Who’s a socialist?

Robert Samuelson writes sensible columns about the economy for the Washington Post. His latest column, less sensible than usual, is a contribution to the growing body of mainstream media musings about what socialism means and the extent to which various Democratic contenders favor it.

Samuelson argues that accusing Democrats of being socialists is a “slur” because “we are all socialists now.” What counts, says Samuelson, isn’t labels, but rather policy prescriptions. He concludes that Bernie Sanders falls short not because he’s a socialist but because his policy proposals are utopian and out of date.

In my view, useful thinking about socialism and the Democrats requires viewing ideologies, parties, and candidates in terms of the extent to which they favor individual freedom over government control. (The normal “right-left” model is worthless and misleading). At one end of this spectrum are the hard core libertarians. At the other other end are the communists, with the old-fashioned socialists nearby. These ideologues favor direct government control not just of the “commanding heights” of the economy, but also of much else.

Not too faraway from them are those who want large of amounts of government control over our lives, but prefer having (or are willing to have) that control exercised in part through corporations regulated, to the point of domination, by the government. This was the national socialist model. Today, it’s favored by many Democrats.

Viewed in this light, Samuelson’s claim that “we are all socialists now” fails. The government exercises a goodly amount of control over our lives, but not the amount associated with socialism, even the soft kind described above. Moreover, we don’t “all” support even the current level of government control. Many of us would like to see it rolled back considerably.

Where do members of the Democratic field stand on the ideological continuum I sketched? Sanders is an old-fashioned socialist who may be willing, albeit reluctantly, to have corporations play a part in the government’s exercise of control and in the shrinkage of individual freedom.

Elizabeth Warren advocates the corporate socialist (or socialism lite) approach. Secretly, she may favor more direct socialism, but it would be unfair to conclude that she does.

I doubt that Joe Biden has thought enough about these matters to have reached a conclusion. He goes by instinct, meaning a blend of the conventional wisdom of the moment and the thinking that will help him get from point A to point B politically.

In the past, this blend hasn’t produced socialist views. In the current environment, it very well might.

The other credible Democratic contenders haven’t been on the national stage long enough for me to have a sense of exactly where on the continuum they fall. However, it’s clear that the field as a whole favors significantly greater government control over our lives than currently exists. And it’s not unfair to note that the amount of control Sanders favors is consistent with traditional socialism, while the amount Warren favors is consistent with the softer, more modern version.

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