We need a new approach when we discuss socialism

Written by Rick B. Larsen & Rep. Chris Stewart

August 1, 2019

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Socialism is a zombie that won’t stay in the grave – no matter how many times capitalism defeats it. Every time socialism is seriously put into practice, hunger, poverty, tyranny and death follow.

Conversely, capitalism works: AEI scholar and economics professor Mark J. Perry writes that nearly 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last 20 years, thanks to free market capitalism.

Regardless of the evidence, self-proclaimed social democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren are creating a new monster out of old, tired ideas. Socialism is dominating debate on the Hill, and it will define the 2020 election.

The revival of these ideas is a sign that too many Americans are unaware of the bleak realities of socialism. Part of the reason is poor debate strategy. Critics often build socialism up into something it’s not – a “straw man,” or a caricature – that is easy to tear down but doesn’t address reality.

The straw-man approach lumps moderate advocates for socialist policies with Bolshevik revolutionaries, although they are distinct. Arguing this way creates confusion and makes it easy for democratic socialists to distance themselves from the caricature.

Pinning down what socialism means is challenging, though, because socialism does not come in a one-size-fits-all box. First, we need to understand market organization – to think of it as a spectrum where total free enterprise sits at one end and a planned market economy, also known as communism, sits at the other.

A true free enterprise system of market organization is one without any state intervention in the marketplace. This type of system ultimately leads to monopoly – an unacceptable standard of inequality.

Communism is a system of market organization where the marketplace is planned by a central committee and the state has total ownership over the means of production. The objective of such a system is the equal distribution of wealth and resources, but history shows that equality is achieved only in the sense that everyone is equal in his or her misery.

Social democrats are more moderate than communists – most are not advocating for a central planned economy or total state ownership over the means of production. The relative moderation of social democrats is part of the reason young generations seem beguiled by their arguments.

By contrast, capitalists argue that some intervention in the marketplace is necessary for maximum economic efficiency, but any intervention beyond what is necessary slows economic activity.

Capitalism isn’t perfect. There will always be winners and losers in a competitive system. Socialism is seductive because it pretends to create nothing but winners. The reality of socialism is something different. Socialism requires concentration of power. Concentration of power always leads to abuse of power.

Where in the world – today or throughout history – is a shining example of socialism that works? Where is the benevolent leader that did not resort to oppression to stifle a population grown tired of the minimum of everything?

When advocates point to the inherent fairness of socialism, they point to Norway. But Norway is a mixed economy – meaning that the enlightenment of the socialists is still funded by the success of the capitalists. And according to the Scandinavian-Polish Chamber of Commerce, Norway is moving toward privatization over government ownership.

David Harsanyi writes that the list of Scandinavian countries held up as socialist successes is short indeed compared with the list of oppressive and failed socialist regimes.

Why would we trade a system that has lifted a billion people out of poverty for one that is – as Harsanyi writes – “an attack on human dignity, and a destroyer of individual rights”? He adds, “Socialists like to blame every inequity, the actions of every greedy criminal, every downturn, and every social ill on the injustice of capitalism. But none of them admit that capitalism has been the most effective way to eliminate poverty in history.”

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