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A Sit Down with the Nanny-State, Part I: Socialisms on a Spectrum

“Democratic socialism is a democracy in which the people control the economy and government, no group dominates any other, and every citizen is free, equal, and included.” (Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making, 1)

Thus writes seminary professor Gary Dorrien in his new monograph by Yale University Press, Social Democracy in the Making (2019). When I first came across this definition I couldn’t help but be struck with wonder: “Wait, this almost sounds like my view as a Christian libertarian-anarchist! Am I missing something?” Having been misrepresented by countless others for my views, I know I shouldn’t do the same for others.

So we have to set aside our prejudices for a moment and critically ask, just what is democratic-socialism? Is it something anyone should be worried about? Is it a passing fad that can ignored? This short series will explore the meaning and implications of democratic socialism(s) in hopes of more fruitful public dialog and mutual understanding – and do so with some of the best (not the worst) sources available to us.

“Socialism” of the…Generic Type

Socialism. The idea that the economy’ resources should be used in the interests of all its citizens, rather than allowing private owners of material resources, such as land and capital, to use them as they see fit. A social economy requires voluntary cooperation and central planning. This is formulated as the principle ‘from everyone according to their skill, to everyone according to their work’. The idea was implemented in the USSR and allied countries between the 1930s and the 1990s, when it was abandoned in favour of a market economy, primarily because the lack of individual incentives, among other factors, having gradually led these countries to economic collapse. (Oxford Dictionary of Economics, 483-84)

As one can see from this short definition in The Oxford Dictionary of Economics, “Socialism” tends to refer to the political ownership and/or control of businesses (the “means of production”) and the centralized, collective distribution of the resources extracted from those producers. The purpose of such collective (re)distribution is often some theoretical ideal of asset “equality” or “justice.”

This purpose introduces a crucial distinction in our discussion right off the bat: it’s the difference between embodied socialist practice and proposed socialist theory. The concrete embodiment of socialist ideals need not necessarily terminate in a certain political organization. Yes, it is (a) only inevitable that embryonic forms get mixed in with the ideals (because it’s difficult to just think abstractly), and (b), historically, there is a pattern of what it really looks like (more on this later). But, this distinction is important to underscore, nevertheless.

A slightly expanded version of Dorrien’s summary can be found in the 1962 Socialist International gathering in Oslo Norway, which clues us into what exactly the goals are:

“We democratic Socialists proclaim our conviction that the ultimate aim of political activity is the fullest development of every human personality, that liberty and democratic self-government are precious rights which must not be surrendered; that every individual is entitled to equal status, consideration and opportunity; that discrimination on grounds of race, color, nationality, creed or sex, must be opposed; that the community must ensure that material resources are used for the common good rather than the enrichment of the few; above all, that freedom and equality and prosperity are not alternatives between which the people must choose but ideals which can be achieved and enjoyed together.”

It is important to note that prior to this event, as early as the 1830s, Christian ministers and thinkers were already brewing up their own version of modern socialism in Europe. For example, in Great Britain, Frederick Denison Maurice (with Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow) argued that “There is a divine moral order, cooperation is the moral law of the universe, and socialism embodies the divine order by creating a cooperative society” (Dorrien, 5). The goals, again, were pretty broad and generic: minimal social and political domination, distributed/shared resources to help those who need it most, cooperative communities, and an ethos of care. “Social justice,” if you will. It doesn’t take much thought to see how all this connects to the Jesus of the Gospels. And for these Anglicans, drawing the connection from Christian thought and practice to socialism was quite natural.

But they never could quite agree on how this vision should be enacted. The real concrete embodiment of “socialism” remained somewhat empty. Would it involve the state, or not? Representative democracy? The use of any force? Some said yes, others no, to each of these.

Democratic vs. Totalitarian/Statist Socialisms

But eventually, after many decades of debate and experimentation, the “yes” answer came to dominate mainstream British politics – terminating in the establishment of the British Labour Party of 1918. The political party (still today) boast all the high goals of progressive economics (historians call it “Fabian collectivism”): “full employment,” “living wage,” “common ownership of industry,” and of course, the classic Marxist doctrine of progressive taxation. (What a difference this was to Dorothy Day’s “Christian anarchism” of the same period, which shunned all such political moves.)

At any rate, “democratic socialism” in this context, then, centered on political power and authority. The means of enacting socialist ideals was straightforward: vote for someone who will simply pass a law the requires everything to happen. Not enough wages? Pass a law that makes higher wages mandatory. Bad working conditions? Pass a law that makes them illegal. People on streets without food? Pass a law giving out food stamps. Etc. Supposedly, these representative democracies were proof that the people had consented, and that the masses really controlled the government to the benefit of all.

Then entered a further cleavage between social bodies: the distinction between democratic socialisms (Holland/Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain) and statist totalitarian socialisms (e.g., Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, etc.). The masses of people, it was thought, can’t possibly control the political apparatus effectively. We need smart administrators and boards with all the power to handle it. Thus entered a fresh era of statism (cf. movements in French revolution a century prior) – which existed side-by-side with democratic socialism.

The nanny-state sort of bumbled through the twentieth century (failed “wars against poverty,” native reservations, “public works,” laws against everything from beer to marijuana, etc.), but got by. Meanwhile, her abusive alcoholic brother, the totalitarian-state, crashed and vomited everywhere, from Cambodia to Poland to Russia. Some saw this development as proof that “democratic” and not totalitarian socialism “worked,” a subject we’ll take up in Part III.

But, whether there was a democracy or not, socialism’s ideals virtually always came to use the traditional political apparatus (the “government”). And there has rarely been purely socialist or purely non-socialist countries in history. Most modern nation-states today are socialist in some sectors and not in other sectors, or socialist in some sectors/industries in lower or higher degrees. In the U.S., for example, the utilities and electricity industry is highly socialized. In other countries, like in much of Europe and Canada, the medical and health-care industry is heavily socialized.

Why “Socialism” is Usually not a Binary Category

What does this mean? It means contemporary “socialism” exists on a spectrum. The more socialized a country is, the more “public property” exists. The less socialized a country, the less “public property” exists. The more control the state has over businesses and their productive and distributive capacities, the more “socialist” it is. The less control the state has over businesses and their productive and distributive capacities, the less “socialist” it is. All governments are therefore inherently socialist on a basic level. No government operates for free (i.e. there are not governments with a 0% spending metric in the table below). If a government collects taxes (which then redistributes such wealth), it is ipso facto socialist.

There are many metrics one can use to assess the “degree of socialism” in current political arrangements. This includes the amount of government spending as a percentage of GDP, the number of public employees in relation to the total population, and government employment as a percentage of total employment:

Hübner 2019. The spending data comes from the Heritage Institute’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom. The data for government workers has been calculated or originated from government websites when possible, and from the OECD, based on the latest available year. (* indicates estimates based on other sources, or calculations based on estimates, or indicates a statistic over five years old).

So when is it justified to say an economy is “socialist”?

Again, it’s all relative because the term means different things on different planes – all on a spectrum. But there remains, however, a semantic context. In my view, the word-pair could be legitimately labeled for (democratic) nation-states that seek a strong presence of political involvement—whether integrated or separate from private markets. This is particularly true if those countries are approaching or exceeding 50% government spending as percentage of GDP and/or when government workers approach or exceed one for every ten non-government workers.

How does socialism differ from “distributism”? And are democratic socialists simply wrong to question private power, and libertarians simply right to question public power? And what about the “democracy” in “democratic-socialism”? How does this change things? Is it good or bad? We’ll take all this up in Part II.

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