Re­veal­ing so­cial­ism in Amer­ica


WASH­ING­TON — Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, 28, re­cently won the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion — ef­fec­tively, elec­tion — in a Bronx and Queens con­gres­sional district, run­ning as a “demo­cratic so­cial­ist.” In re­sponse to her, pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tives are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fer­ent ex­cite­ments.

The left rel­ishes the so­cial­ist la­bel as a re­jec­tion of squishy cen­trism — a naughty, dar­ing re­jec­tion of timid­ity. The right en­joys a tingle of de­li­cious fear: We toldyou that the al­ter­na­tive to us is the dark night of so­cial­ism.

At the risk of spoil­ing the fun, con­sider two ques­tions: What is so­cial­ism? And what might a so­cial­ist Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment do?

In its 19th-cen­tury in­fancy, so­cial­ist the­ory was at least ad­mirable in its clar­ity: It meant state own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion (in­clud­ing arable land), dis­tri­bu­tion and ex­change. Un­til, of course, the state “with­ers away” (Friedrich En­gels’ phrase), when a class­less, and hence har­mo­nious, so­ci­ety can dis­pense with gov­ern­ment.

Af­ter World War II, Bri­tain’s Labour Party di­luted so­cial­ist doc­trine to mean state own­er­ship of the econ­omy’s “com­mand­ing heights” (Lenin’s phrase from 1922) — heavy in­dus­try, min­ing, rail­roads, telecommunications, etc. Since then, in Bri­tain and else­where, fur­ther di­lu­tion has pro­duced so­cial­ism as com­pre­hen­sive eco­nomic reg­u­la­tion by the ad­min­is­tra­tive state and gov­ern­ment en­er­get­i­cally re­dis­tribut­ing wealth. So, if Amer­ica had a so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment to­day, what would it be like?

So­cial­ism fa­vors the thor­ough per­me­ation of eco­nomic life by “so­cial” (aka po­lit­i­cal) con­sid­er­a­tions, so it em­braces pro­tec­tion­ism — gov­ern­ment telling con­sumers what they can buy, in what quan­ti­ties and at what prices. (A so­cial­ist Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment might even set quo­tas and prices for for­eign wash­ing ma­chines.)

So­cial­ism fa­vors max­i­miz­ing gov­ern­ment’s role sup­ple­ment­ing, even largely sup­plant­ing, the mar­ket in the al­lo­ca­tion of wealth by im­ple­ment­ing re­dis­tri­bu­tion­ist pro­grams. (To­day Amer­ica’s sky is dark with dol­lars fly­ing hither and yon at gov­ern­ment’s di­rec­tion: Trans­fer pay­ments dis­trib­ute 14 per­cent of GDP, two-thirds of the fed­eral bud­get, up from a lit­tle more than one-quar­ter in 1960.)

So­cial­ism re­quires — ac­tu­ally, so­cial­ism is— in­dus­trial pol­icy, whereby gov­ern­ment picks win­ners and losers in con­form­ity with the gov­ern­ment’s vi­sion of how the fu­ture ought to be ra­tio­nally planned. What could go wrong? (Imag­ine, weirdly, a pres­i­dent prac­tic­ing com­pas­sion­ate so­cial­ism by or­der­ing his en­ergy sec­re­tary to prop up yes­ter­day’s coal in­dus­try against the mar­ket me­nace of frack­ing — cheap oil and nat­u­ral gas.)

So­cial­ism re­quires a bureaucracy of largely au­ton­o­mous ex­perts un­con­strained by a marginal­ized — ide­ally, a par­a­lyzed — Congress. So, an Amer­i­can so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment would rule less by laws than by reg­u­la­tions writ­ten in ad­min­is­tra­tive agen­cies staffed by ex­perts in­su­lated from med­dling by elected leg­is­la­tors. (Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s of­fice dis­plays two piles of pa­per. One, a few inches high, con­tains the laws Congress passed in a re­cent year. The other, about 8 feet tall, con­tains reg­u­la­tions churned out that year by the ad­min­is­tra­tive state’s agen­cies.)

To­day’s Amer­i­can so­cial­ists say our gov­ern­ment has be­come the hand­maiden of ra­pa­cious fac­tions and en­trenched elites, and that there should be much more gov­ern­ment. They are half-right. To be fair, they also say that af­ter Amer­ica gets “on the right side of his­tory” (an up­dated ver­sion of af­ter “the last king is stran­gled with the en­trails of the last priest”), gov­ern­ment will be truly dis­in­ter­ested, ma­nip­u­lated by no rent-seek­ing fac­tions, serv­ing only jus­tice. That is, gov­ern­ment will be al­to­gether dif­fer­ent than it is, or ever has been. Se­ri­ously.

A pri­vate eq­uity firm might be buy­ing GameS­top. Ac­tu­ally, the firm plans to buy GameS­top, play it for a

week, then trade it in for a newer video game store.”

Jimmy Fallon “The Tonight Show Star­ring Jimmy Fallon”

Ge­orge Will georgewill@ wash­


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