Does it matter that Bernie Sanders, the 2016 Democratic candidate for president, is an openly self-described socialist?
Yes, and here’s why.
The New Jersey Star-Ledger observes that, Like it or not, Sanders' socialism is mainstream. But is socialism really mainstream? In this presidential election cycle, we could find out. As the Star-Ledger editorializes:
On Thursday [June 11, 2015], Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said that "in virtually every instance, what I'm saying is supported by a significant majority of the American people," which is a bold claim for someone who has been broadly labeled a "socialist" candidate in Democratic camouflage.
But it makes this a good time to consider whether that term is being applied accurately in the early innings of this 2016 campaign, rather than as a pejorative to dismiss Sanders' ideas.
Because so far, the Senator is showing the electorate that a rejection of this "socialism" – the concept, not the brainless epithet – is something that most voters would probably find unthinkable.
And if you consult the polls, Sanders' claim is not only right, he is positively mainstream.
Among Sanders’s government policies, observes the Star-Ledger, are reducing income inequality through higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 minimum wage, reigning in “big money” in politics, repealing Citizens United, more generous government-backed student loans, fighting climate change, and forcibly shrinking Wall Street banks.
It’s true that these are mainstream Leftist policies. It’s also true that Sanders’s policies, if all are implemented, would not result in a fully socialist America. And, the Star-Ledger adds, America already has socialist programs in place. After reporting that “The 18-to-29 bloc even finds socialism (36 percent) almost as favorable as capitalism (39 percent),” the Star-Ledger observes:
Or perhaps they just know that socialist precepts, in large part, represent the civic and cultural foundation of our nation.
Consider: Many things we take for granted today were conceived by leftist coalitions that included Socialists and other Progressives, such as the eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, Medicare, and Social Security. Some were used as the platform for Eugene Debs' bid for the White House a century ago, though back then they called it "social insurance."
Labor rights, decent work conditions, and paid maternity leave were in large part socialist ideas, too, some championed by a Socialist congressman from the lower East Side named Meyer London.
And civil liberty was an ironclad tenet throughout our history – as long as your skin wasn't a tint darker than the majority - but when we interned Japanese Americans in 1942, one of the loudest objections was voiced by the prominent Socialist of the time, Norman Thomas.
Does the fact that Sanders’s policies have achieved significant popular traction mean Americans are now ready for an openly socialist president, and by extension are warming to socialism? Or is Sanders merely attempting to cash in on Americans’ confusion over what socialism is? If Americans understood that Sanders’s agenda is socialist, and would lead America toward full socialism, would they still support what Sanders is saying, to the extent they do support him? I left these comments (slightly edited for clarity). Given that some of what is mentioned above is not socialist at all, I felt it necessary to start from fundamentals:
First, let’s define our terms.
Socialism is statism based on collectivism. Collectivism is the idea that the group is the focus of moral concern. Under collectivism, the individual is subordinate to the group and can be sacrificed at any time and in any way, if the group deems such sacrifice to be to its good (the “public good,” the “good of society,” the “national interest,” etc.). Under socialism, the government represents the group, and may initiate aggressive force against private citizens at will, for the sake of and in the name of the group (society, the public, the proletariat, the race). The government may loot or, in socialism’s most violent and consistent manifestations, slaughter whomever it deems necessary to advance the good of the collective (e.g., the Kulaks in Soviet Russia; the Jews in Nazi Germany). That’s why socialism, in practice—and whether or not the government is elected—must logically—and often does, if not stopped in time—lead to totalitarian dictatorship, featuring persecution of, legalized looting of, and enslavement of the productive; the silencing and arrest of political dissenters; and mass murder. If the group is all that morally matters, then individuals are rightless creatures when it comes to their lives, property, and personal goals—all of which are expendable. Note how often it is said that the public good trumps the private interests. Under socialism, everyone but the rulers—and under democratic socialism, even the rulers, theoretically—are equal in slavery to the collective, which can only mean the state. The fact that 36% of young people have a positive view of socialism indicates that a large segment of our youngsters are either evil or ignorant.
Capitalism is constitutionally limited republicanism based on individualism. Individualism is the idea that the focus of moral concern is the individual. Under capitalism, the government protects the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of personal goals, values, and happiness, so long as the individual respects the same rights of others, and pursues his goals through his own effort in voluntary, mutually consensual trade, association, and cooperation with others. The government protects individual rights by legally banning aggressive (initiatory) physical force against private citizens—not only aggression by private criminals but also, importantly, by the people’s own government officials. Under capitalism, government officials must live under the same moral law—respect for the rights of others—as ordinary citizens. No group, no matter its size or whether it’s a private mob or electoral majority or legislative body, can violate the rights of individuals—the individual being the smallest and only morally relevant minority. Under capitalism, everyone is equal before the law, in terms of their rights, which are inalienable—regardless of their social, personal, or economic standing. Rights are guarantees to freedom of action only, not an automatic claim to material values that others must be forced to provide. The fact that only 39% of young people have a positive view of capitalism indicates that most of our youngsters don’t know what capitalism is, or are simply immoral.
Under socialism, government is master. Under capitalism, government is servant. Under socialism, the individual is a subject. Under capitalism, the individual is sovereign.
It’s true that the legally imposed 8-hour workday is socialist. But how many people know that the eight-hour workday was made possible by capitalism, under which businessmen were free to increase through investment and innovation the productivity of labor to the point that people could earn a living wage with less work? If the 8-hour workday were imposed prior to the rise of capitalism, it would have condemned millions of adults to death. The same goes for child labor, which was eliminated not because of laws—an utterly simplistic notion—but because, thanks to capitalism, parents became productive enough to support their children without sending them out to work. If child labor laws were imposed pre-capitalist, millions of children would have been condemned to death, deprived of the freedom to earn a living.
How many people know that the legalization of gay marriage, women’s suffrage, and rationally objective anti-pollution laws are capitalist, because they protect individual’s rights to freedom of association, the right to vote, and the right to be free of other people’s pollution.
The internment of the Japanese—which was based on the collectivist idea that individual Japanese-Americans are guilty by virtue of the group they belonged to, which superseded their individual rights—was a socialist policy instituted by a “progressive” administration. That injustice was unequivocally anti-capitalist. Under capitalist principles, each person is judged as an individual, and only individuals objectively proved to be a national security threat could be incarcerated. Likewise, so-called “labor rights” are socialist, because under collectivism rights belong to groups. So “rights” become state-granted privileges bestowed only on members of favored political constituencies, at the expense of the violation of the actual rights of all other individuals—including, under so-called “labor rights” laws, workers precluded from earning a living due to the illegalization of certain jobs that politicians object to. Group “rights” are not rights, but cronyism: Cronyism is the product of socialism, not capitalism.
Whether or not you choose to label Sanders a socialist, his agenda is mostly thoroughgoing statism, and his policies are a series of steps on the road to totalitarian socialism in America —albeit under cover of fascist progressivism. Most of Sanders’s agenda is socialist-leaning and anti-capitalist; i.e., individual rights-violating and anti-liberty. And, since the centerpiece of Sanders’s campaign is an attack on a minority scapegoat labeled “the rich”; “the 1%”; the “billionaire class,” Sanders is a dangerous demagogue. The fact that so much of Sanders’s agenda polls well, if you can believe the polls, indicates how far the Left has succeeding in eroding America’s foundational principles—unalienable individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. The Left had to destroy liberty, to make way for its regulatory welfare state. The old-line American Left—the so-called “liberals” or “progressives”—may never have wanted total socialism. But by destroying America’s Founding principles, they paved the way for a socialist candidate.
If Sanders’s candidacy gains significant traction—and I believe he has a better chance than conventional wisdom holds—it will be an unhealthy sign for our liberty, our economy, and our culture. The Right—by which I mean pro-liberty, not social or religious conservatives—has its work cut out for it in the coming election. In the 2016 election, the fundamental alternative of liberty vs. tyranny will be more clear-cut than at any time in half a century.
The Star-Ledger brushes off the “socialist” label Sanders intentionally wears as meaningless—a mere “pejorative”; a “brainless epithet”—because many of Sanders’s specific policies have popular appeal or are “mainstream.” But the label is of critical importance, because socialism is a real evil. While it’s true that every new government regulation or redistributionist program is a step toward full socialism—albeit through the backdoor of fascism—most advocates of these governmental intrusions don’t want socialism. Not so with Sanders. The fact that Sanders considers himself an unabashed socialist tells you where he ultimately means to lead the country. His current policies are not ends in themselves but stepping stones to full totalitarian socialism, or the total collectivist regimentation of the economy and our lives.
For pro-capitalists, there may be a silver lining to Sanders’s campaign, however. The Star-Ledger—which dangerously evades the deadly historical and ideological nature of socialism—apparently hopes that Sanders’s entrance into the race will cast socialism into a more favorable light in Americans’ eyes, thanks to his sugar coating of socialism with popular issues. But Sanders’s entrance looks to me like an opportunity for the Right to turn that scenario on its head.
All of the things on Sanders’s wish list, as well as those things the Left has already foisted on America (labor laws, Social Security, etc.) are socialist. America has been moving toward socialism, piecemeal and stealthily, for decades. And for decades, America's socialist-sympathizing Left has been telling us that they don’t really want to bring socialism to America. They just want to preserve capitalism by smoothing out the rough edges and making it work better, and each of their programs are designed to do just that—improve capitalism. They want a “safety net,” they tell us—that’s all. Anyone pointing out that their programs are socialist were ridiculed, even as the socialist safety net relentlessly expanded to ensnare more and more people—today, almost everyone, to some degree. This is how the Left has been winning; deny socialism is their aim, even as they enact one step after another toward that end.
Sanders the openly avowed socialist blows the cover off of the Left’s stealth socialism. His candidacy clarifies the fact that the socialist policies already enacted are not just socialist exceptions to a mostly capitalist society. They, and the next set of Leftist policies Sanders advocates, are just stepping stones to full socialism. He is saying explicitly that, yes indeed, destroying capitalism and bringing in socialism is and always has been the goal.
Seen in that light, the full context of America’s century-long battle between socialism and capitalism becomes much clearer. Sanders places each piecemeal step toward socialism in proper long-term context. Each step is a step toward socialism, not isolated corrections to capitalism. If Americans come to see all of the socialist schemes—those already implemented and those now proposed—as piecemeal socialist steps toward full totalitarian socialism, it may become easier to convince Americans to stop the advance—and eventually reverse it.
Context is crucial. Sanders gives us that. But, exposing the context that Sanders brings to the battle is not enough, by itself, to turn the tide. The Right must still integrate this context into the economic and—above all—the long-neglected moral case for capitalism and against socialism. But Sanders may just have made the Right’s challenge a little easier. Let’s hope so. Because, to repeat, the fundamental alternative of liberty vs. tyranny will be more clear-cut in the 2016 election than at any time in at least half a century.
Why Nazism Was Socialism and Why Socialism is Totalitarian—George Reisman for the Mises Institute
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