As with classical liberals and libertarians, general knowledge of the worldview associated with a political label – in the case of social democrats, that state power should be used to alter the outcomes of voluntary exchange to favour groups deemed as lacking power or material resources – was confirmed in the Australian political identity survey as being highly predictive of the views of people identifying as ‘social democrats’.
Indeed, more so than for classical liberals the social democratic results (more detail and analysis here) contain few surprises. The pattern observed in the classical liberal responses of on some issues significant minorities holding views apparently at odds with their philosophy is largely absent among social democrats. The main diversity of view among social democrats is not on which side of the debate they line up, but on how strongly they back the social democratic perspective.
For example, only a tiny minority of social democrats opposed unfair dismissal laws, with the ‘dissidents’ being people who wanted to exempt small business. Only a tiny minority opposed minimum wage laws, with the division being between those prepared to concede that the laws may cost some jobs and those who – despite apparently thinking prices are important, judging by their response to price control questions – believe that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to low-wage workers. Only a tiny minority would let schools choose their own curriculum, with the dissidents being those who favour state-based curriculum.
One of the few results that surprised me was that only a third of social democrats wanted to increase the tax burden beyond its current levels as a proportion of GDP. Given that there was a generally enthusiastic response to spending questions – 59% agreeing that income should be redistributed more than it is, 76% in favour of taxpayer-funded maternity leave, only 16% agreement that benefits for families capable of self-reliance causes tax rates to be too high – it is not clear where the savings are going to come from to meet these seemingly contradictory goals. The only hint in the survey was clear majority support for phasing out support for the car industry.
On a small number of issues, there were what looked like real and significant differences of opinion among social democrats. Almost equal proportions favoured a carbon trading scheme and a carbon tax. Large numbers support both the status quo in prudential regulation of the finance industry and strengthening that regulation. Very similar numbers are for and against maintaining exceptions in discrimination law for organisations based on protected characteristics, such as gay bars and religious bodies.
Despite the clear major differences between social democrats and classical liberals, there were a few issues in which each had majorities on the same side of a political debate. Both recognise benefits from reduced tariffs such as lower prices for consumers and more efficient investment. Though social democrats are much more enthusiastic than classical liberals about using fiscal policy to manage the economic cycle, majorities in both groups majority support it. Both groups also support the ACCC preventing mergers that would substantially lessen competition in a market. And of course classical liberals, like social democrats, oppose the Rudd car plan.
On some personal liberty issues social democrats hold liberal views. Like classical liberals (though less strongly) they oppose censorship of sexually explicit materials and do not believe that marijuana use should be illegal. Like classical liberals, they are overwhelmingly in favour of improved legal recognition of gay relationships. The two groups have very similar views on abortion.
Overall, as intuition would suggest, classical liberals and social democrats are opponents on most issues. It is a tribute to the political skill of leading figures in the Hawke and Keating governments that substantial economic liberalisation occurred via a party whose supporters (67% of social democrat respondents back Labor) are generally reluctant to let the results of voluntary exchange stand.