Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled his vision of “democratic socialism“ during a recent speech at George Washington University. Unfortunately, he did more to confuse the meaning of democratic socialism than to clarify it.
The words capitalism and socialism have meanings, so let’s get things clear up front. Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of property coordinated through voluntary exchange in markets.
Socialism is an economic system that abolishes private property in the means of production—the land, capital, and labor used to make everything—and replaces it with some form of collective ownership. Whenever socialism has been implemented at a national level, collective ownership in practice has meant state ownership, and government plans have replaced markets as the primary mechanism to coordinate economic activity.
Capitalism and socialism can be thought of as two poles of a spectrum. Some countries are more capitalistic, and some are more socialistic, but all fall somewhere between these two poles. This is where Sanders starts mucking things up.
He claims that “unfettered capitalism” is causing economic problems in United States. The reality is that capitalism in the United States is far from “unfettered.” The Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report is the best measure of where on the socialism-capitalism spectrum a country lies. In the most recent rankings, the United States scored an 8.03 out of a possible 10 points, and even a 10-point score would fall short of “unfettered.”
However, this score does rank the United States the sixth most capitalist in the world. The five countries ahead of us—Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland—are all pretty nice places. This fits with research that overwhelmingly finds that greater economic freedom (i.e., capitalism) produces good socioeconomic results.
Meanwhile, Sanders contrasts his democratic socialism with the “movement toward oligarchy,” which he conflates with unfettered capitalism. The problem is that none of the six authoritarian regimes he calls out—Russia (87th), China (107th), Saudi Arabia (102nd), the Philippines (49th), Brazil (144th), Hungary (59th)—is close to the capitalist end of the spectrum.
More disturbingly, he leaves socialist countries off his list of authoritarian regimes. Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela explicitly identify as socialist and come closest in the world today to practicing real socialism. The governments in these countries own and/or control much of the means of production and attempt to direct and plan their economies.
Sanders stated that he faces attacks “from those who attempt to use the word socialism as a slur.” But it is not “red-baiting” to recognize that socialism means a particular form of economic organization and that those authoritarian countries come closest to using that form of organization. I visited them while researching a new book, and they are all economic disasters as well as authoritarian nightmares. It’s incumbent on Sanders to recognize these countries as socialist and explain how his socialism would differ.
So does Sanders want real socialism? The closest he got to specifics was to argue that his democratic socialism would entail an “economic bill of rights,” which would include the right to a decent job that pays a living wage, quality health care, a complete education, affordable housing, a clean environment, and a secure retirement.
But listing aspirations tells us nothing about how he would achieve them. Based on his voting record and advocacy, his program would likely involve massive new interventions that would curtail our economic freedoms and place greater reliance on government planners.
Would those interventions be enough to label them socialist? They would likely make the United States less capitalistic than the Nordic countries that are often labeled democratic socialist. Yet those countries—Denmark (16th), Norway (25th), Sweden (43rd)—all rank high in economic freedom, so they likely don’t represent the right standard. Whatever the answer to my question, a national debate would be more productive if both Sanders and his critics were clearer on the definition of socialism and on whether his policies are, or aren’t, socialist.