In an American Spectator article in 1976 entitled “Socialism: An Obituary for an Idea”, Irving Kristol wrote “The most important political event of the twentieth century is not the crisis of capitalism but the death of socialism. It is an event of immense significance. For with the passing of the socialist ideal there is removed from the political horizon the one alternative to capitalism that was rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the Western civilization which emerged from that tradition.”
So what’s going on now with all of this political talk about socialism coming from the presidential candidates on the left? Is it truly making a comeback in a country that is arguably the poster model for anti-socialism?
First, it’s important to get definitions straight. Socialism, simply and properly understood traditionally in economic theory, means state ownership of the means of production. Most of what is being bounced around in the current political conversation is not of this traditional definition, but more of the kind of economic system called democratic socialism, in which there might be varying degrees of state ownership of capital and a large portion of GDP controlled by the state, but not total state ownership of production.
But upon delving into definitions and semantics a little further, I prefer to think of the popular notion of socialism, and one that is even more insidious, as being the “socializing” of a broad range of public costs and benefits that undermines individual initiative and produces over time a condition of coercion and dependency in the populace. This is the creeping socialism that is the core of the progressive movement.
Why has this notion of socialism become attractive, particularly to the younger generation who seem to be its driving force, inspired by Bernie Sanders and led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues in the Democratic Socialists of America? An old joke is that anyone who is not a socialist at age 16 has no heart, but anyone who is still a socialist at 26 has no brain. Historically, a certain amount of truth rings there, but I would add that the age of maturity should be extended today beyond 26 due to the poor quality of education this generation has been subjected to, particularly in economics and history. And there is more at work here. In a recent issue of National Review, Timothy Carney makes the point that modern American society, in which community and family are weaker and people are more alienated, has proven fertile ground for socialism, which has a strong appeal to political communitarians. And most communitarians abhor the individualism that is inherent in our founding. Remember Hillary Clinton’s motto “it takes a village to raise a child”?
In a recently published excerpt from George Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility, he covers a lot of ground on this issue in his usual pithy style, as with this key passage: “Dilution is a prerequisite for advancement of a collectivist political agenda. The more that individualism can be portrayed as a chimera, the more that any individual’s achievements can be considered as derivative from society, the less the achievements warrant respect. And the more society is entitled to conscript–that is, to socialize–whatever portion of the individual’s wealth that it considers its fair share. Society may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual to keep the remainder of what society thinks is misleadingly called the individual’s possession. Note that “society” necessarily means society’s collective expression: the government”.
Conservatives have not been very effective in responding to these trendy realities. Capitalism is based on a strong moral-cultural underpinning. As John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”. The founders considered this a given, and did not contemplate the current cultural dominance of self-expression, instant gratification, and passive dependency.