is an issue, though they backtrack when given any concrete intervention to equalize things. Some will probably invoke Coase’s Theorem to argue inequalities do not preclude from achieving the best outcomes — but this is so idealistic it might very well be called “its own kind of Socialism” — if one identifies socialism with a high dose of idealism.

As Keynes himself said,

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs.

In the long run, we are all dead.

In light of what was said about Ideal theory above, let me state two of my beliefs, which I think will make everything clearer:

When — and if — I try to envision the ideal society, far into the distant future, I tend to think of a society that is much more equalitarian than the one which we currently have

However, I also strongly believe the following

It is impossible to foretell the pace at which humanity will progress towards such egalitarian societies, and it is highly unrealistic to envision and enforce a steady, always decreasing, downward trend in inequality — hiccups and fluctuations are inevitable and even perhaps desirable

In other words: lets keep things incremental, and focus on short to medium term political goals. It is fine to see it as a grand quest to prove “socialism works” over time, it is fine to see it as “pragmatism” — please just roll up your sleeves and do the work.

People and voters aren’t stupid

Perhaps what might seem odd to readers is the following:

It is because I believe ordinary people should have more control over their lives and get to weigh more on policy and economic outcomes that I turned away from French Social-Democracy

French “Social-Democrats” are a weird bunch. They’re extremely competent — most top positions require a PhD at one of the most selective universities on Earth for public management, the french “École nationale d'administration”, and while french Parti Socialiste used to have broad popular support, the french 5th Republic is very much a “choose your flavor of technocrat every 5 years” type system.

This is very much wrong in my opinion. Not only because french technocrats are not exactly the best at getting things done, but because ordinary citizens — be it investors, artists, engineers, activists, educators, researchers — have proven to be as important if not more important. Statesmen should remain humble. They are supposed to empower people, to help them make sense of trade-offs and tools — they shouldn’t suppress society’s voice.

Individual Freedom isn’t incompatible with solidarity

If you listen to lots of self-proclaimed “progressives” and “socialists” in France, you will get the impression there is no way to reconcile individual freedom with solidarity and social justice: most policies should be designed within this framework — restraining individual freedom is simply a necessary component of increasing equality and welfare.

To this, I will simply quote Keynes — which should serve as the basis of most socialist ideologies in my opinion — whom famously said:

The political problem of mankind is to combine three things:

Economic efficiency, Social justice, and individual liberty.

Let me be clear: individual liberty is non-negotiable. If your design makes it impossible to push for the two, you essentially are justifying inequality in my eyes and you will lose — and must lose — because individual liberty is vital.

It is up to the left to find a way to advocate for both. I will encourage them to do so when possible, but I will oppose and vote against any initiative that tries to promote authoritarianism as a tool to reach equality.

The “Revolution” — Mob violence — isn’t democratic

A lot of people on the left in France, perhaps as a consequence of the French Revolution of 1789, seem to believe riots, revolutions, popular uprisings and other kinds of mob violence are profoundly progressive and democratic tools — legitimate ways for the people to express themselves and push for societal progress.

Why did the french revolution turn into a cultural glorification of popular uprisings and not into a deep-seated respect for Liberal Radicalism ? I do not know. Yet here we are, and my ideology reflects this in parts.

My bias is opposite: I was raised by an artist who equated such things to fascism, and rather believed individuals were unique and should never try to belong to an indiscriminate crowd.

You can find a long line of artists — primarily with anarchist-like leanings — who were heavily criticized by Marxists and revolutionaries for not appealing to the masses and trying to sound unique and avant-garde instead. Karlheinz Stockhausen is perhaps one of them, and some of his most famous pupils include Can’s Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt. They cannot reasonably qualified as right-wing, after all one of the band members suggested the group’s name CAN was an acronym for “Communism, Anarchism, Nihilism”.

Some of my father’s takes include:

I am still not sure of what his politics where like — after all, he never cared enough to vote. He lived 35 years under Tito’s dictatorship, and believed french politics were full of dishonest liars which did not deserve his attention.

Successful people do not “deserve” what they have

Perhaps what is most crucial in my drift away from French Social-Democracy is the idea that Meritocracy does not exist — and that trying to will it into existence is not useful. Many french social democrats I know tend to oppose markets and liberalism precisely because they think they are not meritocratic.

But these same ideas lead them to borderline reactionary proposals when discussing what welfare recipients “deserve” or “do not deserve”. I believe this is a fundamentally bankrupt framework, and we should not care whether someone is “deserving” — this is arbitrary and mostly does not lead to good outcomes.

Overall I dislike Social-Democracy because it feels too rules-based, too rigid, lacks flexibility and does nothing to adapt to change.

Perhaps one of the most powerful quotes against meritocracy I’ve witnessed was Milton Friedman’s

“Deserves” is an impossible thing to decide.

No one deserves anything. Thank god no one gets what they deserve.

As with many of Friedman’s quotes, you can twist this in any way you like. Was this a conservative rambling against welfare ? Probably not, Friedman notably believed in universal income and stated several times poverty should be eradicated.

I just think it is simply him implying the so-called “Friedman Doctrine” yields more progressive outcomes than arbitrary allocation of resources — which many on the left struggle to admit.

Property rights are not absolute

I very much subscribe to the belief property is the result of a collective decision making process. We agree to give exclusive use of a good or resource because we — as a collective — believe that this allocation will result in outcomes which are better for everyone.

Obviously we tend to secure these principles a bit more, because they serve as a fundamental basis of an economic system, and having them change every 5 years is a recipe for disaster.

I am of the belief it is very hard to find a system which beats welfare capitalism, but I remain open to the idea that the current system is not the most optimal way of allocating earth’s resources. A book that reflects my position is the recent publication called “Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society”. Most people on the left would be opposed to the book’s ideas, but I do believe they’re wrong in this regard. I am not certain the book’s ideas are correct — in fact there are strong arguments against it.

Change is neither dangerous nor unreasonable

As someone who so far voted for centrist candidates, the arguably correct joke about centrists is that they just refuse anything bold and only want tiny adjustments. I do not believe this to be my ideology — in fact I believe the opposite.

I truly believe change is good, and I despise conservatism and inertia so much that I see the world as an always-turning wheel: nothing is here to stay, everything changes, no-one is irreplaceable, so-on so forth.

What is striking in the french political climate is that both the right and the left have — in some sense — profoundly conservative messaging.

The right believes we should return to more traditional values and family-centric companies and economics. They long for the time France was a powerful colonial power. Some want to reinstate the gold standard.

The left believes we should return to post-war welfare and stay forever in this frozen period in time when price controls and economic planning were common sense. They think companies going bankrupt and people losing their job is a proof the system has failed.

All of this is profoundly reactionary to me.

The only candidate who dared to say some things needed to change was the centrist one — although he since then made so many wrong turns that I gave up on him a few years ago.

Last words

There are many things I disagree with — this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but I hope this makes it easier to guess what my opinion will be on a given issue.

Many would think someone who appreciates policy wonkism and liberalism is very confident about socialism being wrong, property rights being absolute, meritocracy being good or ordinary people being stupid. This isn’t quite me.

Perhaps the big flaw of this initial article is that you now might ask — but what do they believe now ? I will end up answering this question in the next articles. Topics I want to cover for now are:

Hope this made sense and wasn’t too boring, if you have any suggestion for upcoming blogposts don’t hesitate to send a DM @arno_shae on twitter or on mastodon.