Recent polls show that a large plurality of Americans prefer socialism over capitalism. On its surface, such a preference is shocking. Digging beneath the surface, however, we find a somewhat less alarming reality. So, let’s dig a little.
The first question is, what do most of those Americans think “socialism” means? To many of our fellow Americans, “socialism” has been defined by Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont. He describes socialism in terms of an expansion of “human rights” into services, notably health care, higher education, and income parity, if not equality. He advocates free delivery of these services to every American. He also believes that the USA should have open borders, inviting anyone who wishes to become an American citizen to come at will.
Then there is the other side of his views. He also believes that Americans’ access to gun ownership should be severely restricted. He says that climate change is “an existential threat” to the world and adopts the “green agenda”. That agenda includes the elimination of fossil fuels, and the substitution of renewable forms of energy (even though no such energy sources exist) and the re-entry of America into the Paris Accord, which obligates the USA to pay the bill for converting the major polluters of the world (China and India) to renewables. These are samples of the price we would pay under a Sanders idealized world-view for all the “free” services.
The Sanders followers tend to be one of three types: 1) inexperienced and idealistic youths, 2)people who see themselves as victims of life because of poverty or rejection or discrimination, and 3) the educated idealists who long for a perfect world, frequently from the safe perch of academia. They are not the people who have to pay the price of this fantasy. It is therefore not hard to understand why this vision has attracted so many followers that it now dominates the Left Wing of the Democrat Party.
While this description of socialism consists principally of concrete policies, there is an underlying theory on which these policies rest, and which is not much discussed by Mr. Sanders and his followers. That theory in a nutshell is that the rich and privileged of society occupy their elevated position due to their oppression of the poor and neglected people in that society. Justice therefore demands that the elite be rejected in favor of the underclass and the wealth of the society be spread equally among all its members. Essentially, that means the riches of the elite be taken away and be distributed to the poor. The only instrument which could accomplish this feat is government. But, in the end, the means by which the upper class retains its power over the underclass is force through police and army. The shorthand for this is “whoever has the guns rules”.
Revolution is therefore inevitable. To this point the description of socialism follows the views of Karl Marx, a 19th century German philosopher. It was his works which were the basis of the Communist revolutions of Russia and China, among others. Marx’s ideas led to dictatorships because, the revolt of the proletariat (i.e. the oppressed) took military force to achieve, and the strong leaders of these armies were not about to give up power as soon as they won the war, especially since the transitions to new leadership were long and bloody. Once established, the leaders became dictators, and in the name of the revolution, the new State took over virtually everything. Personal freedom was no more available to the Communist society than it had been under the royalty.
Another version of socialism evolved in Europe and other areas, such as Canada, Australia, and South America. This version maintained the supremacy of the State and its obligation to provide free services to the masses, but it recognized private property as well as democracy in the form of elections of government officials. Some countries found this system very unstable, with frequent changes of government, e.g. Italy and Greece. For others, it was stable and productive, e.g. Germany and France. Many of these nations adopted strong strains of capitalism (i.e. free markets and independent judiciary). Some of these countries cannot be called “socialist” in the 21st century (e.g. Denmark, Iceland).
It is reasonable to assume that Bernie Sanders is talking about this form of socialism, which he calls “democratic socialism”, although he does not speak in ideological terms. The issue then becomes, what is the difference between “democratic socialism” and “democratic capitalism”?
There are two major differences: 1) Government responsibilities versus individual responsibilities; and 2) Restrictions on government versus restrictions on individual freedoms.
Responsibilities: government and personal
- Socialism: the government is held responsible by socialists for providing virtually everything an individual may need – a list that keeps changing as new needs arise. This list currently includes health care, unemployment insurance, retirement, and a host of regulations including housing, working conditions, vacations, sometimes wages, etc. These regulations are generally the result of government-controlled central planning which attempts to control all the economic forces which combine to make up the economy. All of these efforts are funded by taxes on privately owned company profits. The problem is identified when taxes get so high that companies cannot pay them. As one-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, once said, “Socialism is fine until other peoples’ money runs out”. Then there is a Venezuela, Greece or a bankrupt Detroit or Puerto Rico. In extreme cases, people starve. The government thus has absolute authority to fulfill all these needs through taxation.
- Capitalism: the government is responsible for justice, foreign affairs and defense, and law enforcement. Beyond those minimal responsibilities, all other responsibilities are undertaken only with the specific consent of the people.
Restrictions: government and individual
- Government: the only restrictions on government – not to be underestimated – are those imposed by elections of officials to run the government. This works both ways, namely, new benefits that are advocated by the candidates for high office become mandatory under pain of losing the next election, and the same goes for new limitations on government power. Generally, that means greater benefits for the population and higher taxes on the businesses which earn the money in the first place. That situation eventually results in the loss of incentive to work hard and creatively in order to pay the fruits of one’s labor to the government.
- Individual: In a capitalistic society, the individual is required to provide for oneself and his or her family’s health, safety and welfare. These responsibilities require a great deal of personal freedom from government control. These same freedoms and responsibilities, however, encourage reliability and creativity, because of the competitive atmosphere which prevails in a capitalistic society. This drive has created wealth in the United States beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors.
In the 21st century, however, our experience is that many of the characteristics of capitalism are also evident in socialist countries. The differentiator is the trajectory into the future which each form of government is on. Socialism leads invariably to dictatorship (China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba) or bankruptcy (Greece) and capitalism leads to resilience and prosperity (USA).
For now, Americans must follow their instincts – freedom forever!