, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Not many self-styled socialists can actually provide a proper definition of socialism these days. That includes the celebrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congressional candidate who has proven herself to be an incredible stumble-bum in numerous media appearances since her primary victory over incumbent democrat Joe Crowley. Maine Wire‘s Matthew Gagnon calls her “belligerently ignorant” as she tweets what she believes to be examples of democratic socialism. Gagnon dissects some of her flakey assertions. The sad truth is that Ocasio-Cortez is fairly typical of her generation, despite her dual college majors in economics and political science.

Gagnon notes that socialism is public ownership of the means of production. But socialism is somehow regarded as a “soft” version of communism: less authoritarian, perhaps. That premise deserves closer examination. There is only one way that the public sector can take possession of private property: by force. A new, authoritarian regime might simply commandeer property, nationalize it, and revoke prior ownership claims at the point of a gun or a club. The government would ultimately impose new rules under which management of formerly private enterprises must operate, and it would engage in centralized decision-making and planning to a large extent. This is essentially communism. Some personal freedoms might be preserved, but they are likely to be severely curtailed; dissidence is not likely to be tolerated.

There is another mechanism by which society can declare public ownership of productive resources that is nominally less authoritarian: democracy. Citizens or their elected representatives simply vote for the state to acquire particular resources and enterprises, in whole or in part. Enabling legislation might authorize administrative agencies to determine how the former private owners of these enterprises are to be compensated. To one extent or another, this involves takings of private property and rights, and it boils down to a very real tyranny of the majority: we will vote to take possession of your business; we will vote to create a bureau that will determine its worth and your compensation; we will vote that henceforth you may not operate this business on your own behalf, but only in the service of the people; and we will vote on what rights you possess. This is the ugly tyranny of democratic socialism, and it still requires force.

Self-proclaimed socialists are fond of proclaiming that we already have socialism in many sectors of the economy. They cite public parks, roads, bridges, K-12 education, and other goods and services sometimes provided by the public sector. There is a key distinction, however, that separates many of these examples from actual socialism: whether a good is actually a “public good”, meaning that its benefits are non-exclusive, as opposed to a private good that yields exclusive benefits. A more precise definition of socialism, in my view, is public ownership of the means of producing private goods.

The typical example of a public good is national defense: the benefits I receive do not reduce the benefits you receive, so those benefits are non-exclusive. I have little personal incentive to pay for national defense if anyone else is willing to pay for it, as I’ll receive the benefits anyway. But who will pay if everyone tries to free-ride on others? That’s why the provision of public goods is an appropriate function of government, and it is not generally what is meant by socialism. Gagnon is correct that government involvement in an activity is not the same as socialism, and he correctly ridicules some examples of governmental activities (and non-governmental activities like cooperatives) that Ocasio-Cortez believes to be socialism.

In contrast to public goods, private goods are exclusive in their benefits. The development of a private market can be counted upon to fulfill demands for such goods because private individuals are willing to pay. However, when government grants itself an advantaged position as a provider in such a market, such as a monopoly franchise, we can safely describe it as socialism. Many goods are not purely private, having some degree of non-exclusivity in their benefits. This is commonly asserted to be the case for K-12 education, but the matter is not as clear-cut as the public education establishment would have you believe. The bulk of the benefits to education accrue privately. Therefore, it is fair to describe public K-12 education in the U.S. as socialism. And it is largely a disaster.

Is a social safety net rightly described as socialism? Gagnon thinks not and, strictly speaking, the welfare state does not require public ownership of the means of production, only a means of redistribution. It requires funding, so private resources will be extracted via taxes, and the same is true of public goods. Taxes do not make it “socialism”. Let’s stipulate for the moment that there is a true safety net supporting only those unable to support themselves, either on a temporary or a permanent basis. This may yield non-exclusive benefits to the extent that such a “lifeline” reduces crime, begging, and our personal discomfort with the possibility that other individuals might starve. However, on an ex ante basis, some of these benefits represent a form of risk reduction that, in principle, could be arranged privately. To the extent that we vote to provide these potentially private benefits, those parts of the safety net can be construed as democratic socialism. In practice, our “safety net” covers a large number of able-bodied individuals. Unfortunately, it does a poor job of encouraging self-sufficiency. Like most public benefit programs, it is expansive, poorly designed, and has pernicious effects on the private economy that act to the long-term detriment of its intended beneficiaries.

Leftists fancy that socialism is “compassionate” and righteous, despite its predictably harsh outcomes. The misleading conceit that universal alms-giving by the state is always empowering to individual recipients, and potential voters, is an extremely corrosive element of democratic socialism. William Voegeli, Senior Editor of The Claremont Review of Books, writing in Imprimis makes “The Case Against Liberal Compassion“. (I dislike his misuse of the word “liberal” — too many conservatives are willing to cede that label to the Left.) Voegeli notes the “never enough” mentality of welfare statists, who refuse to acknowledge that the expansive growth of the welfare state over the past five decades has failed to reduce rates of poverty. The programs are rife with fraud, waste and bad incentives. If leftists are truly compassionate, Voegeli insists, they ought to take more interest in fixing problems that leave less for the truly needy and create dependencies rather than simply increasing the flow of funding.

Many well-meaning individuals are careless about affiliating with socialist causes because they do not understand what it actually means, and they often lack any historical and theoretical perspective on the implications of socialism. The flirtation is dangerous, and we can only attempt to educate and reason with them. Some will grow into greater wisdom. Some, like Bernie Sanders, will never come around. While we educate, let’s keep their hands away from the reins of power.