Understanding ‘Democratic Socialism’

Understanding ‘Democratic Socialism’
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. Bernie Sanders promotes and his supporters believe in democratic socialism. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Mark Hendrickson

The goal of democratic socialists is socialism—government control of economic production. Genuine socialism, when practiced, inevitably leads to economic stagnation and ruin for the following reasons:

It destroys incentives.

It commits the intellectual error of treating human beings as fungible (the same, and therefore interchangeable). So, socialist planners assume that their bureaucratic minions have the same specific knowledge and special talents that enable private entrepreneurs to create wealth more productively and efficiently.

It discards market-based prices—those based on supply and demand—thereby losing the ability to coordinate production rationally and allocate scarce resources efficiently. The inevitable result is the overproduction of some goods—thereby wasting scarce resources—and the underproduction of others, meaning that many people are unable to procure the things they want, making them poorer.

And finally, central economic planners, no matter how brilliant or well-intentioned, don’t and can’t determine what you and I want as much as you and I know what we want. Capitalism is a system of consumer sovereignty under which firms profit by producing what we want instead of producing what the government commands, as is the case under socialism.

It should be noted that cronyism isn’t capitalistic, but socialistic, because cronyism involves governments, not consumers—“we the people”—determining which businesses prosper.

The adjective “democratic” is employed to render socialism more palatable and more American, but the label can’t prevent the inherently impoverishing consequences of socialism—of government-planned and -controlled production.

“Democratic” merely specifies the means to the end. Karl Marx, the patron saint of socialism, wrote in “The Communist Manifesto” that there are two paths to socialism—the quick one of a violent revolution by “exploited” workers (his preference) or the more gradual, progressive implementation of socialism via democracy (see Chapter 2 of the “manifesto”). A majority of U.S. workers have been too prosperous and satisfied with life to launch bloody revolutions, leaving the democratic path to socialism as the only viable strategy for U.S. socialists to pursue.

The label “democratic socialism,” like its kindred labels “progressive” and “liberal,” have acted as fig leaves for U.S. socialists, hiding their ultimate goal. In recent years, U.S. socialists have been able to strive for socialism while having plausible deniability that they’re socialists. They have truthfully stated that they haven’t explicitly advocated for the government takeover of all means of economic production. They’ve been coy.

Instead of calling for complete control, their perennial agenda has called for more control. How much more? They never say—it’s open-ended. You aren’t likely to hear a socialist politician say that there’s too much government control over economic production for the simple reason that socialists believe in and want government control over economic production. But it’s significant that U.S. progressives, led by Bernie Sanders, now feel safe enough to come out of the closet and admit that they’re (democratic) socialists.

Don’t be fooled by the adjective “democratic.” It isn’t benign. Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t democracy good? Isn’t that what America is all about? Well, as the TV commercial used to say, “Not exactly.”

The word democracy is linguistically problematic, due to ambiguities and different usages. On the positive side, the United States is a democratic system, meaning that people are to be free and that our political system makes government subservient and accountable to the people. The 19th-century poet, Walt Whitman, articulated the essence of the U.S. democratic ideal thusly:

“Government can do little positive good to the people, [but] it may do an immense deal of harm. And here is where the beauty of the Democratic principle comes in. Democracy would prevent all this harm. It would have no man’s benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors. ... This one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.”

The benign version of democracy is rights-based. So is our U.S. Constitution, as I explained in my Bill of Rights Day article in October.
Portraits of James Madison (L), and John Adams (R). Photos by National Archive/Newsmakers
Portraits of James Madison (L), and John Adams (R). Photos by National Archive/Newsmakers

However, democracy is also a theory of power, and government power poses a perpetual threat to individual rights. That’s why U.S. Founders James Madison and John Adams abhorred democracy while socialist icons such as Marx and Lenin were enthusiastic advocates of it.

The contrast is stark:

According to Adams, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

According to Madison, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

According to Marx, “The way to achieve socialism is for the masses to ‘win the battle of democracy.’” (“The Communist Manifesto,” Chapter 2).

According to Lenin, “A democracy is a state which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority.”

When democracy becomes crude majority rule, nobody’s rights are safe. Instead of peacefully trading with each other in a system where property rights are secure, society degenerates into a vicious squabble as various groups of citizens demand that government give them benefits paid for by other citizens.

Many historians have observed the unstable, destructive tendencies of democracy, but the British archeologist and historian Sir Flinders Petrie best articulated the danger of democratic socialism.

“When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority and civilization steadily decays,” Petrie said.

Simply because a majority favors something doesn’t make it right or just. Remember, democratic majorities voted for the executions of Jesus and Socrates—two of the most heinous, unjust events in human history. Crude majoritarian democracy can be as violent and oppressive as any other form of tyranny.

Democracy, in the eyes of democratic socialists, boils down to this: There are more of us than there are of you, so we'll take your property and dispose of it as we see fit. This is the primitive ethos of “might makes right.” It embodies the immorality of the thug, the robber, the thief. In the fraudulent name of “social justice,” it tramples genuine justice. It’s hell-bent on replacing our rights-based constitutional order with top-down central economic planning— with a tyranny that dictates who produces what for whom.
Democratic socialists want to replace our rights-based, capitalistic system—a system which, despite its imperfections and inconsistencies, has brought more freedom and more prosperity to more people than any other system—with socialism, a system that has oppressed and impoverished people wherever it has been implemented (see modern-day Venezuela).
Sadly, the degree of economic and historical ignorance among Americans may result in a majority voting for our own destruction. Wouldn’t future historians have a field day explaining such folly?
Dr. Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College. He’s the author of several books including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Mark Hendrickson is an economist who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.
Related Topics