In 2008, President Obama made this statement of principle, otherwise known as a gaffe: “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” John McCain used the opportunity to call him a socialist. So did Rick Perry in his 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney has so far preferred using code. But as the campaign gets tougher, he too might start using the S-word. Especially now that France has chosen to exhibit a real live specimen of the species in the Élysée.

So what is socialism? What makes a socialist different from a liberal?

Philosophers of liberalism and socialism actually have very different visions for the world. They don’t disagree at all on the idea that spreading the wealth around is good for everybody. In fact, this idea finds one of its greatest expressions in the work of the philosopher of welfare liberalism, John Rawls. He proposed two principles of justice, one of which—the “Difference Principle”—claims that inequalities are permissible if and only if they benefit the worst-off person. Since many inequalities arising from the free market violate this principle, some wealth must be redistributed.

The difference between liberals and socialists, rather, is founded on their different answers to this question: Can the principles by which I vote differ from the principles by which I live?

Liberals say yes, they can. Rawls, for example, said that you must be guided by  principles of distributive justice, such as the Difference Principle, only when you think about the basic structure of society. Roughly, those times are when you self-consciously think of yourself as a citizen: when you vote, when you debate political ideals, when you think about those ideals in your time alone. Otherwise, you don’t need to heed principles of distributive justice.

So a liberal allows you to accept a salary that is four, ten, 100 times greater than that of the least well-off person in your society, so long as, when you step into the voting booth, you don a new hat and act so that all inequalities are arranged to benefit the least well-off.

That picture deeply disturbs socialists. Jerry Cohen, the preeminent contemporary philosopher of socialism, wrote:

“Liberally minded economists take for granted that economic agents are self-seeking, or, like James Meade, they think that they should be, and then they want people as political agents to act against the grain of their self-interest: pile up your earthly goods on the mundane plane of civil society but be a saint in the heaven of politics.”

Cohen didn’t think that that was a good idea. He, like other socialists, thought that a well-ordered society is not just a mass of persons who each has the right amount of goods. All people should unite in bonds of fraternity, mutual respect, and regard for each other’s dignity. And those things cannot grow in the moral-political schizophrenia allowed by liberalism. So “the personal must be made political”: principles of justice must be made principles of life.

This translates into greater wealth redistribution because one justification for inequalities is now unavailable. Liberals, per the Difference Principle, might allow people with scarce talents to receive relatively high salaries because (a) everyone is made better off when those people work those jobs, and (b) those people will only work those jobs when they are given incentives. But if you are applying the Difference Principle to your own life, you can’t say “I am permitted this salary, because that is the only way I will work this job at these hours.” For that is not the only way you could work. You could choose to work your job for benefits equal to that of the least well-off person. And that is what the socialist demands.

Clearly America is not a socialist nation. That possibility is a long way away; and, the liberal might argue, there it will always remain. Inescapable human frailties make it impossible. Concern for others will not motivate enough people to work all the arduous though necessary jobs. Nor might the socialist ideal be desirable: the price of communal ties is individual liberty, and it might be better for each of us that we not have a close, and therefore demanding, relationship with each person who is to provide us with some good.

But the socialist can point to other nations, such as Sweden or Denmark, in which, supposedly, a true egalitarian ethos has taken hold, nations which have not only generous social welfare provisions, but also citizens who are shocked by accepting privileges for themselves which others do not have. And to address the desirability of such polities, she can point experience of the people who live in them. They tend to be happier than we liberals.


Photo credits:

Front: Pete Souza, Official White House Photographer ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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