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.