by Dr. Roy Cordato
Senior Economist, Emeritas
If we listen to most commentators on both the left and the right talk about socialism, its moral superiority to capitalism is rarely, if ever, challenged. Typically, the conservative critics of socialism, whether it is actual socialism or the unrestrained welfare statism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, argue that the main problem is that it’s too expensive. We just can’t afford it.
It is common for the critics to point out that, if the plans of the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic party were to be adopted, it would cost an absurd amount. The amount that is often mentioned is a cost of $40 trillion over 10 years. The sentiment typically expressed comes from a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher, “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” The implication is that if “we” could afford the world of “free” health care, “free” higher education, “free” money via government-guaranteed incomes, it would be fine and maybe even morally superior to its alternative – capitalism.
But the “problem” with socialism, whether in the form executed in post-war Britain or the welfare statism championed by modern-day Democrats, is not the price tag or the fact that you might “run out of other people’s money.” The problem with socialism, in any of its variants and however it is portrayed, is that it is a thoroughly immoral system whose adherents, by definition, completely embrace the use of force (or the threat of force) to accomplish their ends. Indeed, there is not a single program offered by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, or any of the other self-described socialists in or out of the Democratic party whose implementation doesn’t rest on threats of violence against those who refuse to go along.
With actual socialism, which includes the nationalization of the means of the production, the process starts with direct government confiscation of private property, i.e., industry, by the state. If the owners or shareholders of the targeted industries refuse to go along by declining to give up control of their property, for example, certainly prison will be in their future. And if they further resist the socialists’ handcuffs, a prison term will quickly turn into brute force and possibly even death. And this has nothing to do with whether the socialism is instituted democratically through the “will of the majority” or dictatorial powers. Socialism, as an economic system, always depends on the denial of rights and the use of force through the political system, regardless of the type of political system in place.
At this point, the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez supporter might respond by pointing out that their “brand” of socialism, which I have argued is not socialism at all, doesn’t advocate for the nationalization of industries. Google, Amazon, and General Motors would all remain in private hands, safe from confiscation by their desired socialist state. They might argue that their proposed programs, such as “Medicare for all,” a guaranteed minimum income, and free college tuition, do not involve the government taking ownership of the means of production. And that would be accurate.
But what they do advocate is increasing government ownership, and therefore confiscation, of an important result of production; people’s incomes. This is how the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez state takes control of private sector resources. They would not take direct control of the means of production. They would take people’s incomes, which in the marketplace are claims to those resources. Furthermore, because they advocate for a steeply progressive income tax, the rate of confiscation, that is, the percentage of one’s income that is nationalized, increases as incomes increase. What all this means is that the threat of force and violence as the agent of change is no different for Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez than it is for actual socialists who want outright nationalization of private resources. And, as luck would have it, their enforcement mechanism is already in place. It’s called the IRS. The fact that, under “democratic” socialism, this force would be “legitimized” by a democratic process does not make it any more moral.
The tyranny of the majority is still tyranny.