What is socialism?

George Will takes up the question. He notes that socialism once stood for state ownership of the means of production. Then, it stood for state ownership of the economy’s “commanding heights” — its most important entities.

Now, says Will, it stands for the proposition that “the government [shall] distribute, according to its conception of equity, the wealth produced by capitalism.” To this, I would add that the government shall exert significant control over the lives of Americans, curbing our ability to make a multitude of choices.

These formulations make the difference between socialism and the America we know seem like a matter of degree. As Will points out, the government already redistributes wealth according to its conception of equity. And it already exerts some control over our lives and our ability to choose.

These realities shouldn’t make us sanguine about socialism, though. The difference between some redistribution and control and the massive amounts socialists desire is the difference between a first rate country that bears a resemblance to the America some of us love and a second rate county that bears little such resemblance.

But there may be even more at stake. I’m not sure I can square the “difference in degree, rather than of kind” narrative with Bernie Sanders honeymooning in the Soviet Union and the sympathy of some congressional leftists for the horrid socialist regime in Venezuela.

There’s an authoritarian strand to the contemporary socialist movement in America. Will calls its advocates “angrier” than traditional American socialists like Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. They are, and that anger makes them particularly threatening.

Will our angry socialists be content with only the amount of wealth redistribution that can be achieved democratically — potentially, a huge amount since, as Will reminds us, taxing the “rich” is a “perennial temptation” of democracy? I don’t think so.

Will they be content with controlling the economy through the regulation of corporations? Maybe, but only as long as corporations don’t balk.

Will they be content to let Americans choose what to write and say, where to live, what schools to attend, where to worship, and with whom to associate? Our angry socialists threaten each of these rights to one degree or another.

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