WASHINGTON: Suddenly, we are hearing a great deal about “socialism.” A Gallup Poll in August found that 57 percent of Democrats said they view socialism positively. Other polls show the popularity of socialism among millennials and politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieved celebrity promoting socialism, after she defeated the fourth-ranked Democratic House leader, Joseph Crowley, in a New York primary. Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has long called himself a “democratic socialist,’ and gained widespread support in his 2016 challenge of Hillary Clinton.
What exactly do its proponents mean when the use the term “socialism?” In his article, “Socialism Is So HOT Right Now” (Commentary, Oct, 2018), Jonah Goldberg, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes:
“…socialism has never been a particularly stable or coherent program. It has always been best defined as whatever socialists want it to be at any given moment. That is because its chief utility is as a romantic indictment of the capitalist status quo. As many of the defenders of the new socialist craze admit, socialism is the off-the-shelf alternative to capitalism, which has been in bad odor since at least the financial crash of 2008.”
‘For millennials” writes the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter, ”capitalism’ means ‘unacceptable people ripping off the world’ while ‘socialism’ simply means ‘not that,'”
There was a time when socialism was widely understood to involve government owning the means of production, deciding exactly what was to be distributed, and who would get it. If contemporary advocates of socialism believe that the economies of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark represent their ideal, they must be reminded that these Scandinavian countries are capitalist countries, with thriving, privately owned industries. They simply have decided to have higher taxes than we do and provide additional social services. They are not socialist.
We did have our own colonial experience with a genuine variety of socialism. From the earliest days, the American colonists learned the important lesson that the entire idea of the “common ownership” of a property was both impractical and inequitable.
Discussing the experience of the Plymouth Colony, Professor Gottfried Dietze, in his book, “In Defense of Property,” writes that,
“Irrespective of what each of the colonists produced, everything went into a common warehouse and the government doled out the proceeds of the warehouse as need seemed to require. However, this system soon proved to be unsatisfactory. The warehouse was constantly running out of provisions and many of the colonists were starving. In view of this emergency, Governor Bradford and the remaining members of the colony agreed during the third winter to give up the common ownership and permit each colonist to keep the products of his work. This gave incentive to all.”
When Spring came, reports Governor Bradford,
“the women now sentence willingly into se field and tooke their little ones with them to set corne, which before would alledge weakness, and inabilities; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.”
The result of these efforts was a happy one.
Professor Dietze, reviewing the history of the entire American colonial period, as well as the thinking of the framers of the Constitution, concludes:
“…the American Revolution became, to a great extent, a movement for the protection of property.”
Those who today advocate an “equal” distribution of property claim that in doing so, they are simply applying the philosophy of the Founding Fathers to matters of economic concern. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison clearly deals with this question. Madison writes:
“The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interest. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”
It is difficult to understand how political activists who express suspicion of government and the ruling elites they believe to be in charge would think that socialism, which would give government power over our entire economy, would, somehow, be an improvement. What they misunderstand is the fact that economic freedom is the form of organizing an economy most consistent with other freedoms of religion, speech and press, among others.
This point was made by Professor Milton Friedman:
“The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely competitive capitalism, also, promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.”
Unfortunately, we do not now have a system of genuine competitive free market capitalism. We have what some have called “crony capitalism,’ with government subsidizing favored sectors of the economy, bailing out sectors which have gone bankrupt with taxpayer dollars and interfering in the economy in myriad ways most recently be imposing tariffs on products from a number of countries, leading to an unnecessary trade war.
Democrats and Republicans are co-conspirators in this enterprise.
Jonah Goldberg explains how this works:
“The major difference between the left and the right when it comes to any movement dedicated to overthrowing the free market order…is which groups will be the winners and which groups will be the losers. A left-wing system might empower labor leaders, government bureaucrats, progressive intellectuals, universities, certain minority groups and one set of industries. A right-wing system might reward a different set of industries as well as traditional religious groups and their leaders, an ethnic majority, aristocrats, or perhaps rural interests. But both systems would be reactionary in the sense that they rejected the legacy of the Lockian revolution, preferring…a natural state where the ‘stakeholders’ colluded to determine what was best for their interests.”
Where today’s conservatives stand is, Goldberg argues, increasingly confused:
“Today, in America, we associate defense of the market with the political right, although the new nationalist fervor aroused by Donald Trump and his defenders may overturn that somewhat. Already, the president’s economic rhetoric, and considerable swaths of his policies, is more reminiscent of natural-state economics. Just as Obama picked economic winners and losers to the benefit of his coalition, Trump rewards industries that are crucial to his. One can argue that favoring wind and solar power is better policy than favoring steel or coal, but it’s still an argument for favoritism”
Socialism, real socialism as envisioned by Karl Marx, has always led to economic inefficiency and scarcity. Marxism eliminates political and religious freedom as well. The state controls everything and citizens become mere pawns of those in power.
It seems that those in our American political arena who casually embrace “socialism” know little of this history. They would do well to undertake a study of what socialism really involves and where it has led. If they did, they might be surprised to learn that they are promoting an ideology far worse, with far greater inequality, than whatever problems they seek to address in our own imperfect, but far preferable, society.
If, as has been said “ignorance is bliss,” then today’s advocates of socialism are having a moment of euphoria. Sadly, if they are triumphant, it will, as night follows day, be followed by a harsher reality.
Lead image: Image by Corey Torpie – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez canvasses in Sunnyside, Queens on June 26th, 2018. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez canvasses in Sunnyside, Queens on June 26th, 2018.