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The Key Word in "Democratic Socialism" is "Socialism"

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The recent New York Democratic primary upset in which self-described “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, age 28, defeated the high-ranking Congressman Joe Crowley is another example of socialism being pushed front-and-center into modern American politics. As usual, the pundits have it wrong when trying to explain what one means by “democratic socialism.”

Part of the reason for the upsurge in favorable views toward “democratic socialism” has been the perpetual presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who most likely would have been the Democratic Party candidate for president in 2016 had party insiders not rigged the process for Hillary Clinton. Although Sanders in his earlier years identified with the full-blown communism of the former Soviet Union (he called himself a “Trotskyite”), today he claims that socialism can be better organized through the electoral politics of a democracy, hence the name “democratic socialism.”

According to John Haltiwanger of Business Insider, “democratic socialism” differs from outright socialism in the level of state control of the economy, with socialists wanting the government to own almost all property and all means of economic production, while “democratic socialists” would allow for some private production (although it would be heavily regulated by government). He writes:

Democratic socialists also believe strongly in democracy and democratic principles. They are by no means proponents of authoritarian government systems many Americans associate socialism with.

As the DSA's (Democratic Socialists of America) website states: "At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people."

Seeking the Same Ends Through Different Means

To be honest, we are looking at distinctions without real differences, as both socialists and their “democratic” counterparts differ only about the means by which to reach the same ends: total state control of the lives of everyone in a society. Furthermore, even Bernie Sanders has not fully renounced his allegiance to Leon Trotsky and his Bolsheviks, and that would have to include the infamous Red Terror:

At these times, there were numerous reports that Cheka interrogators utilized torture methods which were, according to Orlando Figes, “matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.” At Odessa the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water; in Kharkiv, scalpings and hand-flayings were commonplace: the skin was peeled off victims’ hands to produce “gloves”; the Voronezh Cheka rolled naked people around in barrels studded internally with nails; victims were crucified or stoned to death at Dnipropetrovsk; the Cheka at Kremenchuk impaled members of the clergy and buried alive rebelling peasants; in Orel, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues; in Kiev, Chinese Cheka detachments placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim’s body in an effort to escape.

One should recall that prominent “democratic socialists” like the late John Kenneth Galbraith effusively praised both the communist economies of China during the Mao years and the USSR (the latter less than a decade before it collapsed), although there is no record of Galbraith having supported the mass executions of millions of people in order to make the socialist utopia a reality (and no record of Galbraith having condemned communist mass murder, either). Still, one can say unequivocally that Galbraith and others in the “social democracy” camps have lavished praise over the years of the communist system after it was put into place — and the main reason it was in place was because of outright terror and murder.

Likewise, in an interview with Sojourners Magazine in December, 1976, Dorothy Day, the so-called Catholic anarchist, laid unrestrained praise upon Chinese communism, claiming that China was a place with no hunger and a near-utopia. She added in an afterthought, however, that she disagreed with the violent means used to put that system into place, as though the implementation of the communist state she so adored could be done any other way.

That prominent “democratic socialists” have endorsed the ends of socialism without openly embracing violence and murder to install it into place does not mean that they should be left off the hook. We further can assume that employing an electoral process to vote socialist measures into place is going to make socialism work better than it has in the past, since the mechanics of socialism do not differ whether the socialist regime is installed via revolutionary violence or through the ballot box. After all, both Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro were overwhelmingly elected to office in Venezuela in what generally are believed to be relatively free and fair elections, and now that the state-directed economy has collapsed, “democratic socialist” supporters in the USA either pretend that the government is not socialist or that the Maduro regime is not socialist enough. Declares The Nation:

If socialism is understood as a system in which workers and communities (rather than bureaucrats, politicians, and well-connected entrepreneurs) exercise effective democratic control over economic and political decision-making, it would appear that Venezuela is suffering not from too much socialism, but from too little.

This quote is significant in analyzing “social democracy” if only for the use of rhetoric as a tool of social organization. To put it in another way, “social democrats” promise all sorts of “free” goods and services from medical care to housing as part of their platform, yet want us to believe that rhetoric by itself also provides the means to provide these “free” items without creating economic havoc. For example, after her victory, Ocasio-Cortez told CBS late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert:

I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. What that means to me is health care as a human right, it means that every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade-school education if they so choose it. I think that no person should be homeless if we have public structures or public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.

In the mind of “democratic socialists,” all that is lacking to provide massive amounts of “free” goods and services is political will. Things like “free” healthcare and “free” higher education and “free” housing do not exist because capitalists have kept people from massing together to vote these things for themselves. As the Democratic Socialists of America website proclaims:

Traditional left prescriptions have failed on both sides of the Communist/socialist divide. Global economic integration has rendered obsolete both the social democratic solution of independent national economies sustaining a strong social welfare state and the Communist solution of state-owned national economies fostering social development.

The globalization of capital requires a renewed vision and tactics. But the essence of the socialist vision — that people can freely and democratically control their community and society — remains central to the movement for radical democracy.

The site goes on to claim (falsely) that poverty rates are increasing and that people around the world are poorer than they were a half-century ago. But even though poverty is increasing and everything in the world (due to capitalism) is worse than it ever was in history, “democratic socialists” through political organization and government takeover of commercial and social institutions — done through the ballot box, of course — will create the utopia that socialists a century ago only dreamed of crafting.

It is not as though socialists suddenly have discovered the word “democratic.” One recalls that the socialist nation we know as North Korea is actually the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The country we knew as East Germany — famous for its wall preventing people from escaping over its borders — officially was named the German Democratic Republic, and so on. For that matter, the deadly Cambodian regime that murdered more than a third of the nation’s population from 1975 to 1979 ruled over the nation named Democratic Kampuchea.

While it is true that the DSA website calls for “market mechanisms” and does not call for elimination of all private property and business enterprises, it is clear that anything associated with “markets” would be heavily regulated — through “democratic” state planning, of course. Furthermore, the sheer volume of “free stuff” that socialists guarantee would require vast increases of government coercion just to obtain the resources needed to fulfill such campaign promises. One cannot have such large-scale changes in direction of resources without creating economic dislocations.

The “democratic” portion of “democratic socialism” also is troubling in itself. Does “democratic” mean that economic decisions that now are made by the various players in the market now will be subject to widespread voting? One cannot have both “market mechanisms” and an economic system in which major decisions on production and exchange carried out through a political voting mechanism that lacks what Mises would have called a method of economic calculation. Voters in winner-take-all elections are no more adept at creating a vibrant (or even functioning) economy than central planners, and the idea that a popular vote for nearly everything economic would produce anything but chaos is laughable.

Given that the United States has a representative democracy, it would seem that “democratic socialism” would be implemented by elected representatives that would direct factors of production and determine what should and should not be created. They would set up a system that would be highly confiscatory and order things like single-payer medical care to be put into place.

We have two major historical examples of this kind of “democratic socialism” in action. The first is well-known to readers of this page, the “democratic socialist” regime in Venezuela. Voters in that country freely elected Hugo Chavez, who promised — and delivered — a socialist regime in which government confiscated huge amounts of private property, nationalized the oil sector, and then spent the new windfall on things that socialists believe to be important. Such action garnered Chavez much admiration in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere in the West as the regime claimed to be improving the lives of Venezuela’s poor through medical and educational services.

Salvador Allende and Chilean Democracy

The second example is that of Chile, in which voters in 1970 gave the legislative faction led by Salvador Allende, who was a committed communist (he insisted upon being called “Comrade President”) a slight plurality of votes. Once in power, Allende’s government did what socialists do: it seized private property, expropriated whole industries, tripled wages to some workers, and then touched off one of the worst hyperinflations in the 20th century. (Venezuela has the honor of creating the worst hyperinflation of the 21st century.) Allende died during a 1973 coup that brought a decade of dictatorship to Chile, but ultimately the new regime ended the socialist economy — and in return, Chile’s economy became the best in Latin America, and it also threw off the shackles of dictatorship.

Theoretically, if a “democratic socialist” regime can be voted in, then it should be able to be voted out. Socialists, however, see things differently, as they view the establishment of a socialist regime to be a social and political “triumph” that cannot be undone by the whim of voters. The view from socialists is that once a system of state ownership and control has been put into place, anything that would change those arrangements would be illegitimate, reactionary, and fought against at all costs.

Indeed, nowhere in the entire DSA website can one find any mention that voters can and should be free to vote out socialism after it is established in a society. So-called democratic socialists, it seems, believe that once socialism is put into place, that any attempt to remove it is a crime against progress itself. Whatever democratic processes remain after socialism becomes woven into the economic and political structures are to be directed toward the continuance of socialist “progress,” not away from it.

In a final plea, democratic socialists claim that they don’t want a totalitarian system; they just want us to be like Denmark. As the Occupy Democrats meme tells us, Denmark is the world’s “happiest country” because it has lots of free stuff, like healthcare, education, and childcare. Come to think of it, the old USSR had the same setup — and many American leftists like Galbraith claimed that the imagined cornucopia of “free stuff” legitimized the old Soviet regime.

Yes, Denmark has lots of government services paid for via very high marginal tax rates. However, would the followers of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez be willing to put up with the relatively-low business taxes that exist in Denmark in order to ensure that private enterprise can produce enough wealth to fund the Danish welfare state? The recent political caterwauling over the reduction in corporation taxes in the USA from 35 to 21 percent tells us that democratic socialists in this country have no idea that the vast welfare state they want to create must be undergirded by someone, somewhere, producing all of that “free stuff.”

There is another point that few people make, but should be central to the “we-should-be-like-Denmark-and-Sweden” demands from American democratic socialists: the overarching demands for total social conformity. While much of the current call for socialism in the USA is coming from entrepreneurial billionaires, and especially those on the West Coast, there is no room for such people in Denmark. There are no Mark Zuckerbergs, Steven Jobses, or even a David Trone. (Trone is the billionaire wine distributor running as a Democrat in our Democrat-gerrymandered Western Maryland congressional district whose platform essentially is one of so-called democratic socialism.) The fact is that the society Trone wants to create would have no place for people like him who took an idea, purchased resources in the face of uncertainty, and built a thriving business, enabling him to become a billionaire.

The demand for utter conformity is something that neither Sanders nor his inarticulate acolyte Ocasio-Cortez can explain away. In order to create their utopias, they ultimately would have to respond to the normal resistance that comes when authorities are heavy-handed and when they try to expropriate one’s property to use it for political purposes. The government response almost always is the same: gratuitous violence. Once upon a time, Sanders understood the “need” for violence and even murder in the creation of the socialist state, and he tacitly approved it. Today, he and Ocasio-Cortez pretend that they peacefully can create that happy utopia where everyone is happy, and there is a coffee shop on every corner.

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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