Over at The Liberty Conservative (which is, in my opinion, something of an oxymoronic name), Alex Witoslawski of the Leadership Institute recently wrote an article defending populism as a strategy for libertarian activists to embrace. I am going to disagree with Alex at almost every turn, but it should be known that I am friends with Alex and mean no ill-will towards him. In fact, he privately asked me for my input and asked that I publish my criticisms publicly.
Alex defines populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” In order for a movement to be populist, Alex claims it must use four distinguishing factors:
Messaging: the central message obviously has to revolve around the theme of populism – “the people versus the privileged elites”
Strategy: put simply, the central strategy of populism is to bypass the ruling class – academia, mainstream media, and political establishment – in order to get the message out directly to the masses
Tactics: in order to achieve the strategic goal of bypassing the ruling class, populist candidates and organizations must make use of grassroots organizing, events, digital communication (social media and email), and the alt-media to communicate directly with the masses
Issues: the message of “the people vs. the elites” is closely adhered to on every single issue advocated; in addition to this, the policies advocated for must be sufficiently radical to inspire a core base of supporters who will passionately support the populist campaign/organization as donors and activists.
To cite reasons why libertarians should embrace this populist ethos, Alex cites the recent surprising election of Donald Trump and the relatively successful Ron Paul primary campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and gives the example of Lew Rockwell’s and Murray Rothbard’s infamous paleolibertarian phase in the late eighties and early nineties for inspiration. Let me give eight reasons why principled libertarians–and classical liberals–neither can be nor should be populists:
1. Is Populism even Necessary for Electoral Victory?
It’s not even apparent that populism is always and everywhere the best electoral strategy in the first place. The three best turnouts, for example, in LP history for president were the decidedly non-populist Gary Johnson campaigns and the non-populist, left-leaning Ed Clark/David Koch 1980 campaign, ranking much lower with less than half the votes of Clark/Koch was the much more populist Ron Paul 1988 campaign. For further evidence, there were many similarities between populists and progressive parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of the few major differences were the degree of technocracy and even outright elitism that progressives embraced (populists were more Jacksonian, progressives Wilsonian). Which parties and candidates were more popular at polls? Progressives. All this is, of course, anecdotal and casual historical evidence from which no necessary causality can be established, but so are the examples of Trump vs. Cruz and Rand vs. Ron that Alex gives. There’s likely an empirical political science literature on the electoral effectiveness of populist messaging that might shed light on this question, one with which I am admittedly ignorant, but, at any rate, this is an antecedent point to my main argument.
2. The Narrow Focus on Electoral Politics
Even if populism does win elections, it’s not even clear that’s a good goal. As any good anarchist will tell you, electoral victories are not the only, or even a particularly good, measure of a political movement’s accomplishments. Who can cater to a rationally ignorant and irrational voting population has little to do with whether your ideology is actually improving anyone’s lives. In fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a later, if all you’re doing is winning elections, there’s a fair chance you’re making people’s lives worse. The goal should be to minimize the real world importance of elections, to get politics out of people’s lives, not to make electoral politics the end goal. Consistent libertarianism is (or at least should be), in fact, not really a political movement at all; it seeks the abolition of politics to begin with.
3. Populism’s Democratic Ethos Leads to Support for Bad Policies
Even if you manage to get a majority of voters to vote for ostensibly libertarian politicians, the question of how to implement those principles in real-world policy is much more complex. Populists, because the goal is to “tear down the establishment,” are likely to call for haphazard, potentially dangerous policies which democratize institutions that shouldn’t be controlled by the people (eg., courts, central banks, etc.) and make currently controlled democratic institutions more democratic. It goes without saying that putting coercive institutions in control of rationally ignorant and irrational political actors is pretty rash–be they “elites” like politicians and bankers or “the little guy” like supposedly disenfranchised voters.
Examples of such bad ideas supported by populist libertarians include congressional term limits or auditing the fed. Those policies may have libertarian normative goals, but it requires working technical economics and institutional analysis to know if they’re the best way to work towards those goals. For reasons anyone who knows the first thing about public choice can tell you, the masses will never have such knowledge. In fact, the populist attacks on “the elites” are likely to lead people to detest those who do have such knowledge, exacerbating the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Call me an elitist, but I’d go far as to say that populism of any form is just the political manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
4. Populism will Likely Turn into Something Nasty
Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger psuedo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Steffan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).
The irrationality of the masses makes it hard for them to have any principles–libertarian or not–for very long. Indeed, even the examples Alex gives are pretty bad examples of libertarians. Rothbard and Rockwell, of course, embraced outright racist and homophobic nonsense to appeal to their culturally conservative base (sometimes using Ron Paul’s name), which is antithetical to the classically liberal ethos of libertarianism which values reducing all forms of coercion–be it through casual institutional forms of oppression or statist coercion.
5. Populism’s Demand for Immediate Change is Likely to Cause Unforeseen Harm
Unlike other methods Alex mentions, populism is a form of immediatism. It really is just a post-enlightenment, first-world, institutionally democratic form of revolution. It’s no coincidence that most populist movements, from Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul rely on the language of revolution to further their appeal. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of any accelerated method of political change–be it “the masses” taking over and overhauling the errors of “the elites,” or violent revolutions like those in late eighteenth century France or early twentieth century Russia.
Institutions and policies often serve tacit functions in society of which we aren’t even focally aware. We are in a radical position of ignorance about what the effects of sudden change that populism demands, such as swapping out entirely who’s in power and changing all policies to the whims of “the masses,” whether those whims are libertarian principles or not. In sum, ironically given the name of the site Alex writes for, populism can never really even be conservative–not in the bastardized tea party or paleo sense, but in the principled Burkean sense. Even if I agree with the ends any political movement aims for, epistemic humility necessitates far more gradualism than populist rhetorical strategy can possibly accommodate.
6. Populism Leads to a Breakdown in Discourse and Awful Praxis
Whether you’re a conservative, libertarian, or liberal, if you are existing in a democracy the main thing you should strive for is to be understood by others. In fact, the alleged raison être for democracy–though famously fails at in its present institutional form–is aiming at better forms of government through arriving at some sort of consensus through open and honest public discourse. In order to have any sort of functional democracy in this sense–which, again, we are already woefully lacking in existing democracies–fulfill the primary function of speech, which is understanding. In order to do this, a necessary norm for discourse to function is the assumption of the good will of all participants in discourse.
The first assumption of populism, much like most crude forms of Marxism, is a violation of what is necessary for such discourse. It assumes, after all, that “the elites” are just an out-of-touch, greedy, mean group of people that “the masses” must depose and everything they’ve done is wrong and must be replaced with the vox populi. Anyone, then, who disagrees–even those within populist movements–is liable of being charged with being “one of the elites” (not unlike accusations of being “bourgeoisie” and “counter-revolutionary” after Lenin’s Vanguard Party took control), and ignored, leading to a communicative breakdown. Discussion is shut off, possible perspectives and principles that could improve the state of affairs are ignored if they bear any even superficial affinity to “the elites,” and one of the few sets of norms–those of communicative action taken from the lifeworld–that make existing democracy at least quasi-functional is replaced with simple partisan hackery. Try talking to your standard dogmatic Trump, Bernie, or even Ron Paul supporter (or really any overly partisan hack, including dogmatic Clinton supporters), and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
7. Populism is Inherently Illiberal and Opposed to Liberty
Populism tells us the problem is that “the elites are in power” and demands that the elites be deposed and replaced with “the masses.” But libertarians say the problem isn’t the fact that the wrong people are in power, the problem is that anyone is in power in the first place. As a consequence, classical liberals have always with good reason been very skeptical of the wisdom of the masses, and have had an ambivalent relationship towards any form of democracy. The radically Jacksonian democratic demeanor of populism, which asserts the masses are equipped to use coercive political institutions, is fundamentally at odds with classical liberalism’s value placed on individual liberty–which asserts that nobody is equipped to use coercive institutions. That’s a fine distinction populist rhetoric necessarily blurs, and you can’t expect “the masses” to understand.
Even if you say you’re just using populist rhetoric to depose those in power, the populist faction of our movement (once “the elites” are out of power) are going to ask, “What’s next?” and are liable to be upset when you say “nothing.” As Hayek tells us, one of the main reasons people get so heavily involved in the political process is that they want to be in charge, that’s true of “the masses” as it is “the elites.”
8. Populist Alliances Often lead to the Destruction of Libertarian Values
Alex mentions the rise of the religious right and other right-wing populist movements as possible fruitful avenues for libertarians to ally with and pursue. However, I’m of the opinion that any sort of fusionism is probably a really bad idea. Not just because many on the religious right want to be unfathomably cruel to me because I’m gay, but because libertarians have philosophical, fundamental disagreements with the people in those movements that cannot be bridged. It is simply not true that the religious right and nationalists are “anti-statist in their nature,” the fact that he cites “forced integration” from immigration supported by nationalists (derived from an infamously bad argument by Hoppe) as common ground is telling. Indeed, if you press most “fusionist” “conservatarians” (including paleos) or “liberaltarians” very far, you’ll find that outside of a few superficial single issues on which they agree with some libertarians, they do not even remotely understand or apply the principles very widely at all. If your movement is composed of walking Dunning-Krugers who do not really understand the extent to which coercive is possible and are not able to engage in constructive dialogue and you’re relying on rhetoric of “take power from the elites” to motivate them, you’re probably not going to have a very libertarian movement.
To illustrate, there’s no reason why “populism” needs to take on a right-wing flair for libertarians at all. In Rothbard’s young years, for example, he attempted to ally with left-wing populist progressives from the anti-war movement. Today, I could say, libertarians should ally with left-wing Sanders supporters. They, after all, share a skepticism towards foreign policy intervention, attacks on social freedom for religious freedom, and corporatist crony capitalism. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Sanders’ supporters are more libertarian than Trump’s, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Regardless, it is worth noting libertarians have philosophically more in common with those on ‘the left’ in general, but that’s, again, an antecedent point.
Alex would probably reply “But Sanders supporters are socialists, and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians.” Ignoring the fact that neither Sanders nor most of his supporters are really socialists, he’d mostly be right that they are fundamentally opposed libertarianism. Regardless, Trump supporters are nationalist–which Hayek famously called “the twin brother of socialism”–and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians. Alex might reply, correctly, that some right-wingers can become libertarians by engaging with the populist movement, but so can Sanders supporters. All that point establishes is libertarians should communicate with non-libertarians, and work with non-libertarians on single-issues with which we agree, that need not take on a populist flavor.
If we’re going to forego a focus on electoral politics, and not to populism, what should we replace it with? Alex mentions two possible alternatives:
Hayekian educationism, named after Friedrich Hayek’s theory of social change expounded in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” relies first on persuading a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas. Then, according to Hayek’s model, those intellectuals persuade a growing number of what Hayek calls “second-hand dealers in ideas” like journalists, teachers, and politicians to propagate their ideas among the general populace.
Fabian incrementalism, named after the Fabian socialists of late 19th century Britain, relies on a similar group of individuals – intellectuals, journalists, and policy wonks – to persuade government bureaucrats and politicians to adopt gradual changes in policy. This, performed consistently over a long period of time will, theoretically, lead to the adoption of long-term social changes that the reformers set out to achieve.
First of all, Alex misunderstands Hayek’s theory of social change. The claim is n’t that you “persuade a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas,” and completely ignore political actors and everyday people, the idea is that ideas coming from intellectuals filter down into the extended order of society and eventually become actualized. It’s not as if you just convince a bunch of professors and philosopher kings that you’re right and they’ll create a libertarian utopia, it’s that you put the ideas out there and they eventually filter down, a messy process which takes an extremely long time (possibly centuries), and one which libertarians have really only barely started.
A necessary thing that must occur before they actually become actualized is that the general population is at least subsidiarily aware of the ideas, which requires communicating with the general population in some form (which can and should include what Alex calls “grassroots organizing,” like engaging with them through the electronic forms and the alt-media). But that communication cannot take on the populist message for reasons given, it requires education and dialogue, it requires populizers–which can include educators, journalists, communicators, activists, and even to some extent politicians (though they are not acting qua politicians in the ideal typical capacity used in the model when doing this) to communicate with the masses. Contra Rothbard, it’s not about convincing the “ruling class,” it’s about overcoming them.
Regardless, I will agree that the method some beltway libertarians, unfortunately, take from Hayek’s theory of just writing academic journals and white papers is incomplete. You do need to communicate with the masses, but I am heavily skeptical that this communication needs to be political in nature. Alex’s narrow focus on elections leads him to neglect other, possibly more fruitful, methods of social change. You can engage in direct action, agorism, or entrepreneurial action (eg., what Zak Slayback, et. al. talk about in “Freedom Without Permission“). In these forms, it requires actively defending the masses (in direct action), spreading ideas by improving the lives of real people by providing alternatives (agorism and entrepreneurial action), and making the effects of state intervention felt on people (eg., when entrepreneurial innovations, like Uber and Lyft, are taken away, the hypocrisy of regulation is made clear). They all accomplish the goal of making the ideas known, even if tacitly, among the masses, while adding bonuses of actually doing things that improve their lives without the riskiness inherent in using coercive institutions like elections to do so.
Though those aren’t necessarily at odds with populism (or Hayekian educationalism for that matter; in fact, I think it’s an inherent part of Hayek’s theory of social change), I put far more faith in these than in elections in which irrational, ignorant people only legitimize the state. Socio-political change happens at the micro-level, through everyday social interactions, through lived real-world experiences, through you reading this article, through good discourse and conversation. If you want to change, you need to alter the lifeworld in which individuals live, just focusing on getting “the masses” to turn out the polls is insufficient. Political activism can only get you so far.
I just put in my two weeks’ notice at the bar I’ve been working at for the past 13 months. I’ve had a lot of fun, even though I took the job seriously, and am looking forward to my next adventure in life. Right now, though, I’ll just be chillin’ in ATX and reading and writing as much as possible. That means more blogging from me! (Hopefully my fellow Notewriters will follow suite…)
Austin is described by intelligent locals as a “blue dot in a sea of red,” meaning it’s a liberal city in a very conservative state. During the primaries, I saw mostly Bernie Sanders signs in the areas of Austin I frequent (east side, Riverside, downtown; i.e. the poor, fun parts). Ron Paul is a popular figure in Austin, too, but he has long since faded away from the politico-electoral scene.
The south and west sides of Austin are much more affluent, and therefore more conservative, and I have a feeling that if I were to end up in those neighborhoods I would see a lot of “Hillary” signs. It’s the strangest thing, the be living in a state that is known culturally in the US as the conservative state (and made to be diametrically opposed to California, which is the liberal one), and see nothing but support for thoughtful candidates within the two major political parties.
There is not much knowledge or support for 3rd party candidates in Austin. The LP and the Green parties get superficial nods of approval whenever they are brought up in conversation, but for the most part Texas Leftists and millennials support “the little guy” of the major parties. Again, it is weird. But so, too, am I and with that I’ll sign off for the day…
UPDATE: Speaking of weird, check out this review by Bryan Caplan of a new biography about Brigham Young.
Widespread strikes in France, many turning violent. There are big-time shortages of gasoline so that many people can’t go to work if they want to. The strikes are not directed against “the corporations.” They are directed squarely at the government. What government? The government of the French Socialist Party. That’s an instance of “democratic socialism” if there was ever one.
What did the Hollande government do to attract such working class anger? It has tried to modify slightly the labor laws, to make it easier for example, for employers to offer more than 35 hours a week to their employees if the latter want them (IF they want them).
France is a country with around 10% unemployment for about twenty years. For the young it’s been around 25% . Also, there has not been real economic growth for about ten years (+1% GDP annual is a cause for celebration). Meanwhile, Germany and Switzerland next door are thriving. A great deal of French public opinion is simply in bad faith and refuses to see the obvious: If it’s too difficult to fire people, employers don’t hire and even suppress growth to avoid hiring.
The Minister of Labor in charge of making the French kiss and even swallow that frog is a woman with an Arab name, a Muslim name. Do I think the French Socialist Party is twisted? I am not sure.
Please, thing of sharing, especially with Sanderites.
In the previous part of my democracy series, I took note how the notion of democracy as a “deliberative” means of policymaking is a myth. Contrary to John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Joshua Cohen, who characterize democracy as an application of the scientific method to political problems and as deliberative “intelligence” directing society, democracy is really the rule of the irrational and ignorant, as public choice theory teaches. Deliberative reasoning does not determine policy in democracies, but rather whoever can cater the best to systemically biased and rationally ignorant voters. Voters don’t give deliberative reasons for their policies, and if they do they, contra Cohen, clearly do not have an equal say in the formation of policies as, according to public choice theory, special interests have the most control over it.
However, I neglected one important other reason why actual political democracies are anything but “deliberative:” voters rarely chose their candidates based off of careful deliberation of issues; they instead chose candidates based off of cultural associations with the candidates. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recently took note of this in the New York Times:
The notion that elections are decided by voters’ carefully weighing competing candidates’ stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the “folk theory” of democracy.
…But wishing so does not make it so. Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.
That last note is very reminiscent of another point made in my last article on democracy about how evidence from moral psychology, specifically Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, shows that voters do not use reason to determine their political or moral views, but rather reason serves as a servant to the passions. In this case, far from deliberatively and intelligently choosing policy preferences, it seems voters are letting their deliberation serve passions that are influenced by social and cultural affiliations rather than actually informed policy stances.
Achen and Bartels show how this is in action specifically in the recent Democratic Primary:
…It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly reflect account for such substantial cleavages [in polls]. They are reflections of social identities, plausible commitments and partisan loyalties.
Yet commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism, or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support [sic]is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.
More evidence casts further doubt on the notion that support for Mr. Sanders reflects a shift to the left in the policy preferences of Democrats. In a survey conducted for the American National Election Studies in January, supporters of Mr. Sanders were more pessimistic than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters about “opportunity in America today for the average person to get ahead” and more likely to say that economic inequality had increased.
However, they were less likely than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters to favor concrete policies that Mr. Sanders has offered such as remedies for these ills, including a higher minimum wage, increasing government on health care and an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes. It is quite a stretch to view these people as the vanguard of a new, social-democratic-trending Democratic Party.
Achen and Bartels further note that, despite the enthusiastic support from young Democrats, these younger voters actually disagree more with Sanders on specific policy issues than older democratic voters, noting that “even on specific issues championed by Mr. Sanders” such as “increased government funding of healthcare,” “a higher minimum wage,” and “expanding government services,” younger Democrats tend to disagree with Sanders’ more than older ones. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of Sanders’ voters that Achen and Bartels write about are completely rationally ignorant of their disagreements with their favorite candidate in the first place. I also would add these cultural influences on voting at the expense of policy deliberation to Caplan’s theory of “irrational rationality;” cultural associations and symbolic commitments decrease the costs of holding an irrational political belief.
It is clear, then, that this “folk theory of democracy” in which voters deliberately consider policy alternatives and make reasoned, rational decisions for why they prefer one candidates’ policies to another is a myth. If it is the case that voters are not only rationally ignorant and irrational, that democracy is more controlled by concentrated interests at the expense of the public good, and that voters make their electoral decisions based off of cultural associations rather than deliberations about policy, what can be said about political democracy’s aim at philosophical democracy? What can be said of the existence, or possibility, of intelligent, deliberately directed democratic institutions? It seems that democratic institutions in reality completely undermine democratic aspirations in theory.
PS: No, this is not the fourth part of the democracy series, should be up this weekend.
[H/T Jason Brennan]
Sweden’s Imaginary Socialism as a Non-Model
Part One of this essay was posted a couple of days ago. In it, I reviewed some of the avatars and zombies of the vague words “socialist” and “socialism.” I arrived at the inescapable conclusion that Sen. Sanders “democratic socialism” means only Scandinavian and, specifically, Swedish “socialism.” I look at that social and fiscal arrangement below.
First, let me say that Sweden is a good place to live; it’s a very civilized country. I just don’t know in what sense it’s “socialist.” Center-left parties took part in governing the country for most of the 20th century, true. Yet, little of Swedish commerce or industry is nationalized, or in any way public property. The Swedish government tends not to be invasive with regulations or direct intervention. Sweden even ranks a little higher than the US in “business freedom” on the 2016 (international) Index of Economic Freedom. Swedish companies are thriving, at home and abroad. Swedish capitalism is obviously alive and well.
I suspect that what confused Sen. Sanders and those of his supporters who have even thought about it is that the Swedish government offers extensive and high quality services to its citizens, many of which services that would belong to the private sector in other advanced societies. Let me say it again because this is an important point: The Swedish government is a quality service provider. But Swedes pay for these services with very high taxes. Swedish workers, on the average receive less than 50 of the income they earn. Careful: micro aggression coming. This is to me an unbearable negation of personal freedom, no matter how high the quality of services Swedish citizens receive “in return.”
Thus, even in moderate, impeccably democratic Sweden, “socialism” proves to be liberticide, it blocks on a massive scale and routinely the realization of individual wishes, the pursuit of happiness, in other words. To take an example: Those Swedes who would rather earn less money and spend more time reading philosophy, for example, practically are prevented by high taxes from even trying lest they starve. Incidentally, the share of GDP taken by Swedish taxes has been declining since the 90s. It would make sense for socialist Sen. Sanders to ask why. Hint: This decline was accompanied by a strong rise in GDP growth.
Sweden is a well managed capitalist welfare state. It would have been more ingenuous for Sen. Sanders to say this clearly rather than drag out the soiled word “socialism.” This assumes that he knows the difference, of course. His followers evidently do not.
I want to make a detour here about Swedish income inequality because inequality is a topic dear to Sen. Sanders’ supporters. As you would expect, and as is intended, Sweden has one of the lowest income inequality on Earth (Gini Index: 0.25 vs the US about 0.44). However, its wealth inequality is very high (Gini Index: 0.85). This curious divergence is compatible with several scenarios including this alluring possibility: Socialist-inspired schemes designed to procure income equality had the effect – probably unintended – of freezing wealth disparities to where they were before “socialism.” It’s almost impossible to get ahead from near the bottom of the economic ladder when your income is seized before you even see it. For one thing, high taxes make it difficult or impossible to accumulate capital to create a new small business and therefore, new jobs. In other words, in many years of Swedish socialism, the restaurant waiter remained a restaurant waiter, the local Rockefeller remained Rockefeller, while the former was earning $12/hour and the latter only $24 (figures made up). As I said, other scenarios can account for divergence between income inequality and wealth inequality. Play at imagining them. Good luck.
Whether or not one considers the objectives of Swedish-style “democratic socialism” desirable, there are considerable obstacles in the path of realizing it in America. Sen. Sanders and his followers semi-consciously assume that given the right legislation – not to forget far-reaching executive orders since the path has been open by President Obama – the United States could be turned into a kind of Sweden. There are three-plus things about American society that make this dream unrealistic.
First, until right now, Sweden was a thoroughly middle-class society. I mean by this that nearly everyone, except for a few skinheads, shared an understanding of the good life, and the same ethical system. We, in the USA, by contrast have a whole Third World inside our boundaries. I refer, of course, to all of Louisiana, to Chicago and its suburbs, to some parts of Texas and New Mexico, and to nearly all black inner-city ghettos. (Read carefully: I did not say “predominantly black areas.”) Third World conditions breed predatory behavior. That makes the job of civil servants difficult. It also sucks up public resources for policing.
Second, and at the risk of breaching the etiquette of political correctness, Swedish society if fairly restrained as compared to most others, certainly as compared to American society. It’s a collective trait. It does not mean that most Swedes are restrained but that many Swedes are. I mean by this, for example, that on the average Swedish drunks are more polite, less noisy and less dangerous than American drunks. Collective restraint makes all government functions easier to perform obviously.
Third, Sen. Sanders assumes implicitly that given a victory, his administration would easily generate the first-class federal civil service that makes the Swedish welfare state function effectively and smoothly. That is an unrealistic assumption. Think the IRS, of course, and TSA (that’s never caught a terrorist ever, or ever stopped a terrorist action). Think of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that generously donated hundred of firearms to Mexican drug cartels. Think of the Environmental Protection Agency that declared CO2 – the main plant food – a noxious gas subject to its regulation. I could go on.
Good civil services are rooted in a broad social tradition whereas smart, well-educated people chose careers in government in preference to a business career. There is no such American tradition. It would take many years of bad private employment before preferences of such individuals would shift away from business. Here is the question: can so-called “socialist” policies be implemented so quickly in America that private employment will worsen soon enough to serve the requirements of a quality civil service necessary to the implementation of the same-self “socialism”?
I must add a fourth obstacle to the success of Swedish style welfare state in the US, one that I don’t necessarily believe in myself. Swedes and also Danes keep telling me the following: Their form of welfare “socialism” involves a high degree of forced sharing. The acceptance of such taking from Peter to give to Paul is well served by the fact that Paul is a lot like Peter and even looks a lot like him. According to this view, the high population homogeneity of Sweden until now is a necessary condition to the confiscatory taxes imposed on ordinary wage earners that is at the heart of its “socialism.” Needless to say, the US population is low on homogeneity (a fact I celebrate myself).
So, a gifted, honest, competent civil service is central to the welfare capitalist supposedly “socialist” Swedish model (which the Swedes themselves explicitly do not propose as a model). My unavoidably subjective judgment is that a United States Sanderista civil service would, with some effort, with much reform, place somewhere between the French and the Brazilian. To think otherwise is the height of ignorant wishful thinking bordering on hubris.
I am not hugely alarmed at the prospect of a new American capitalist welfarism though, for the simple reason that we are already half-way there. Sen. Sanders’ more-of-the-same would not be Armageddon. It only promises an accelerated decline of this vibrant, inventive, culturally brilliant society accompanied by more short-term equality, less equity, and more poverty- and therefore less freedom – for all.
PS Incidentally, I am not much opposed to Sen. Sanders’ proposal to make state universities and college tuition-free. I think the proposal has the same justification as publicly supported elementary and secondary schooling. I would be willing to bet such a measure would have the same overall beneficial economic results as the GI Bill did right after WWII. Finally, there is just a chance that government management would put a brake on the unconscionable rise in the cost of tertiary schooling, of what universities charge without restraints. It’s not as if the current system that largely separates the decision makers from the payers, from the beneficiaries, has worked really well!
Sanders and Me and not so Democratic Socialism
Sen. Sanders got a huge pass this primary season. Captivated by the deep dishonesty of one probable nominee and the crude ignorance of the other (not to mention his plain crudeness), the media, and informal commentators like myself, have not given the Democratic candidate and his program the attention they deserve. Also, in the current primary contest, it’s difficult not to like the guy. I have said several times that he inspires in me a kind of twisted affection. Plus, he has real pluck. But, let’s face it: He is probably done, or done for.
Sen. Sanders has gone very far into the primary while maintaining perfect dignity in his demeanor. He has seldom stooped to personal insults even when he was being severely tried by a Ms Clinton who seems to consider the man’s very candidacy a grave offense, an offense against the natural order of things, a crime of lèse-majesté, even a form of woman abuse. In the meantime Mr Sanders will have single-handedly rehabilitated the word “socialism.” This matters for the future of this nation. Time to look at it critically.
I, personally, especially like Sanders the man. I have reasons to. We are the same age; we went to college at about the same time, both in good universities. He took a fairly active part in the desegregation movement. I did not because it was too early in my American sojourn. (I wish I had taken part.) Nevertheless at age 25, Sanders and I were both leftists. The main difference between us is this: Fifty years later, he has remained impeccably faithful to the ideals of our youth while I walked away, faster and faster, really. I learned to understand the invisible hand of the market. I did some good readings. I was lucky enough to observe my leftists academic colleagues in action at close range early on. Cannily, I observed that the victorious Vietnamese Communist Party did not establish a workers’ paradise in its part of the world. I loathed authoritarianism in any guise. The Senator, meanwhile, spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.
When that latter country fell apart and its archives were open, the Senator had nothing to say about the eighty years of mass atrocities they revealed. I am guessing he did not think he had to because he believed in the democratic brand of socialism. It’s hard to tell how much history he knows. (I think that liberals in general are ignorant, including academic liberals. I could tell you stories about them that would raise the hair on the back of your neck.) It does not take much knowledge though to guess that Lenin and the 1916 Bolsheviks did not originally set out deliberately to create a tyranny. Too bad they had to come to power by overthrowing by force of arms a democratically elected government. (See “Kerensky.”) Still, they named the new country “The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,” and the word “soviet” means “council,” and “republic” means what it means. But, building socialism wasn’t working out; too many people with bad attitudes. So Lenin had to nudge History a little bit with bayonets, with barbed wire, with organized famines and soon, with a bullet to the back of the head of those who stood in the way. The Bolsheviks were forced to choose between socialism and democracy. They chose the former and they got neither. There is no record of Sen. Sanders making any relevant comment. (As always, I am eager to correct my errors.)
It’s less clear whether the Communist Party of China ever had a democratic plan. The unauthorized biography of Mao by his personal doctor reads like a tissue of horrors right from the start. (Dr. Li Zhisui. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, 1994) The Communist Parties of Eastern Europe simply came to power in the wagon train of the Red Army occupying their countries. None of them ever got close to getting there through free elections. The most interesting is the case of East Germany, ruled by a fusion of a native communist party and of preexisting democratic socialist parties. Together, they achieved a fair degree of material success for the East German people yet, they never managed to make do without a police state. Today, Sanders’ backers may not remember or they may not know that the German Democratic Republic, as it was called with a straight face, disappeared overnight. Someone had left a back door open to this paragon of socialist success and the people immediately started voting with their feet by the tens of thousands.
This is all irrelevant, Senator Sanders’ supporters would claim. You are describing a grave perversion of socialism; again, we only want democratic socialism.
During much of my adult life, the ill-defined words “socialism” and “socialist” were used with all kinds of modifiers: “African socialism,” “Arab socialism.” In all cases, the regimes so named led their countries straight to poverty, usually accompanied by official kleptocracy. In India, a really democratic country, the mild Ghandian-Nehruan form of socialism produced deep poverty for two generations including in the large, educated Indian middle class . (Just compare and contrast with un-socialist South Korea which started in 1953, after a devastating war, much poorer than India had been in 1949 when it became independent.) Socialism – whatever that is – is normally the road sign that points toward generalized poverty. Perhaps, this is only the result of a fateful case of reverse magic naming: Call something good, reasonable “socialist” and it begins degrading and sinking! Go figure!
OK, this is all about ancient times, they say. So, let’s look at current examples.
In Venezuela, socialism started under unusually favorable conditions because the country had considerable oil income that minimized the need for high taxation, a major reason for discontent in most socialist experiments. Yet, the socialists in power there made such a mess of it that today, only a few years later, the country suffers about 400% inflation (in 2016). If you had a dollar’s worth of local money there 12 months ago, it now only buys about a quarter’s worth of milk or bread. The skilled middle-class is leaving or trying to. They may return later; or, they may not. If they don’t, it will take a couple of generations at best to rebuild the country’s human capital after the socialist experiment ends.
Note that the sharp drop in world oil prices has affected many countries. It’s only in “Bolivarian” socialist Venezuela that you will see mass exodus and severe shortages of necessities.
In Brazil, The Workers’ Party is in power. The sitting president is a woman whose bona fide, whose socialist credentials are not in question. When she was young, she was imprisoned and even tortured for her belief in socialism, or because she was a guerrilla. (That’s the name for a left-wing terrorist.) She would now be impeached for making up optimistic economic figures for her country, except for the fact that the man constitutionally designated to replace her is also under indictment for corruption. It was bound to happen. The federal government in Brazil eats up 40% of GDP. The huge national oil company, Petrobras is nationalized; it belongs to the government, a favorite socialist arrangement. So oil revenues belong to everyone which means they belong to no one. Why not help myself a little, generations of Brazilian politicians have figured? There are no shareholders to keep tabs and to complain, after all. Socialism and kleptocracy are like father and son.
But, but, you say, those are Third World countries that have not yet recovered from the corrupting influence of colonialism (200 years later). Point well taken. Here is another case I know well, of a socialist country that has not been colonized since about 50 (BC.) France has been under the guiding hand of the French Socialist Party for nearly five years this time around. By the way, France is a democratic country with fair elections and a free press. The Socialists won fair and square. They were in power for 23 of the 35 years since 1981. They largely implemented their program and there were few rollbacks – except by themselves, a few times when they understood the disastrous effects of the reforms they had implemented. I am thinking of a broad de-nationalization of banks in 1981-82. (This is directly relevant to Sen. Sanders’ thinking.)
The French Socialist Party in power never tried to restrict freedom of the press and it did not fill the prisons with its opponents. (Instead, it emptied them hastily of violent criminals, according to its security critics.) By and large, its rule has been quite civilized. There is just that pesky problem of chronic unemployment which never dips much below 10% (25% for the young; sky is the limit if you are young and your name is “Mohamed”). There is also the fact that economic stagnation is now seen as normal by the young. Has been for a couple of generations, now. And then, there is the unbelievable cultural sterility of French society (another story, obviously that I partially tell elsewhere on this blog. Ask me.)
True story: a few months ago, members of the socialist government celebrated loudly. That was because the government office of economic analysis had revised upward its estimate of annual economic growth from GDP: + 0.4% to +0.6% ! (Yes, that’s 6 tenth of one per cent. It’s true that today, in the spring of 2016, it’s at a respectable annual 2% plus.)
“No, no,” cries Sen. Sanders ( and I can almost hear him from here) “I don’t mean ‘socialist’ as in ‘Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,’ and I don’t mean Red China, and I don’t mean North Korea, certainly, and I don’t mean Cuba (although…), and I don’t mean Venezuela today, or Brazil. And, I don’t even mean France although I could not explain why exactly. (Bad call here, Senator. The French single-payer health care system works well; it’s cheaper than US health care, and French men live two years longer than American men.) I mean socialism as in Denmark and Sweden. Now, here we are at last. In part Two, we will look at what passes for Swedish “socialism.” (Denmark is too small to be an example, perhaps.)