Judging by the trendy popularity of socialist old-timer Bernie Sanders, aging anti-capitalist baby boomer Elizabeth Warren, callow (that means young, immature and shallow) democratic-socialist millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and an assortment of socialist groupie Democrats in Congress, socialism appears to be in fashion these days.
It’s clear that most of this crowd doesn’t really understand what it means, so let me enlighten them.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were prominent 19th-century German philosophers, political theorists and social revolutionaries instrumental in the creation of socialism and communism, collaborating in treatises like “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” They abhorred capitalism and conventional institutions like bourgeois society and religion. Ironically, their goal wasn’t omnipotent government. To them, that was just a means to end. They earnestly believed government would eventually “wither away” in the evolution of their fantasized vision of a perfectly egalitarian, collectivist, classless, harmonious society. (In today’s terms, picture America, a nation of 320 million people, as a megacommune modeled after the Woodstock free love and rock festival of 1969.)
Socialists operate on an idealistic notion of human nature that imagines individuals will work as hard for the benefit of others as they will for the benefit of themselves and their families. Socialists are egalitarians in the worst sense of that term. While conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, socialists would dictate equality of outcome. As Marx put it: “From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need.” Since socialism fails to reward individual excellence, it gets much less of it. By undermining incentives, socialism undermines prosperity. Socialism is a perfect system for perfectly self-sacrificing human beings. E.O. Wilson, the insect expert and evolutionary biologist, when asked his opinion of socialism, said: “Great idea. Wrong species.” People aren’t ants in a colony or worker bees in a hive. Pervasive socialism does not and cannot work with the imperfect, real-world species that we actually are.
At its inception, socialist doctrine called for government ownership of the means of production, control of its distribution, economic exchange and the allocation of income. Absolute capitalism and absolute socialism have never existed and never will. Even in the former Soviet Union, there were pockets of underground capitalism — about the only place in that dismal economy where some measure of efficiency could be found. We have a mixed economy in this country and almost all others (North Korea, excepted.) The perpetual political battle revolves around the delicate balance of private enterprise, property rights and individual freedom on one hand, and government ownership and control on the other. Absolute socialism inevitably metastasizes into totalitarianism, devouring individual freedom and ruining the economy along with it.
Doctrinaire socialists are playing the political long game, willing to preserve the appearance of private ownership while getting to full socialism in stages with no limiting principle. In the meantime, they’ll settle for ever-increasing government controls on the terms of production through more regulations and mandates, and the fruits of production through taxation and redistribution. Actual ownership of the means of production is a mere formality that can wait.
American socialists like to cite Scandinavian countries as an example of successful democratic socialism. To begin with, those countries are far less purely socialist than some people imagine, as their governments will forcefully tell you. Although they have a more expanded welfare state than the U.S., they’re still market economies with private enterprise and property rights. But the Scandinavian model doesn’t fit the U.S. These countries are more like American states or even “neighborhoods.” The populations of Norway and Denmark are only about 5 million, and Sweden, 10 million. Just the metropolitan areas of New York City and Los Angeles greatly exceed that. And those countries have homogeneous populations and cultures not remotely as diverse as ours, nor do they have the burden of our international defense commitments and foreign policy. Rugged individualism has been a historical American characteristic. Property rights and limited government were enshrined by our founders in the Constitution. In the Revolutionary War, we broke away from the English monarchy. Norway and Sweden still have reigning kings and Denmark, a queen.
Marxist academics are well-represented in American universities. They’re protected by tenure in a cloistered political and cultural environment where leftist thought dominates. They’re free to proclaim and advocate for their socialist beliefs with peer approval and certainly no employment risk. But, until recently, most politicians who believed in ever-expanding government control of your life and the economy shied away from the “S” word. They preferred to camouflage their ideology with kinder and gentler terms like “liberal” or “progressive.” Now, that socialism is trendy and increasingly kinda cool, they can come out of the ideological closet. Polls show it’s much preferred over capitalism by millennials who don’t understand either concept any more than AOC does.
You needn’t look further than the destruction of Venezuela’s economy, society and freedom to see what’s been done there in the name of social justice and democratic socialism. So why do socialists persist? You might as well ask why mosquitoes persist. It’s what they do. Socialists are driven by a combination of ideological fervor and animus towards capitalists and capitalism. It’s a philosophy driven by envy, class warfare and identity politics. The distinguished Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises called it “nothing but a grandiose rationalization of petty resentments.”
Socialism will never die simply because capitalism will never deliver utopia. As Irving Kristol put it, capitalism may not be the best of all imaginable worlds, only the best of all possible worlds. Socialism is, at its core, utopian. Socialists can’t ever deliver their paradise on Earth, but they can forever promise it. And they’ll always outbid conservatives in a political auction for utopian outcomes. The business cycle and fiscal crises will inevitably produce economic recessions. When one occurs on a conservative watch, socialists need only seduce a sufficient number of gullible voters to win election with the promise of joy at someone else’s expense. For them, taxes can never be too high on the rich and businesses, or benefits too generous for everyone else. Socialists will never stop demanding more socialism while their impossible dream is unmet. In the process, they would cost us both our prosperity and our freedom. But they’ll persist.
And politically they’ll do it where the environment is most hospitable: within the Democratic Party.