Magazine October 5, 2015, Issue

Democratic Socialism

Unlike Donald Trump, I am a fan of George Will. Not only am I a fan, I just might owe my career to him. Almost 25 years ago, he gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute — where I was a junior policy gnome — in which he made his case for congressional term limits. During the Q&A I asked whether a better solution might not be to return to the will of the Founding Fathers. Instead of even more restrictions on voter choices, why not go the other way? Why not expand Congress? The Founders would be appalled by how large congressional districts are today.

Mr. Will looked at me with sovereign contempt and, in effect, said that only a fool would want more congressmen in Washington. The audience laughed — at my expense. Rage coursed through my veins. If I’d had the gift of telekinesis like that old Gypsy had promised (that’s a story for another day), the AEI conference room would have looked like the prom scene in Carrie. But, being the wet-behind-the-ears mailroom striver of the Establishment (the one Donald Trump will finally tear down) that I was, I forwent my right to blood vengeance and instead went home to furiously peck out a response to Mr. Will gleaned from the fine print of the Federalist Papers and the minutes of the Constitutional Convention. Eventually my Unabomber-like magnum opus became a short op-ed that ran in the Wall Street Journal, the day after the 1992 election. It was my first professionally published piece of writing. I caught the bug. And Will was my muse.

It’s an ironic story in a way. According to lore, when Will became a columnist, he asked Bill Buckley how on earth he could jam out three columns a week. WFB responded that the world irritated him at least three times a week. Write about what irritates you. Will took the advice to heart. And so did I.

Which brings me to a little diatribe of George Will’s on Special Report with Bret Baier. Will took grave offense at Bernie Sanders’s habit of describing himself as a socialist and an independent outsider. About the latter, I think Will has the better part of the argument: Sanders has been in politics since before I knew how to buy pants. (Lest people have fun with that, let me rephrase: He’s been in politics since 1971.) He’s been in Congress since 1991, and, in all that time, Will says, Sanders “caucuses with the Democrats. He gets his committee assignments from the Democrats, he votes with the Democrats, and he’s seeking the nomination of, guess what, the Democratic party.”

Sounds like a Democrat to me. Point: Will.

But Will continues: “Then he says he’s a socialist. No, no, Mr. Corbyn in London, that’s a socialist. He wants the government to own the commanding heights of the economy. Mr. Sanders is called a socialist because he believes in what everybody votes for every year when they vote for a budget, the entitlement structure of the United States.”


I believe that the last time I graced this fine page, it was to make the case that the terrain between socialism and progressivism is not nearly so rough or wide as is sometimes claimed (see “Socialism for Dummies,” August 24). Allow me to quote myself: “By refusing to commit to any limiting principle on what the government can accomplish — or try to accomplish — while simultaneously advancing the socialist cause piecemeal, liberals get to pretend that they subscribe to a different dogma.” In my view, if you can’t describe — and defend — a true and permanent boundary for the role of government in the peacetime economy, you’re a socialist in your heart.

A doctrinaire or, in Hayek’s phrase, a “hot” socialist is someone who not only admits that he wants government to control everything but wants that to happen right away. Hayek conceded — in 1956! — that the hot socialists were on the way out in the West, but he warned that socialist “conceptions have penetrated far too deeply into the whole structure of current thought to justify complacency.”

Personally, I think James Burnham, Joseph Schumpeter, Irving Kristol, and, in other contexts, Hayek himself had the better formulation: The problem isn’t necessarily socialists but planners and managers, who place their faith in government, to be sure, but even more in themselves. But that, too, is a topic for another day.

What’s relevant to this conversation is George Will’s determination to save Bernie Sanders from himself. If Bernie Sanders wants to call himself a socialist, who are we to argue? If he wants to stand in the well of the Senate and say “I have in my hand a list of socialists . . .” as he pulls out his own driver’s license, why object?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, has declined the invitation to explain the difference between socialists and Democrats at least three times. Apparently, she feels that it is not in the interests of the Democratic party to inform the public that there are meaningful differences between socialists and Democrats. I think she’s wrong about that. But even if I’m not, I’m still in favor of Democrats’ embracing the “socialist” label. It’s certainly more accurate than “liberal” (a moniker the libertarians understandably would like to have back). It’s clarifying. And, even if I’m wrong, the widespread adoption of the S-word will surely inspire another thousand great columns.

In This Issue


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Break Up the Budget

Republicans are once again contemplating a defeat on the budget followed by recriminations. This season the defeat will concern Planned Parenthood: Some Republicans think that they should take a stand ...


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The Inequality Cycle

By one measure, opportunity and mobility are thriving in America. Children born into the lowest income quintile have almost exactly equal chances of arriving in any of the five income ...

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The Real Detective

Aside from Edgar Allan Poe (who, after all, pretty much invented the detective story), the most significant figure in the history of American mystery fiction is Dashiell Hammett, who brought ...
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Not Inevitable

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