Politics & Policy

Bernie Sanders’s ‘Socialist’ Charade

(Win McNamee/Getty)

Does any stricture of journalistic propriety or social etiquette require us to participate in Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s charade? Is it obligatory to take seriously his pose of being an “independent” and a “socialist”? It gives excitable Democratic activists a frisson of naughtiness to pretend that he is both. Actually, he is neither.

“Independent”? He caucuses with Senate Democrats and attends their policy lunches, his committee assignments count against the Democrats’ quotas, he reliably votes with Democrats, and he is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is a Democrat.

If he is a “socialist,” who isn’t? In olden days, socialism meant something robust — government ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. Then, voters and reality being resistant to such socialism, the idea was diluted to mean just government ownership of an economy’s “commanding heights,” principally heavy industries, coal mines, railroads, etc.

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In 1928, even the U.S. Socialist party’s candidate, Norman Thomas (Princeton class of 1905), campaigned on a platform whose first plank was: “Nationalization of our natural resources, beginning with the coal mines and water sites, particularly at Boulder Dam and Muscle Shoals.” Today, Boulder (now Hoover) Dam and Muscle Shoals are federal enterprises. The Socialist platform called for government ownership of the railroads. So far, the government’s passenger rail monopoly, Amtrak, has accumulated $1.3 billion of red ink from 45 years of applied socialism.

America’s Socialist party did what Karl Marx said the state would do under Communism: It withered away when the New Deal adopted much of its agenda of ameliorative government. Today, “socialism,” at least in Western Europe where the term is still part of the political lexicon, is the thin gruel of “social democracy.” This means three things — heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a “social safety net,” and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders’ Dark Age Economics

For America’s Republicans, opposition to these three ubiquitous realities is avowed but not constraining. They neither plan nor pose a serious threat to any of the three, so they, too, can be called “socialists,” which is a classification that no longer classifies.

In 2008, conservatives got the vapors, or pretended to, when candidate Barack Obama, campaigning in Ohio, told Joe the Plumber (a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher), “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Histrionic conservatives exclaimed: Obama favors “redistribution of wealth”! Which is most of what modern government does. And it does it even faster under Republicans than under Democrats.

Between 1960 and 2010, the growth of entitlement spending, which is redistributive, exploded from 28 percent to 66 percent of federal spending. For half a century, entitlement payments were, says economist Nicholas Eberstadt, America’s “fastest-growing source of personal income.” And in any given year, growth “was on the whole over 8 percent higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat.”

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America’s welfare state transfers more than 14 percent of GDP to recipients. In 2010, government at all levels redistributed more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods, and services to recipients. That is $7,200 per person, almost $29,000 for a family of four.

Sanders, who thinks European social democracies are exemplary, evidently thinks America should be more like Greece.

Does socialism mean government growing rapidly relative to the private sector? In the second half of the 20th century, government outlays and regulatory costs (primarily imposed on the private sector) grew 50 percent faster than the private sector. And the socialist Sanders thinks the public sector is famished?

Hectoring Hillary Clinton about her strategic reticence concerning most matters of public policy is unfair. She will tell us her convictions (about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Keystone XL pipeline, increasing Social Security benefits, etc.) when she decides, or is told, what her convictions are.

#related#While medical and retirement payments to the elderly swallow the federal budget, Sanders proposes increasing Social Security benefits (a regressive transfer to the most affluent age cohort, the elderly). He would pay for this by increasing the amount of income subject to payroll taxes. Campaigning in 2007, Clinton denounced such an increase as “a trillion-dollar tax increase on the elderly and on middle-class workers.” Under pressure from Sanders, her thinking about this may “evolve.”

Sanders, who thinks European social democracies are exemplary, evidently thinks America should be more like Greece. Clinton’s other opponent, former Baltimore mayor and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, thinks America deserves more of what has made Baltimore so exciting — the unimpeded, full-throttle application (in Baltimore, for 48 years) of Democratic policies. Why should Clinton interrupt her reticence while her rivals are making her seem (relatively) sensible?

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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