Economy & Business

‘Socialist’ Is the New ‘Libertarian’

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at Penn State University during his 2016 presidential campaign. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The American Left doesn’t seem to follow very closely the Nordic states it claims to admire.

A  large part of our political discourse consists of arguing about the meanings of words: Republicans should support the Affordable Care Act, Vox-style lefties argued, because Obamacare is a “conservative” program. (The three most important words in political economy are: “Compared to what?”) “Racist” and “sexist” mean whatever the Left needs them to mean at any given moment, as do “extremist,” “radical,” “risky,”and “reckless.” (The Trump administration has some ideas about fuel-economy standards; what are the odds the New York Times editorial section, that inexhaustible font of clichés, will denounce them as a “reckless scheme”? Approximately 100 percent.) Republican thought leaders, in between the ads for gold coins and doggie vitamins, denounce as “socialist” everything from Hillary Rodham Clinton to the USDA to preschool programs.

But cut them some slack: The Democrats don’t do much better on “socialist,” the magic word of the moment. Senator Bernie Sanders sometimes calls himself a socialist, and every now and again he hits on a genuinely socialist theme, but his particular blend of yahooistical union-hall nationalism, nostalgic corporatism, and central planning went by a different name back in the 1930s. Most of the young Democrats calling themselves “socialists” do not talk very much about socialist ideas at all, instead being smitten with Northern European welfare states such as Sweden and Denmark, which do things differently than we do here in the United States but which are not socialist in any meaningful sense of that word. Ironically, the rhetorical project of conflating the welfare state with socialism seems to have been as successful on the left as on the right.

The American Left doesn’t seem to follow very closely the Nordic states it claims to admire. Beginning in 1991, Sweden embarked on a decades-long campaign of privatization and reform that made the scholars at the Heritage Foundation envious. It sold off state-owned enterprises and interests in the liquor, pharmaceutical, and banking sectors, expanded private alternatives in health-care and retirement programs, eliminated state monopolies in pharmacies and vehicle inspections, and much more. This began under a center-right government and continued with a reduced scope under the Social Democrats, who stopped short of privatizing the Swedish postal service and state-run utilities. Denmark is a country with a long history of free trade, strong property rights, and liberal labor markets. Most of the Nordic states have no legislated minimum wage; as in the case of Switzerland, they generally rely on industry-by-industry labor agreements that vary greatly by sector. They are different in many important ways from the American model, but they are not socialist.

Michael Tomasky, the editor of Democracy, is among those taking this Democratic talk of “socialism” more or less at face value. He writes:

I’ve been fretting lately about the state of mind of America’s capitalists. All these socialists coming out of the woodwork must have them in quite a lather. So I write today with some friendly advice for the capitalist class about said socialists.

You want fewer socialists? Easy. Stop creating them.

Every once in a while in history, cause and effect smack us in the face. The conditions under which the czars forced Russians to live gave rise to Bolshevism. The terms imposed at Versailles fueled Hitler’s ascent. The failures of Keynesianism in the 1970s smoothed the path for supply-side economics.

Mr. Tomasky writes with remarkable self-assurance. (Surely there was a bit more to the rise of the German National Socialist Workers party than the Treaty of Versailles.) But he hits on the fundamental thing: All this talk about socialism isn’t about socialism. It’s about the status quo, and an old-fashioned rhetorical stratagem long employed by the Left is to equate every ill in every Western society with “capitalism.” (But set that aside for the moment.) Mr. Tomasky writes:

If you were a person of modest or even middle-class means, how would you feel about capitalism? The kind of capitalism this country has been practicing for all these years has failed most people.

Yes, it’s given us lots of shiny objects to gush about. A smartphone that can display slow-motion video is a wonder. But an affordable college education, though perhaps not a wonder, is a necessity for a well-ordered society.

There are a few obvious shortcomings to his line of argument here, and not just that history has seen many well-ordered societies that had little or nothing in the way of university education. Mr. Tomasky isn’t making quite the point he thinks he is: Those nifty smartphones are the product of the part of 21st-century human endeavor characterized by free enterprise, free markets, private investment, etc., that we call capitalism. Education, for the most part, isn’t. In the United States, the state university system is a social enterprise, one generally based on state ownership of economic assets such as land or, in the case of my alma mater down in Austin, mineral rights. It’s as close to a socialist program as we have, and all the would-be socialists are complaining about it.

Something’s not quite right there.

The real world is always more complicated than political rhetoric of Mr. Tomasky’s kind, which relies on absurd oversimplification to concentrate its emotional energy. Conservatives often scoff that socialism simply “doesn’t work,” but the state-dominated enterprise that is the American system of higher education is the envy of the world. Its main financial problem is the fact that its innovative and enterprising managers can always figure out a way to soak up whatever great roaring streams of money that government shunts in their general direction.

(Question: What do you imagine would happen to the price of a Honda Civic if the federal government gave every young person in the country ten grand and a subsidized loan that could only be used for the purchase of a Honda Civic? My guess is that the price of a Honda Civic would go up enough to accommodate all the money that was on the table.)

The K–12 education system is an almost exclusively government-run enterprise, too, and it, on the other hand, is a mess. What’s the difference between the low-performing K–12 system and the world-beating higher-education system? There are of course many factors at work: College professors enjoy higher social status and (often, not always) more generous compensation than do eighth-grade art teachers, and the standards for becoming one are (often, not always) higher. But certainly consumer choice is among the most important factors. Students have a choice about where they go to college, and they take their money (public and private) with them wherever they go. Outside of a few cranks such as me, nobody talks very much about fully privatizing K–12 education in the United States. Instead, what most conservative reformers emphasize is introducing consumer choice into that social enterprise, making K–12 more like college in terms of its economic incentives. There isn’t really a socialism-vs.-capitalism aspect to that. The real underlying issue is what the Nordic reformers sometimes call “marketization,” bringing choice, competition, and accountability to state-dominated enterprises that once had been monopolistic, with all the dysfunction and woe that goes along with that.

Capitalism vs. socialism? In American politics, that’s a case of words about words, and very little more.

The angriest partisans on both sides don’t want to work on structural reforms to K–12 education: They are engaged in a tribal contest the aim of which is to humiliate the other side.

But we love to fixate on exciting words. For a moment during the presidency of George W. Bush, virtually every figure on the right was denounced as a “neocon,” a term poorly understood by the majority of the people who use it. “Republican” and “conservative” weren’t good enough. Even the Buchananites whose distinguishing feature is their intense hatred of neoconservatives found themselves denounced as “neocons” from time to time. As George Orwell noted in the case of “fascist,” the word came to mean nothing more than: “I hate you.”

(Or, often enough in the case of “neocon,” nothing more than: “I hate you, Jew.”)

Do you know what the word “libertarian” means? Our friends over at Reason magazine define libertarianism as the creed of “free minds and free markets,” and there are a few of us old-fashioned ideologues who more or less hold to that. But what the word “libertarian” really means in the majority of cases is: a person who is culturally on the right but understandably embarrassed to call himself a Republican. Hence a great many self-described libertarians rallied in 2016 to the cause of Donald Trump, who is — love him or detest him — something close to the opposite of a libertarian, a man whose instinct is toward government intervention in practically everything, an admirer of Joe Arpaio at home and Vladimir Putin abroad.

The two major U.S. political parties mirror one another to an almost comical extent. Both of them are institutionally dominated by relatively moderate and somewhat dusty specimens of the American ruling class, and both of them are emotionally dominated by a relatively small activist base that hates its own party establishment almost (that’s the key: almost) as much as it hates the guys on the other side. The tea-party movement was never about giving the bird to the Democrats: Hating the Democrats was a given. The tea-party movement was about giving the bird to the leadership of the Republican party. Ask the more perfervid Trump admirers who the real Enemy of the People is and they’ll say it’s Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

The same dynamic plays out on the left: I spent some time covering Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and there were a few true believers convinced that the grumpy Muppet from Vermont was just what the republic needed. But many of them simply could not stomach the prospect of pulling the lever for someone named “Clinton” again and lining up behind some triangulating, difference-splitting, corporation-friendly, deal-making, bipartisan-leaning, Davos-frequenting gazillionaire. The angriest partisans on both sides don’t want to work on structural reforms to K–12 education: They are engaged in a tribal contest the aim of which is to humiliate the other side. Lincoln was the Liberator, Reagan the Great Communicator, and Trump the Great Humiliator. Jon Stewart became the most beloved man on the American Left because he has a talent for humiliation, not because he’s a great wit or because he has original and insightful ideas about public policy.

Beyond Words about Words

Which brings us back to socialism, and to Mr. Tomasky. Those who are genuinely interested in the underlying dynamics of American politics — either for the pragmatic purpose of winning elections or for the quaint purpose of trying to make this a better place to live — must begin by understanding that what is convulsing these United States is not an ideological conflict. It is not a philosophical conflict, and it is not a contest of visions and transcendent values. Not one American citizen in 20 has anything like the intellectual preparation and inclination to engage in such a contest. This is a case of rational ignorance, inevitable as death.

Beneath the tribalism, the underlying energies on both sides of the political divide are status anxiety and risk aversion. Americans, along with most of the rest of the world, today enjoy a material standard of living that is radically better than what our parents or grandparents enjoyed during the so-called golden age of the postwar era. And it’s not just those shiny gadgets that Mr. Tomasky dismisses with such shallow contempt. We have better food, housing, health care, and — yes — access to education, including higher education, than most people would have dreamt of in the Eisenhower era. (And extreme poverty around the world was cut by half in about 30 years, one of the unappreciated miracles of human history.) These advances are taken for granted, and even held in glib contempt, because the process that creates them (capitalism) is largely invisible to most people, who have very little if any understanding of where material progress comes from and how it happens. By almost any measurable metric (calories and kilowatt-hours consumed, square feet inhabited, etc.) this American life looks pretty good compared to the 1980s, much less the 1950s. But there are fault lines, as evidenced by the decline in life expectancies for non-college-educated white men, particularly in Greater Appalachia, a lamentable social trend driven almost entirely by despair and ennui: It isn’t malaria or starvation killing those people, but afflictions associated with chronic alcohol abuse, addiction to opiates and other drugs, and suicide.

Why the despair?

Those old midcentury factory jobs were — the sentimentalists and nostalgics will not tell you this — terrible, for the most part. It is a myth that Henry Ford paid his workers higher wages so that they could afford to buy his cars; he paid them high wages because he had to, to prevent massive disruptive turnover in the grinding, monotonous jobs in his factories. Most of the populists complaining today about the (almost entirely fictitious) “deindustrialization” of the United States would move heaven and earth to keep their own sons and daughters from going down a coal mine or working in a steel mill. But those factory jobs provided a predictable and stable path to basic economic self-sufficiency for at least a part of what we call the working class, which was of great interest to the social planners on both sides of the aisle. If you view human beings as liabilities rather than assets, then a job with good pay (and health-care benefits and a pension) is a way to solve that problem, or rather a way of getting American businesses to solve that problem for you. You take the liability off your books and put it on Ford’s or U.S. Steel’s.

That kind of predictability and stability is attractive to many people, including many of the young people who, being almost entirely ignorant of the history of the 20th century, believe that socialism will provide them with predictability and stability. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there were those who accepted with clear eyes the prospect that Obamacare might deliver a health-care system that was in some ways inferior to what might otherwise have been but would guarantee access to that inferior care. That isn’t an irrational tradeoff, necessarily. It depends on your tolerance for risk. People don’t defend the K–12 education system because it’s so good that it cannot be improved upon; they defend it because it is a system that they don’t have to worry about. It doesn’t keep them up at night. You take your kid down to the local public school, you enroll, and that’s that. There’s no choice, but there’s no complication, either. And there is the perception (mistaken, as it turns out) that this creates a situation in which the children of less affluent families run a smaller risk of being left behind.

The Right’s version of this is the currently ascendant hostility toward free trade. Virtually all of the evidence points to free trade supporting a more prosperous and cooperative world, providing enormous economic benefits to both sides of the transaction. (That’s the genius of free exchange: Both buyer and seller have to be satisfied with the exchange, or it simply does not happen. Consumers have veto power, and Apple, even with its $1 trillion, cannot overrule consumers.) But trade can interrupt current arrangements. (It’s supposed to.) Free trade makes the nation richer, but it might cost your brother-in-law his job at the aluminum plant, and then you have to worry about whether he finds another one and how long that takes, and whether he can pay the mortgage in the interim. The job he finds may come with a lower social status even if it comes with the same or better money. There are lots of car salesmen who make a hell of a lot more money than most college professors, but their mothers may not be as proud of their occupations. The neo-mercantilists, like the partisans of the Affordable Care Act, are willing to accept a generally inferior economic outcome in order to avoid the stress and uncertainty of dealing with . . . life, really.

The theoretical promise of socialism, like the promise of the Bismarckian welfare state that was developed as a liberal alternative to it, is that it fortifies the individual by insulating him from bearing the full weight of social and economic forces beyond his control. This is hardly an exclusively progressive or left-wing idea: F. A. Hayek’s argument for various kinds of social insurance and welfare plans was based on much the same thinking, with the state “providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.”

There are ways for conservatives to address those risks that are consistent with our political philosophy and our values.

There isn’t any obvious and non-arbitrary place to draw the line on those common hazards of life. Presumably, even the most radical libertarians among us do not expect infants born with crippling disabilities to just buck up and get on with their lives without any assistance. There are children with irresponsible families or families with inadequate resources, there are people with mild or severe disabilities, there are old people who can no longer care for themselves, there are young mothers without sufficient support . . . and there are healthy, able-bodied men who used to work in occupations that suddenly ceased to exist, and people who used to have insurance through their employers but lost their jobs and couldn’t get a new plan that would cover their diabetes or cancer or clinical depression. The fundamental difference between Right and Left is where to draw that line (or those lines) and how to go about helping those we decide to help. There are always competing goods: It’s good to have unemployment insurance or trade assistance for displaced aluminum workers, but it’s also good if the economy is performing so robustly that few people need it.

Socialism provides, for those not inclined to think too deeply about the question, a one-word answer for all those dilemmas. It’s the Left’s version of the libertarians’ “The free market will take care of it, or private charity will.” Neither of those prescriptions withstands very much scrutiny.

But if we were inclined to set aside for moment the petty tribalism of our politics and consider the situation with some charity, we might ask ourselves: “Why is that woman so terrified that she’ll lose her health insurance and never be able to replace it? Why does this family dread the prospect of competitive schools that charge tuition, even if we’re offering vouchers to pay for that tuition? Why is this man so convinced that distant Chinese bureaucrats mean him and his family harm? Why are these people so anxious when they see a cigarette billboard in Spanish in their neighborhood? Why have these young people lost faith in the general economic arrangements that have made them, whether they realize it or not, rich beyond the dreams of 99.99 percent of the people who have ever walked this Earth?”

There are ways for conservatives to address those risks that are consistent with our political philosophy and our values. But we often fail to make the case, because we often fail to account for the intensity (and the distribution) of the risk aversion among those who see the world differently than we do. That’s one reason why all that energy put into school choice for families in failing urban schools has not translated into electoral support for those programs in the communities for whom the benefits are most intended.

And that may be part of why this ersatz socialism is having a moment.

The “socialism” we’re talking about right now doesn’t quite mean socialism; it means an expanded welfare state, which promises (it is a mostly false promise) to take some of the risk and anxiety out of the lives of people who feel vulnerable and who are not confident that their situation is going to improve much without government intervention. The fear and anxiety behind that are not irrational: It is a complicated world, and it can be overwhelming. There are lots of Americans with fancy advanced degrees who are unable to make heads nor tails of their hospital bills or their cable charges. Mortgages, college financial-aid paperwork, insurance plans, apartment leases, and anything else that touches a financial-services company — good luck with all that. Conservative policy entrepreneurs ought to give that some thought, and consider that former steelworkers in Ohio are not the only Americans who are concerned about their futures.

But I do hope that Mr. Tomasky will take a good hard look at that smartphone, and consider the beautiful, incomprehensibly complex network of cooperative human relationships that not only created it but made cheap, evolving so efficiently that over the course of his brief lifetime such devices have gone from being conveniences for Wall Street tycoons to being ordinary appliances for ordinary teenagers who would laugh if you tried to give them Gordon Gekko’s cinderblock-sized cell phone. Perhaps those forces could be put to some good use in such areas as education and health care, which may suffer from too little capitalism rather than too much.

Socialism isn’t what anxious young Americans are looking for. But conservatives should be honest with the fact that they aren’t buying what we’re selling, and do the hard work of understanding why and what to do about it.

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