By John McClaughry
Thanks in part to 50 years of unflagging advocacy by Bernie Sanders, “socialism” has become a frequent topic of partisan debate. Like its counterpart “capitalism,” socialism has meant several quite different things both to its partisans and its opponents. That can make it difficult to make out just what the debate is about.
Historically, the meaning of socialism was spelled out in detail by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels starting in 1848. Their scientific theory of history held that at some crucial point in history the oppressed working class would arise and expropriate all significant means of production from their owners — capitalists who had expropriated the labor value of the workers — and bestow it all upon the new socialist State. The State would banish, or execute, the former owners, abolish private property and manage the economy and society in the name of “the people.”
Ultimately, Marx and Engels conjectured, the selfishness and greed inherent in capitalism would give way to democratic cooperation by all in the interest of all. Then the State would begin to “wither away” and “communism” would reign.
The powerfully argued ideas of Marx and Engels triggered a furious theoretical debate over the correct path to socialism. The “armed working class revolution” version prevailed in Lenin’s Russia, but failed in Europe. Step by step, “democratic socialism” became the predominant strategy in the industrialized Western world.
In Sanders’ contemporary version of “democratic socialism,” the State would allow the owners of the means of production to continue their pursuit of profits, so long as they comply with the instructions of the State and turn over as much of their earnings as the State needs to pay for a long list of politically attractive benefits. Those benefits include “useful and remunerative jobs, a decent living, adequate medical care, good education, a decent home and the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Sanders likes to point out that President Franklin Roosevelt announced these rights in 1944, although his message was largely ignored.
An October Gallup Poll found that 39% of Americans said that they have a positive opinion of socialism, while 57% viewed that term negatively. Gallup first asked this question in 2010, and since then positive responses about socialism have been fairly steady, between 35% and 39%.
There is, however, an astonishing partisan divergence: Self-identified Democrats are 65% positive about “socialism” (as they understand it), and only 9% of Republicans like the idea (as they understand it). Independents fall in between.
As socialists are quick to point out, Americans have “socialism” all over the place — if by “socialism” one means government-owned and operated services and enterprises. Here in Vermont we have socialized state and town roads, water and sewer systems, waste management, airports, railroads and public schools. Efforts to put the state in charge of providing health care collapsed in 2014, but incremental steps (“All Payer”) are slowly being taken in that direction.
Our safeguard against becoming a predominately socialist state is our Bill of Rights enforced by an independent judiciary. The first of those rights is the freedom to speak, associate, petition, and choose our governors. Equally important are the rights to own property and to form voluntary associations, which underlie our ability to control an encroaching despotism. And of course if socialism becomes too advanced and costly here, wealth-creators and liberty-loving citizens can depart for freer places.
Back in 1946, the eminent University of Chicago economist Henry Calvert Simons — who in that day referred to himself as a liberal — penned a much admired “Political Credo.” He readily conceded that “extensive local socialization need not be incompatible with, or very dangerous to, a free society.” Americans would remain free so long as they kept socialized institutions close to home under the sharp eyes of a freedom-loving citizenry that would rein them in when they threaten to become wasteful, unaffordable, intrusive or despotic.
After asking a lot of probing questions, the Gallup Poll concluded that “despite recent growth in public support for more government involvement in such areas as health care, environmental protection and income equality, support for big government generally falls short of a majority, and the climate is still a challenging one for avowed socialists. Only 25% of [our] sample favored more government services if paired with higher taxes. The term ‘socialism’ has gained favor with Democrats, but remains broadly unpopular among independents and Republicans.”
Whether today’s national electorate will join Bernie Sanders and the candidates of the Democratic Party in their march ever further toward “democratic socialism” remains to be seen. It would be tragic if the socialist cause made dramatic gains simply because voters couldn’t stomach the flagbearer of the other party.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.