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What is a Social Democracy?

By L. Jablonsky
Updated May 23, 2024
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A social democracy is a government that uses democratic process but has several characteristics that resemble those of a socialist society. Social democrats typically are committed to acting for the common good. In a government that is a social democracy, the government plays an active role in regulating certain political and economic conditions.

The political ideology of a social democracy falls in the center-left of the political spectrum. Although social democrats believe in individual freedoms and a democratically elected government, they also often emphasize the need for the protection of minority groups and programs to benefit the poor. Social democrats generally support work and trade unions, free education and gender equality.

The ideology of liberalism took hold as the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe and the United States. Initially, liberals supported the economic progress, believing that the growth of international markets would benefit a great number of people. The potentially negative effects of capitalist societies and the growth of industry soon became evident, however. After seeing the lack of protection for workers, the use of child labor and the widening gap between the rich and poor, some scholars and politicians attempted to address the consequences of unrestrained capitalism.

Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) was a professor of moral philosophy in England. According to Green, freedom was directly related to a person's contributions to the common good. Although he did advocate individual freedom, Green also believed that the government should actively and positively be involved in increasing the people's freedoms. Green's position was eventually used as a justification for labor laws, public education and other aspects of the modern welfare state.

The economic philosophy of John Maynard Keynes (1883-1846) had a great impact on the social democratic movement. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which was published in 1936, Keynes discussed the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism. He believed that an unregulated market ultimately has a negative impact on the greater society because of its inability to provide full employment or distribute wealth equally.

Green and Keynes, along with other theorists and philosophers, created the basic foundation for contemporary social democratic governments. Unlike socialism, which advocates the nationalization of businesses and other sectors, social democratic countries generally do not emphasize government takeovers of industry. Not all social democrats agree on capitalism, however; some believe that capitalism should be eliminated.

In modern society, social democratic countries and political parties tend to focus on human rights issues. Social democratic countries typically have strict protections for minority groups. They also often attempt to distribute wealth equally throughout the population. Social democracies typically provide government-funded healthcare, subsidized higher education and aid for the elderly, among other social welfare initiatives.

Many countries in Europe, such as Germany, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries, have some characteristics of social democracies. Most democratic countries have some laws or institutions that might be found in a social democracy. For instance, the United States, which typically is not considered to be a social democracy, has programs such as welfare, Medicare and Medicaid as well as public educational institutions.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1005625 — On Oct 09, 2021

Practically every comment here demonstrates that the authors of those comments do not have a clue as to what a social democracy is.

Incidentally, social democracies work fine. In the US where 85+% of the wealth is in the hands of less than 10% of the people, life is a nightmare for many. And god help you if you need healthcare and cannot afford insurance, although the standard of health care when you get it is excellent in general (in the US).

And there is no evidence that European democracies are abandoning socialized health care and other programs. And by a lot of metrics (longevity, for instance), they are doing a lot better than we are.

By anon322713 — On Mar 01, 2013

Let's see here. suntan12, icecream17, latte31, cupcake15, subway11... All users with similarly formatted user names all trying to demonize social democracy and equating it with Communism in Cuba, which, if they had read the article, would realize is not the same thing.

So which company do you guys work for and how much are they paying you?

By anon298824 — On Oct 22, 2012

I am in total agreement with post number 10. An interesting essay to read is "Why Socialism" written in 1949 by Albert Einstein. Research it and read. We may not agree with much, but we certainly should accept that he was a very smart man. Become educated and fight being indoctrinated.

By anon282463 — On Jul 29, 2012

The level of misunderstanding in these comments is discouraging. The article is quite clear that a social democracy is not equivalent to socialism. Yet most comments here seek to indict socialism and extol the virtues of capitalism. It's telling that most posters use standard arguments attributable to wealthy American conservative capitalists.

A social democracy seeks to balance the positives of both capitalism and social democracy for the good of the entire nation. Many of them are highly successful, which is why Northern European nations such as Denmark and Norway have much higher life satisfaction and lower poverty ratios compared to a capitalist republic such as the US, or a capitalist single-party state such as China.

By subway11 — On Sep 30, 2010

Cupcake15- My parents came from Cuba in the mid 60’s and experienced the darkness of Communism and how that took the Cuban people’s basic rights and dignities away.

I cannot even tell you how many political prisoners there are in Cuban prisons because they simply disagree with the government. Many have been killed because of their opposing view points, so I do not see anything democratic about a Socialist movement.

By cupcake15 — On Sep 30, 2010

Mutsy-I know what you mean. I see this all the time in the streets in many of these European countries because the government has to cut pensions because they cannot afford to pay this out any longer.

The problem is when a society becomes accustomed to certain benefits it's really hard to get them to understand that they can no longer have these benefits.

People just get used to receiving these benefits and plan their life that way. This is the danger of too many governmental programs and makes people dependent on the government which doesn't make people stronger and makes them weaker.

By mutsy — On Sep 30, 2010

Latte31-I often wonder what Cuba would have been like if it would've remained a capitalist nation like it was pre-Castro.

The major reason why socialism and communism does not work is because not everyone has the same desire and work ethic so you cannot level the playing field.

In a capitalist nation like the United States, you are rewarded for your efforts and work ethic. The harder you work the more you succeed.

But in a socialist nation the majority of your income is taking away or confiscated by the government in order to provide services to the entire nation.

Tax rates of 70 to 80% of total income are not uncommon in many parts of Europe. However, many European countries are moving away from this model and realizing that they cannot sustain these governmental benefits.

By latte31 — On Sep 30, 2010

GreenWeaver- This is exactly what happened in Cuba. People are not producing anything because the government owned everything.

People in Cuba have no incentive to work harder because they're going to get the same amount of wages regardless of their effort. This is disincentives people to create businesses and to become more productive, two things that you would need for any economy to grow.

As a result of years of communism, the Cuban government had to lay off thousands of government workers because they could not afford to pay them any longer.

By GreenWeaver — On Sep 30, 2010

BrickBack- I couldn't agree with you more. Socialism or Communism whatever you want to call it does not work.

Even Fidel Castro recently announced that both socialism and communism does not work. Governments don't create jobs, businesses do and when the government oversees every aspect of a business and there's no private enterprise people become dependent on the government in order to live.

By BrickBack — On Sep 30, 2010

Bhutan- I feel that Socialism views profits from companies as obscene, but it is because of these profits that not only can companies offer more products and services but they can also hire more workers.

This is evident in the current social democracy in America movement by Obama. By redistributing wealth through various government programs that offer substantial benefits to the poor at the expense of the everyone else, our national unemployment rate is 10% and the Miami is 14%.

There are some other parts of the country that have an unemployment rate of the 19%. The reason for this is that businesses aren't going to hire additional workers when the economic climate is very hostile towards businesses. Businesses need tax cuts in order to expand and hire more workers.

By Bhutan — On Sep 30, 2010

Icecream17-It's really hard to use the word socialism and democracy in the same sentence. Socialism eliminates options and choices in free will and makes the government more powerful.

It takes choices and options away from people in the guise of equalizing the playing field. However, effort and resourcefulness cannot be measured in this way.

People that have worked hard and it made substantial gains in their lives should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Some social programs are necessary, but we should help people find meaningful work, which will do more for them than handouts.

By icecream17 — On Sep 30, 2010

Suntan12- I agree with you. I think that this

freedom allows people to become creative and offer all sorts of products and services in the marketplace.

In addition, this allows businesses to hire workers and provide a more favorable economic climate. People that started businesses had to work hard and take substantial risks and they should not be penalized for their efforts.

This is what socialism does by redistributing wealth and creating additional government programs from these funds.

By suntan12 — On Sep 30, 2010

The social democracy ideology believes that capitalism should be eliminated. Their view is that capitalism exploits the common worker and especially minorities and only promotes business profits which are seen as taking advantage of a common worker.

These are the principles of the Socialist party. Although the people that believe that ideology may prefer to call this social democracy, but there really is nothing democratic about redistributing wealth.

Capitalism and social democracy are at odds with each other because those that believe in social democracy want to eliminate capitalism in the guise that they are helping the common good of society.

Capitalism while not perfect does afford those with entrepreneurial inclinations to open up a business of their choice. This system rewards hardwork and ingenuity.

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