What Is Socialism?

The rise of unapologetic, openly declared socialists in one of the two mainstream parties has made it necessary for Democrats to try to draw a line between a mere “progressive” welfare statist and an outright socialist. Yet this endeavor is running into trouble, because the dividing line turns out to be less clear than it might seem—and because these creeds are united by a much deeper philosophical affinity.

Part of the reason some Democrats have been trying to draw this distinction is because the party’s most prominent socialist has been working hard to blur it. Bernie Sanders has been arguing that socialism is really no different from the welfare state itself, citing Social Security and Medicare as prominent examples of socialism. This has led Sanders supporters to adopt a meme in which merely having a Social Security card makes you a “card-carrying socialist.” (This is perhaps more accurate than they intended, since the necessity for a Social Security number is forced upon us by the state.) Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cited, as examples of “socialism,” the Interstate Highway System, rural electrification, and public schools.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, he is not quite being honest. Intrepid sleuths have dug up and posted on the Internet a treasure trove of old footage of Sanders praising Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union—which he liked so much, he and his wife honeymooned there—as well as praising the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. It seems that this harmless “democratic” socialist never met a Communist dictator he didn’t like. If you think those might just be old examples and perhaps his views have “evolved” since then, just a few days ago Sanders was unable to affirm that Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, whose regime is shooting protesters and setting humanitarian aid on fire, is a dictator. So Sanders attempts to minimize socialism in his rhetoric, while embracing full-blown Communist dictatorships in practice.

In answer to Sanders, others on the left have chosen to re-assert the distinction between the welfare state and socialism. The arguments tend to go something like this.

Like many other terms, [socialism] has been overused, purposefully misused, and accidentally over-applied to the point where it is nearly meaningless….

In the broadest possible sense, socialism is an economic system where the means of production are socially owned. The “means of production” being the raw materials, factories, and machines used to make goods. This is as opposed to capitalism, where the means of production are privately owned….

Social democracy is a system that leaves the means of production in private hands but assures that regulations, some public control of the economy, and extensive entitlements exist to keep everybody at a decent standard of living…. This system is technically a capitalist one since the means of production are still privately owned. In the United States, however, we often refer to this as “socialism” anyway. This is why Scandinavian economists and officials keep correcting us when we call their counties socialist.

This is an important distinction. A system’s attitude toward markets and private ownership is a fundamental issue, both in its practical effect and in basic principles.

It is important in its practical effect because markets are far better than central planning, even “democratic” central planning—if such a thing were possible, which it isn’t—at allocating capital to where it is likely to be most productive. In terms of basic principles, opposition to markets means opposition to freedom. Whatever its “democratic” trappings, state control of the economy always ends up meaning that government elites impose their preferences from the top down. Free markets, by contrast, are a way for the people to register their preferences from the bottom up.

So there is a big difference between a market economy with a generous welfare state—the Scandinavian model that socialists keep trying to claim as their own—and fully fledged socialism in which markets for key goods are abolished and the state runs the economy. This is why we get the President of Denmark insisting that his country isn’t socialist, Kamala Harris declaring that she is not a “democratic socialist,” and Elizabeth Warren saying that she’s in favor of “capitalism with serious rules.”

And yet, such hard-and-fast distinctions would be a lot more reassuring if a member of Congress hadn’t just boasted about causing the stocks of health-insurance companies to tank by introducing a “Medicare for All” bill that would outlaw private health insurance—something the supposedly non-socialist Kamala Harris has endorsed. Remember that this is in response to the failure of Obamacare. Harris was responding to a question from a self-employed couple who are having trouble finding affordable health insurance, in other words, precisely the “job-locked poets” Obamacare was supposed to help. Now, less than a decade later, the same people who backed Obamacare—an intrusive, highly regulated welfare-state program—are pushing for the nationalization of health insurance.

This is not the first time we’ve seen this progression from heavy regulation, to welfare state programs within a market system, to even bigger government programs with even more heavily regulated markets, to nationalization and full-blown socialist command-and-control. There is an inevitable economic logic, in which one intervention in the markets creates problems which need to be solved by more interventions, and so on in a vicious cycle. Each time we are told that if we just give the government more control, we can solve all of our problems, until eventually government has total control.

This is how advocates of the welfare state tend to end up becoming advocates of socialism, incrementally and piecemeal. They’re fine with relying on markets, they tell themselves, just not when it comes to health care, retirement, education, child care, energy, transportation, and so on in an ever-expanding list. There are a few societies that manage to halt or delay the progress. Remember those Scandinavian countries? They have spent the past few decades drawing back from the brink, embracing some version of welfare reform and in some cases harsh anti-immigrant measures—not quite the stable and benevolent social model that has been sold to us.

But if this process keeps going, a society will eventually get to the point where they don’t want markets for the production and distribution of food—because how could you leave people at the mercy of the market when it comes to whether or not they eat?—and they replace markets with a much more compassionate system in which people are starving in the streets. This is precisely the progression of socialism in Venezuela over the past twenty years.

James Hohman tries to define the difference between welfare-statism and socialism by telling us that some people who say they want socialism merely want “more government.” Yet at some point, that’s a distinction without a difference. The difference between the welfare state and socialism is just a difference of degree, and at some point along that continuum, the dividing line between the two systems gets as fuzzy as Bernie Sanders’s hair.

Worse, the uncomfortable truth is that the grey area between the welfare state and communism tends to be filled by some form of national socialism, i.e., fascism. The way that term is used to today, if it is used with any clear meaning beyond “people who disagree with me,” is to refer only to the non-economic aspects of the national socialist program: a combination of authoritarianism and racism. But fascism was also an economic system that sought to integrate the principles of socialism with more traditional social institutions. So the national socialists tended to retain the outward form of private ownership, but in ways that gave an authoritarian government ultimate control.

Precisely because this history is poorly understood, this is the primary form in which the welfare and regulatory state moves us toward socialism today. Think of Obamacare, with its individual mandate intended to force people to buy heavily regulated private health insurance in a government-run marketplace. This is precisely the kind of government-business partnership, with government as the senior partner, that was the distinctive economic invention of the national socialists. Similarly, Elizabeth Warren’s “serious rules” for capitalism are embodied in her proposed Accountable Capitalism Act, which would turn corporations into vassals of the state subject to the arbitrary powers of the Commerce Department, a system that looks eerily similar to Mussolini’s fascist corporatism.

That leads us to the deeper reason we keep seeing this pattern, the reason why advocates of the regulatory and welfare state so rarely react to its failures or dysfunction by advocating a return to markets and instead call for additional layers of government control. The answer lies in the original meaning and origins of the term “socialism” itself.

Socialism was conceived, not primarily as a term for an economic system, but to describe a political, moral, and philosophical idea: the subordination of the individual to “society.” That is the real connecting thread between all the variants of “socialism,” from the welfare state up to totalitarian Communism, and it’s the reason why societies tend to slide inexorably from one to the other, as we have just seen in Venezuela.

Socialism means society-ism. It originated in the early 19th Century with the French thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, and it was coined, not as the antipode to “capitalism,” but as the antipode to “individualism.” Saint-Simon’s economic ideas were woozy and ill-defined, but he provided the inspiration for a next generation of thinkers, including Karl Marx. The person who did the most to make the philosophical meaning of socialism clear was Saint-Simon’s protégé Auguste Comte.

In addition to promoting the new concept of socialism, Comte also coined the term “altruism.” The original meaning of that term was far more radical than its current common usage, where it just means being nice to other people and is used to describe any behavior intended to help someone. By contrast to this loose, colloquial meaning, Comte intended altruism as a consistent moral code based on the complete elimination of self interest. Altruism comes from the Latin word “alter,” meaning “other,” and it literally means other-ism. Comte made it the centerpiece of his “Religion of Humanity” in which the individual is supposed to live solely for the sake of others.

His system was summed up by John Stuart Mill.

M. Comte infers that the good of others is the only inducement on which we should allow ourselves to act; and that we should endeavor to starve the whole of the desires which point to our personal satisfaction, by denying them all gratification not strictly required by physical necessities. The golden rule of morality, in M. Comte’s religion, is to live for others, “vivre pour autrui.” To do as we would be done by, and to love our neighbor as ourself, are not sufficient for him: they partake, he thinks, of the nature of personal calculations. We should endeavor not to love ourselves at all.

Mill dismissed this as “a despotism of society over the individual”—though, setting the pattern for generations of “liberals” to come, he merely tried to moderate Comte’s system and water it down.

This is why the subordination of the individual to society, rather than state control of the means of production, is the most fundamental characteristic of socialism. After all, some of the first experiments in socialism, such as the Owenites, were purely voluntary communities. Yet without government control, these early experiments tended to collapse in a few years, because when things started to fall apart, people had a right to walk away. The coercive power of government is needed to make sure the individual stays subordinated to society.

Comte himself was quite explicit about his rejection of the very concept of individual rights: “Social positivism only accepts duties, for all and towards all. Its constant social viewpoint cannot include any notion of rights, for such notion always rests on individuality.”

This is the basic principle that keeps driving societies toward command-and-control economies, whatever their form. The process was later summed up by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom.

Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarian regimes which horrify us follow of necessity. From the collectivist standpoint intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual, are essential and unavoidable consequences of this basic premise, and the collectivist can admit this and at the same time claim that his system is superior to one in which the “selfish” interests of the individual are allowed to obstruct the full realization of the ends the community pursues.

Or as Ayn Rand put it, by way of her socialist villain in The Fountainhead, socialism envisions “A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who will have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who will have no desires—around the globe…. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy.”

In short, it’s a cookbook.

If you think this doctrine is too radical, too much a leftover of doctrinaire 20th Century collectivism to hold sway in today’s world, note that in Venezuela right now, the lawless bands of armed thugs who serve as enforcers for Nicolas Maduro’s socialist dictatorship are called colectivos. That’s the living, contemporary reality of the subordination of the individual to society.

This idea is contained in the very historical roots of “socialism,” and its disastrous consequences can be seen whenever socialism reaches its consistent implementation. More important, it is an idea that is always lurking in the mindset of the supposedly moderate welfare-statists, driving them insatiably to want a little more social control of the individual, then a little more, then more again. Even those who shrink from the “socialist” label in strictly economic terms are still in thrall to a kind of socialism of the spirit.

The point here is not that there is some vague “slippery slope” from the welfare state down to communist tyranny. The point is that there is a common idea that draws the one system toward the other, as a logical working out of a basic principle. So it is that principle that needs to be challenged.

Socialism will not be held at bay by trying to draw a fuzzy dividing line between when government controls part of our lives and when it controls most of our lives. We need to challenge the idea of social control itself. Or to put it positively, we need to affirm the value of the individual, the role of nonconforming thinking and individual initiative as creators of wealth and engines of actual human progress, and the rights of the individual as prerogatives against the claims of society.

That is the only fundamental, hard-and-fast dividing line between a free society and socialism.

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