Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.
There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”
Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.
Time for some Political Science 101.
Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.
But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.
What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.
Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**
Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.
And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.
The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.
** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.