The problem with ‘democratic socialism’ is that it is both.
Iain Murray grew up reading and writing by candlelight, not because he lived in premodern times but because he lived under democratic socialism.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other contemporary American advocates of democratic socialism lean heavily on the democratic part, which is at least in part a matter of marketing. To take their talk of democratic principle seriously requires forgetfulness and credulousness: During the last great uprising of democratic socialism in the English-speaking world — in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, where young Iain Murray, now a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was doing his homework by the light of coals and candles — the so-called democratic socialists embraced democracy when it suited them and anti-democratic, illiberal, and at times murderous modes of government when those suited their political agenda better, with left-wing activists such as young Jeremy Corbyn acting as tireless apologists for the Soviet Union, its purges and its gulags. In the United States, Noam Chomsky dismissed reports of Pol Pot’s genocide as right-wing propaganda; later, young Bernie Sanders and his new bride would honeymoon in the Soviet Union even as the Communist Party bosses were creating a new and more modern gestapo to put down democrats and dissidents. History counsels us to consider the first adjective in “democratic socialist” with some skepticism.
But the socialism that reduced the United Kingdom from world power to intermittently pre-industrial backwater in the post-war era was thoroughly democratic. The policies that turned the lights out in London were not imposed on the British people by a repressive junta. And that is part of the problem with democratic socialism even as notionally presented by Sanders et al.: It is both of those things. In the United States, we use the word “democratic” as though it were a synonym for “decent” or “accountable,” but 51 percent of the people can wreck a country just as easily and as thoroughly as 10 percent of them. That is why the United States has a Bill of Rights and other limitations on democratic power.
The United Kingdom, having a parliamentary form of government, does not enjoy such formal protections. A British government with an electoral mandate can run wild, as it did under the democratic-socialist governments of the post-war era, climaxing in the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–79.
“I grew up in the north of England,” Murray says. “It gets dark very early in the winters there.” A series of strikes by government unions left the United Kingdom without trash collectors, and garbage piled up in the streets; there were shortages of food and fuel as strikes crippled the transportation system; medical workers in the country’s monopoly national health-care system went on strike, with nurses, orderlies, and hospital staff abandoning their posts and leaving sick Britons with nowhere to turn for medical attention; the bodies of those who died piled up for months, because the gravediggers’ union was on strike, too; eventually, the interruptions of fuel and labor caused the electrical system to fail. Hence the candles.
This wasn’t the first time: In 1970, a similar labor action had forced Britain’s hospitals to operate by candlelight. Think about that: A year after Americans had landed on the moon, Englishmen were undergoing medical procedures under neo-medieval conditions, in a medical world lit only by fire.
This did not happen in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, in Chairman Mao’s China, or in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This happened in England, within living memory, only 41 years ago. Bernie Sanders was pushing 40 — old enough to remember, just as he is today old enough to know better.
The problems of socialism are problems of socialism — problems related to the absence of markets, innovation, and free enterprise and, principally, problems related to the epistemic impossibility of the socialist promise: rational central planning of economic activity. The problems of socialism are not the problems of authoritarianism and will not be cured by democracy. Socialism and authoritarianism often go hand in hand (almost always, in fact), but socialism on its own, even when it is the result of democratic elections and genuinely democratic processes, is a bottomless well of misery. The Soviet gulags and hunger-genocide, the Chinese prison camps, and the psychosis of Pyongyang are not the only exhibits in the case against socialism, and the case against socialism is also the case against democratic socialism, as the experience of the United Kingdom attests.
Murray, talking about his forthcoming book The Socialist Temptation at a CEI event in New Orleans, describes the inherent tension within democratic socialism. “The tyranny of the majority means you have no rights,” he says. “Early democratic societies realized that you had to have rights; how extensive those rights are is normally determined by how powerful the democracy is — one reason why the United States had such an extensive bill of rights so early is because the democracy was quite powerful. Socialists coopt the language of rights by introducing positive rights rather than negative rights — they will speak of the right to a job or the right to housing — but not the right to be left alone, which inherently contradicts democratic socialism.”
The destructive nature of socialism comes not from its tendency to trample on democracy (though socialism often does trample on democracy) but from its total disregard for rights — rights that are, in the context of the United States and other liberal-democratic systems, beyond the reach of mere majorities. We have the Bill of Rights to protect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the free exercise of religion, etc., not because we expect that majorities will reliably support and protect these rights but because we expect that majorities will be hostile to them.
Hence the stupidity of complaints about our commitment to free speech protecting speech that is offensive, divisive, extreme, etc.: That’s precisely the point of the First Amendment — the other kind of speech doesn’t need protecting, because it is unobjectionable. Other rights — property rights and the right to trade prominent among them — also find themselves on the wrong side of majorities, constantly and predictably. But they are no less fundamental than the right to free speech, and they are no less necessary for a thriving and prosperous society. Socialism destroys societies by gutting or diminishing those rights. Doing so with the blessing of 50 percent plus one of the population does not make that any less immoral or any less corrosive.
Conservatives understand the case against socialism. But in a moment of ascendant populism, making the case for keeping democracy in a very small box — recognizing the difference between useful democratic procedures and a more general majoritarian democratic ethos — can be difficult. Those who have made a cult of “We the People” have left themselves without a very plausible moral or political basis for telling Them the People to go jump in a lake when they demand immoral and destructive policies.
But it was the people who ruined the United Kingdom with socialism in the 1970s, and it is the people who threaten to do the same thing to these United States today.