In the last part of this series, we looked at distributism and the concerns of both public and private concentrations of power. I asserted that (a) distributism is similar to socialism, but also different in that it is not inherently coercive and need not adopt the traditional political apparatus, (b) distributism can accomplish the legitimate goals of democratic socialists, probably more effectively, (c) private concentrations of power should be a concern for everyone, perhaps even as much as public concentrations of power (especially where private interests have captured public means), and (d) that if we are really concerned about power, as we all should be, we cannot let the state off the hook since it is a monopoly on the means of violence by definition.
Here we must deal with a topic that thus far has been ignored: the relationship between “socialism” and “democracy” in “democratic socialism.”
Putting the “Democracy” in “Democratic Socialism”
In short, “Democratic” socialism today is socialism that exhibits a democratic system of government within the traditional nation-state. Socialism without any input from the exploited masses is typically called a “command-economy,” “totalitarianism,” “fascism,” or (if one person is in charge) a “dictatorship.” With elections, however, the people have (in theory) some degree of influence on how the state carries out its monopoly on coercion and redistribution of resources. This input from the public is intentional, and (in theory) establishes the goal of “shared ownership” and “cooperation.” This is why the label “democratic socialism” is used: to distance one’s views (and rightly so) from authoritarian/hierarchical versions of socialist economies. Positions of power must be available for anyone to occupy.
However, the prefix “democratic” does not change the basic economic meaning and functionality of “socialism,” nor does it necessarily complement it.
Why “Democratic” in “Democratic-Socialism” is Not Peanut-Butter and Jelly
Contrary to mainstream rhetoric, “socialism” of nation-states tends to take away from the “democracy,” not complement it. This is because of the anti-democratic (hegemonic) nature of the modern state. For example, the choices of individuals are substantially curtailed/limited in daily life the more and more laws that are passed (e.g., what car one can drive, the choice of how and how much to pay employees, how to own and operate a business, what currencies can be used, etc.). Also, the bureaucracy required to carry out socialist ideals (which is often non-democratic) will often be larger than the masses can reasonably hold accountable.
Another issue is “freedom.” Does any variant of socialism lead to more freedom? Perhaps not. Milton Friedman famously argued in Capitalism and Freedom…
“the advocacy of ‘democratic socialism’ by many who condemn out of hand the restrictions on individual freedom imposed by ‘totalitarian socialism’ in Russia and who are persuaded that it is possible for a country to adopt the essential features of Russian economic arrangements and yet to ensure individual freedom through political arrangements…a society which is socialist cannot be also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom….
I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity.”
The argument is this: “free market” is generally synonymous with maximal freedom in the realm of economics. And because the economic sphere is interconnected with all other spheres of life, this freedom acts as a catalyst to other freedoms in life at large.
But, whether anyone likes it or not, Friedman’s conclusions here have basically been confirmed by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom project (heritage.org), the Economic Freedom project of the Fraser Institute (fraserinstitute.org), and the Human Freedom Index of the Cato Institute (cato.org). Freer markets do mean freer societies.
In short, then, if the goal is to “empower the person” and establish freedom, then socialist governments appear not to be the best option. The contrast between “free” economies and “socialist” economies is for good reason: socialist economies lack freedom.
More Concerns With Democratic Socialism
As we learned in Part I, socialism usually exists on a spectrum. What this means is that the inherent problems of socialism apply to the extent that socialism is present.
So for example, Von Mises in his tome Socialism pointed out the economic “calculation problem.” When resources are extracted from people by force and then redistributed, there are a huge series of steps that each require measurement and calculation. But this can never happen efficiently precisely because they were extracted by force and distributed according to what the distributer believes or perceives is needed. There are no prices attached, so there is no means of calculating – except guesses. In larger economies with all kinds of economic controls, it’s an impossible task. It would be akin to somehow converting a computer chip into a network of hundreds of people with telephone cable and each person holding a button, all trying to press it at the right time, day after day…based on, well, intuition? “Policies and procedures”? Calculating and connecting supply and demand like this cannot work and inevitably leads to waste and shortages. So no matter how many twitter followers you may have, without prices, you’re flying blind.
Thus, the more socialist an economy is, the more waste and shortages. The less socialist an economy is, the less waste and shortages. The same principle applies to all countries – as long as a government is collecting taxes. Every dollar has to go somewhere, and that means judgments are made.
And the same principle applies to other aspects besides the calculation problem – such as the knowledge problem, and other things we don’t have time to get into that economists like Von Mises, Rothbard, and DiLorenzo have thoroughly covered.
Democratic Socialism: A Success? A Failure? Or Just an Outdated Drag?
What this means is that socialism cannot be said to be “successful” simply because it hasn’t terminated in mass starvation. Similarly, from our earlier discussion about democracy, socialism cannot be said to be successful politically simply because there hasn’t been a violent revolution or bill passed to build concentration camps – as wonderful as this is. All that can be said is that it exists in different ways and degrees, some less painful and catastrophic than others.
What certainly can’t be said is that the masses aren’t exploited.
This has always been confusing to me in the rhetoric of this discussion. Capitalists are said to exploit the masses (picking up cues from Marx’s analysis) – which in some sense may or may not be true (let’s keep this open and debatable for the sake of argument). But for some reason, democratic-socialists – especially of the moderate and mild kind – explicitly talk about using the “market” like “geese laying golden eggs” (Waters, Just Capitalism, 192). In this market-state or “market-socialism” model (which is just democratic socialism that openly recognizes the necessity of markets), the state exploits the population not just in practice (as it must) but according to principle. The geese who lay golden eggs (i.e., the wealth creating magic of capitalism) should be taxed, regulated, and worked as hard as possible for the common good…but not to the point where the geese actually keel over and die. This would be too much!
It doesn’t take long to realize that this “market-state” relationship hardly seems favorable in inaugurating an egalitarian ethos – especially when we realize that “the market” is nothing more than you and me. Just imagine slave owners in the 1800s saying, “We gotta work these slaves hard so we get enough cotton for the whole community…but not too hard. That would be unnecessary (and maybe even wrong!”)
The Christian anarchist and French sociologist Jacques Ellul was right on this count:
“It is possible to say, without paradox, that socialism takes the worst features of capitalism and carries them to extremes while justifying them theoretically. In socialist society individuals are doubtless freed from subordination to others, such as capitalists, but they remain entirely submitted to production: the economy is the basis of their lives. This is precisely the source of real alienation—not the subservience of being to personal having, but the subservience of being to doing and to collective having.” Money and Power (21)
There’s so much that we didn’t cover – such as what “capitalism” can mean and how it is also misunderstood. But we covered enough on this subject to where we can hopeful re-orient ourselves to better navigate a world of conflicting claims and terms regarding this confusing constellation of socio-economic concepts. What can be said in conclusion?
Well let’s just get to it: Should one worry about contemporary political democratic socialists like AOC and Bernie Sanders, and their bold proposals to hose the rich and bring sweet justice upon the land?
Maybe, maybe not. Politicians are politicians, and stupidity can be to everyone’s benefit as much as to everyone’s downfall. What’s clear for these two persons and their proposals in particular is that (a) neither are remotely familiar with even highly watered-down versions of basic economic principles (much less math), and (b) both understand “democratic socialism” not as decentralizing power and not as voluntary distributism, but as European-style welfare socialism.
That is, a big, greasy, overweight, cussing, smoking, diseased, plastic-faced, once-and-a-while-public-showering Nanny that beats your kids in the closet, threatens them with kidnapping if they tattle, beats the neighbors kids on their front yard, steals everyone’s stuff – even while the boss is home, lies about about all of it, and then ceaselessly demands a raise, instilling fear in all who somehow can’t imagine a world without the “necessary help” of this grotesque creature.
Just how concerning is this “progressive” state of affairs? Will it necessarily terminate in the Gulag? Well, it’s not necessary that it will, though governments never tend to get smaller – nor satiate their lust for control. But five things are for certain regarding contemporary political democratic socialist proposals: (1) it probably won’t help the parties it intends to help, (2) there will be significant economic and social waste, (3) it will empower the state – that is, AOC and Bernie themselves, (4) money will run out and people will protest in the streets demanding stuff they were promised, and (5) none of the essential problems of either government or society will be solved.
It’s been a century now, and we know that these are the results typical of the Nanny-State.
If AOC, Bernie, and others were genuine in even the most basic ideals and words behind the “democratic socialist” values they espouse, they would, at the very least, (1) refuse to even speak about anything related to economics without taking Economics 101, (2) verbally encourage voluntary distributism, and insist that the government stay out of it, and (3) live by example, and give the majority of their millions to the poor, one form or another. At least then we could begin to have a meaningful conversation.
But I’m not holding my breath.