The Fantasy of ‘Democratic Socialism’

If the state controls the economy, competition is replaced by rivalries among politicians. 

Doctors speak about good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Some people say there’s a good kind of socialism, democratic socialism, that is different from the bad kind, the Marxist-Leninist variety. There’s an obvious problem with this claim: There never has been a socialist country that has been democratic. The Democratic Socialists of America admit it: “No country has fully instituted democratic socialism,” the organization says on its website.

Democratic socialism is not only an unrealized dream. It is a contradiction in terms.   (One might call it an oxymoron)

The DSA argues that democratic socialism is possible: “We can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes.” DSA also mentions government programs in France, Canada and Nicaragua that smack of socialism.

But Sweden, France and Canada are not socialist countries, and Nicaragua is not democratic. “Sweden allows property and profits,” notes economic historian Deirdre McCloskey. “It allocates most goods by unregulated prices.” The U.S. bailed out General Motors , but Sweden didn’t rescue Volvo or Saab.

What would be the defining characteristics of a democratic socialist country? In “The Poverty of Socialist Thought,” a 1976 Commentary article, I argued that “socialism is nothing more than a vague moral commitment to social justice.”

I was wrong. Contemporary democratic socialists have a concrete agenda: They want to eliminate capitalism. The DSA says: “In the short term we can’t eliminate private corporations, but we can bring them under greater democratic control.” Meagan Day, a DSA member who works for Jacobin magazine, writes for Vox: “In the long run, democratic socialists want to end capitalism.”

In “The New Socialists,” a New York Times article, political scientist Corey Robin argues that capitalism should be abolished because “it makes us unfree.” He complains that “under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live.” Well, yes. Would Mr. Robin want the state to be the sole employer? Would he prefer to buy goods at state-owned stores and eat at state-owned restaurants?

Mr. Robin, like all socialists, is hazy on the details of a socialist economy. The first step he proposes is “state ownership of certain industries.” He doesn’t say which ones. Democratically elected workers, he imagines, would decide what to make and what prices to charge. “The trouble with socialism,” Oscar Wilde is reported to have said, “is that it would take too many evenings.”

If democratic socialists looked more closely at the world, they would see that a strong market economy is a necessary condition for freedom, though not a sufficient one. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index lists 10 countries as having the most competitive economies: the U.S., Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark. Only two, Singapore and Hong Kong, are not fully democratic.

If democratic socialism is a fantasy, socialist economic proposals are recipes for economic stagnation. “Competitive economies,” the forum says, “are those that are most likely to be able to grow more sustainably and inclusively, meaning more likelihood that everyone in society will benefit from the fruits of economic growth.” If the state owns corporations, there is no competition, only rivalries among people with political power.

To argue in favor of competitive economies is not to endorse libertarianism or laissez-faire economics. Adam Smith understood that markets need to be regulated. The nature and extent of market regulation will always be a matter of debate, but the more the government interferes in the market, the less competitive an economy will be.

Democratic socialists would do well to ponder Yeats’s lines: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

(I still like former UK Prime Minister’s line the best:

The only problem with socialism is that you run out of other people’s money.) jsk

Mr. Miller’s latest book is “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.”

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