by Dr. Roy Cordato
Senior Economist, Emeritas
Socialism: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Merriam Webster Dictionary
What has always distinguished socialism from other ideologies that advocate for state dominated economic decision-making (like progressivism and fascism), is that under socialism the government — often euphemistically referred to as "society," "the people," or the "collective" — actually owns the means of production. This is true for socialism in its dictatorial or totalitarian form, as is found in Cuba or Venezuela, or its democratic form, which may be best represented as established in Great Britain after WWII. Indeed what made Britain socialist during that period was its aggressive move to nationalize industries, which included iron, steal, rail, and health care, among others. It was not simply some belief in aggressively regulating business, which had already been tried (and failed) under Mussolini’s fascism and Roosevelt’s progressivism. This is why, in order for any political candidate to be a socialist, he or she must at a minimum give lip service to the idea that, if not immediately, at least in the long term, the nation’s industries should be nationalized.
So where does this leave Bernie Sanders’s standing as a socialist? I would argue not very high. The "socialist" Bernie Sanders is not advocating the nationalization of any industry either in the short term or as a long term ideal. (As an aside, a single payer health care plan, which Sanders advocates, is not nationalization.) Nothing that he is proposing is outside of the standard mold of progressivism that dominates the Democratic Party. New York Times correspondent Josh Barro got it right last October when he wrote:
Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or the auto companies or even the banks. Like Mrs. Clinton, he believes in a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.
If one were to put Bernie’s proposals side-by-side with those of Mrs. Clinton, without knowing that he has described himself as a democratic socialist, there would be no reason to make any meaningful ideological distinction between the two candidates.
I don’t think that Sanders has gone as far as he has with the base of the Democratic Party because he is a true socialist. He is, in fact, playing on the ignorance of his supporters who like what they believe socialism stands for, i.e., some vague conception of justice and equality, with no real understanding of what it is. The reality is that what he has actually done, under the banner of socialism, is convince many Democratic voters that he can be relied upon to implement a traditional progressive agenda without compromise. If he were being honest about what socialism is and was calling for the nationalization of the computer industry, the cell phone industry, or the auto-industry, I believe that he would be getting no traction at all. Ask any 20-something Bernie supporter if he or she thinks that Apple or Google should be run by a team of government bureaucrats or if YouTube or Twitter should be controlled by a new government department of social media. My guess is that they would be horrified at the thought. And even with all their support for "breaking up the big banks," it is unlikely that many of them would get behind a plan that would have their checking accounts held by the US Treasury Department instead of their local BB&T.
To be clear, I am not implying that Bernie Sanders’s policies would not be as bad for the economy as his socialist label would suggest. Undiluted economic progressivism, which is a form of fascism, is in fact no better than socialism, either in its democratic or totalitarian form. They both entail total government control of economic decision-making and the use of property. The only difference is that progressivism and fascism maintain the facade of private ownership while socialism is more honest.
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