I’ve been intrigued by a challenge someone posted on Facebook asking for someone to “give a good definition of democratic socialism and pros and cons of it.”
I don’t claim that I can give such a definition – because I don’t think there is a good one. But maybe it will be illuminating to try.
The term was in the news earlier this year because Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. He was quoted as saying in 2006: “I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that, as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly.’’
His description is basically a compilation of vague liberal slogans. Note that even Sanders shies away from the label socialist and harps on the word democracy. Perhaps he is merely a liberal politician who finds that “democratic socialism” thrills a naïve segment of his audience.
But what about all the socialisms – including communism and Nazism – that have had a darker purpose and outcome?
The Democratic Socialists of America have their own description: “Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically – to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”
So what does it mean to say “ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives”? How does that happen?
If your local hamburger joint wants to change its menu, does it have to seek a vote with everyone in the neighborhood? If a big company like Microsoft wants to introduce a new product, must it hold a nationwide plebiscite to get the voters’ approval?
Of course that’s impossible. Any enterprise – including the Democratic Socialists of America – inevitably will be managed by a small group of people, with one person ultimately responsible. That’s what the famous sign “the buck stops here” means.
That is often what happens when a society tries “socialism.” Invariably, a small group gets the lion’s share of the economic and political power; all too often, one tyrant seizes it all. “The people” are left with nothing. The economic collapse and political confusion in Venezuela is just the latest example.
Democratic socialists often point to nations in Europe as examples of democratic socialism. But those nations grew wealthy under capitalism, and so were able to indulge in flirtations with socialism, in the form of welfare states, thanks to the prosperity created by capitalism. In many cases, those nations in recent years have even backed away from the welfare state model. It turns out the best way to fund social programs is to nurture a healthy market economy.
In fact, here’s the best way to let people take part in the decisions that control their lives: Let them make their own decisions. Let them decide what’s good for them – within the rule of law, of course – and decide what to produce, and what to buy. Working with each other, even if unconsciously, will allow them the best chance to be happy, productive, prosperous and free.
That is of course also called capitalism, or free enterprise. We conservatives should just call it economic democracy, because that’s what it is.
In the end, I can’t define “democratic socialism” because I don’t think it exists. I think those are contradictory terms, like “dry rain” or “soft rocks.”
My comments of course draw on the insights of thinkers such as Frederic Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. They saw the essential contradiction between socialism and freedom. The more of one you have, the less you have of the other.
To the extent something is democratic, it is not socialist; to the extent it is socialistic, it is not democratic. Socialism is socialism. We should hope deceptive term fades away soon, like other political slogans, once the campaigns are over.