National Review has been hosting a discussion about free enterprise and socialism, and it contains some very good stuff. But it is dispiriting that we must have this conversation — again — at all. Socialism’s record is a matter of history. But, for reasons having partly to do with lack of memory, “never again” once again has been superseded by “this time it will be different,” at least on parts of the Left.
The United States is not very much like Venezuela, but it is like Venezuela in one important thing: In Venezuela, the failures of socialism were blamed on anything but the policies themselves: capitalism, imperialism, sabotage, hoarding, etc. In the United States, the failures of socialism are blamed on anything but socialism. They are blamed on “inequality,” the wealthy, “globalists,” etc.
The United States is not a socialist country, but we have instances of socialism. Public K–12 education, for example, in which the state owns the means of production, manages them through political bureaus (with democratically elected boards in most cases), the labor force consists of state employees, etc. Public K–12 education is in much of the country a disaster. It is a much greater disaster especially in those places in which the Democratic party and its most socialistic members prevail: In the big cities where no Republican, much less any conservative, has exercised any real influence in generations.
What is the Democrats’ prescription for these socialist failures? More socialism.
Our economic is enormously productive, and the real standard of living for Americans has increased dramatically over the past several decades. We take for granted products and services that once were luxuries and conveniences for millionaires.
But there are important areas of failure. Not coincidentally, these are clustered in those areas in which the socialist model most strongly predominates: education, health care, retirement. It is in these areas that the ideas associated with Senator Warren, Senator Sanders, Representative Ocasio-Cortez, et al., have had the most influence. The public schools, in particular, have been a progressive fief for decades and decades. And while real-dollar per-student spending has climbed substantially, outcomes have stagnated or worse.
There is room for public welfare and for government action beyond the provision of narrowly defined public goods. But socialism is a different and distinct thing from the offering of welfare benefits and the like. It is not the case that the answer to every question is “Markets will take care of it!” or “Private charity will take care of it!” (The answer very often is one of those.)
But the failure of discrete socialism is not a warrant for more general socialism, except in the minds of ideologues who are disposed to see everything as a warrant for more general socialism.