One November 19, 2015, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech in which he outlined what he means when he calls himself a “democratic socialist.” He assured his listeners that he did not advocate government ownership of the means of production.
He said that he supported “private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping and jobs overseas.” And that “innovation, entrepreneurship, and success should be rewarded. But greed for the sake of greed is not something that public policy should support.”
He insisted that he “merely” wanted the wealthy billionaires, the “one-percenters,” to pay their “fair share,” with the belief that if they were taxed sufficiently high then it would be able to finance all the other good things that he would like to see every American have.
FDR and His Economic “Bill of Rights”
So besides a clear desire for a form of regulatory socialism that would see to it that private businesses did not “ship” jobs and profits overseas, and a fiscal socialism that would use the tax code to redistribute wealth from that supposed “one-percent,” what does Bernie Sanders mean by “democratic socialism”?
His playbook, it turns out, is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and FDR’s 1944 call for an “economic Bill of Rights.” In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Social Security legislation, introduced the first federal minimum wage law and tax-funded unemployment insurance, and implemented federal job programs.
Sanders mockingly ridiculed those who called this New Deal agenda “socialism” when it was first being put into affect. “These programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class,” Sanders says.
He quotes from FDR’s 1944 speech advocating that economic Bill of Rights: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”
Sanders then explained the content of FDR’s new Bill of Rights:
Roosevelt described the economic rights that he believed every American was entitled to: The right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care . . . True freedom does not occur without economic security . . . What democratic socialism means to me . . . builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for a guaranteed economic bill of rights.
Karl Marx and the “Tyranny” of Working for a Living
Now, in fact, this notion of “true freedom” goes further back than FDR. It is precisely what nineteenth century socialists like Karl Marx insisted were wrong with society. Marx said that no man is free who must devote himself to anything that he does not want to do. If a man takes an axe to a tree for the shear enjoyment of the exercise, then the individual is exemplifying an act of freedom.
But if that same individual is wielding the axe because if he fails to he will not have the wood to keep him warm by the fire, or the necessary logs with which to build a cabin for shelter, then, Marx insisted, this is an “unfree” act.
In other words, any human activity that is an economic means to a desired end or goal is a manifestation of a lack of “real’ freedom. Anything short of a life of playful enjoyment with all the material and related means to that enjoyment being effortlessly available represents man as a slave to his circumstances.
Or as Karl Marx expressed it in his book, The German Ideology (1845):
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.
In other words, what Marx was revolting against was the reality of scarcity, that many of the means to achieve and fulfill our purposes are insufficient in either quantity or quality. Our time is scarce; our physical and mental labor is scarce; the material resources and raw materials with which we manufacture and produce desirable and desired goods are scarce.
Robinson Crusoe alone on his island has nothing to eat unless he picks fruit from the trees with his hands or with the use of a stick; or catches fish in the lagoon (after making a spear or a fishing net); or clears away part of the land and makes the tools that will enable him to plant and harvest some crop; or devises a way to design and lay a trap to capture a wild animal to cook meat over a fire.
In a developed society such as our own, a person may choose and try to live a self-sufficient life off the land. Or he can find a niche and role in the social system of division of labor and participate in a collaborative production process to sell a product on the market that enables him to earn the financial means to, then, purchase from others the goods and services he wants to acquire from them.
Liberty, Property and Markets as Liberators from Poverty
Man has never been in a “Garden of Eden” without work or worry. He has always had to apply his mental and physical potentials and capacities to survive and improve his lot. Our quality and standard of living is far superior to that of the “primitive” in the wild, but only because people have found ways to better take advantage of their abilities in a setting of human association.
That is the hallmark of the market economy, and its underlying institutional foundations of individual rights, private property, and freedom of association and exchange in a political setting of limited government under impartial rule of law.
To the extent to which these institutional foundations are recognized, respected, and protected, the greater, over time, has been man’s escape from abject poverty and the natural uncertainties of physical life.
In the blur of material abundance and cultural comfort in Western nations, too many have forgotten that this is not man’s “natural state of affairs.” It is the result of the unique set of ideas and institutions that have enabled prosperity to replace poverty. And it can be maintained and improved upon only to the extent that the same ideas and institutions nurture and foster a future better than today, just as today has been made better than yesterday.
Socialist Utopia of a Post-Scarcity World
Yet, as far as Karl Marx was concerned, the only “free” man is one who does not have to work, save and produce to have food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and any of the everyday necessities, amenities and enjoyments of life.
That is precisely why FDR back in 1944 and Bernie Sanders repeats, now, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.” To have to work for what you want by definition makes you not free.
For FDR and Bernie Sanders, implicitly following Marx, freedom only comes when a person lives in a post-scarcity world with neither work nor worry. A worldly utopia of material plentitude where one only does whatever is viewed as pleasurable. Or as Marx said, you hunt in the morning, you fish in the afternoon, and discuss Marxian philosophy over comradely conversation with your fellow communists after dinner.
Now by society regulating the general production, Karl Marx meant government ownership of the means of production with central planning, the result from which in the view of the socialists and communists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries being a world of material plenty far greater and better than anything that had been possible under profit-oriented capitalist private enterprise.
From Central Planning to the Interventionist-Welfare State
By the 1960s and 1970s and most certainly by the 1980s, a growing number of “democratic socialists” in Western Europe and “progressive liberals” in the United States reluctantly and grudgingly came to the conclusion that Soviet-style socialist central planning was an abject failure as an alternative economic system that could exceed competitive capitalism in successfully “delivering the goods.”
Furthermore, many of these same “democratic socialists” in the West could not deny that with Soviet-style socialist central planning had also come totalitarian dictatorships that denied that very democratic freedoms that wished to combine with socialism.
The harsh, cruel and murderous consequences of life under Comrade Stalin in the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao in Communist China, and indeed everywhere else where the Marxist vision had been fully implemented, could also no longer be brushed aside as mere “anti-communist” propaganda. (See my article, “The Human Cost of Socialism in Power.”)
As a result, by the 1960s and 1970s, most Western European “democratic socialist” parties set aside their insistence upon nationalization of large-scale industry and manufacturing and the goal of implementing all-round central planning.
Instead, they almost all called for the extension and fuller implementation of the interventionist-welfare state. They argued that nationalization and central planning were only advocated as an institutional means to the end of bringing about “social justice,” that is, the redistribution of wealth and the direction of production to serve the end-goal of greater material equality and comprehensive “social services” for the lower income groups in society through “free” provision of those human necessities that FDR spoke about in 1944.
The same end result, the democratic socialists now declared, could be attained by regulating business and industry to confine and direct private sector activities into avenues and forms declared to be more in keeping with the “social” goals and interest of society as a whole, rather than mere private gain by those who owned the private enterprises.
And by using the tax system to redistribute wealth so that greater material equality could be more effectively achieved without completely undermining the incentives that generated the production and industry on the basis of which the welfare state is able to acquire the financial means to provide all those “freedom-providing” entitlement program. (See my article “Barack Obama and the Meaning of Socialism” for a fuller explanation of the shift from central planning socialism to regulatory-redistributive socialism.)
The entire edifice of totalitarian as well as “democratic” socialism, however, is based on the premise that those who have “too much” relative to others in society have somehow acquired their wealth without really or honestly earning it, and in fact this is what Barack Obama asserted awhile back when he told businessmen that they had not built their enterprises. (See my article, “The Austrian Economists Who Refuted Marx and Obama,” for an explanation as to why Marx and Obama’s claim is false.)
Since they have more than is “just” or “fair,” they should be taxed to an unspecified maximum amount to provide the financial wherewithal so others in society may be “freed” from the reality of scarcity in everyday life.
“Democratic Socialism” Equals a New Despotism
But the “freedom” about which Bernie Sanders speaks, and before him Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, involves a loss of liberty into an even greater degree of political paternalism.
If government is to assure a “decent job at decent pay,” as well as “adequate” food and clothing, in addition to a “decent home and decent health care,” then inescapably that same government must determine, decide and dictate precisely what each of these guarantees are to represent in terms of qualities, quantities and characteristics to which every individual is to have a “right.”
To be free of having to fully or partly work yourself to earn the income to provide such necessities and amenities of daily life through, now, government provision of them means that it will be the government that determines and decides what is “enough” of each of these freedom-providing “entitlements” and who and under what circumstances people will be eligible for access to the guaranteed amount.
The leveling of society through the redistributive process means both a floor and a ceiling that specifies both the minimum that a person is to be guaranteed and the maximum that will be allowed through the taxing away of income that might have been used to purchase any amount of these things greater than your “fair share.”
The government, therefore, limits all in society to live within a fiscal and regulatory corridor of human existence micromanaged by the regulatory and fiscal constraints imposed, controlled and managed by the politicians enacting the laws and the bureaucrats assigned the task of confining all in society within that corridor of what “social justice” permits.
As one of the remaining net producers of wealth, the government not only restricts how much your may earn, save and accumulate under the tax code, it also dictates what you may produce, where and under what terms through the long arm of the regulatory agencies that strangle the entire supply-side of the economy through a tightly woven spider’s web of commands, prohibitions, and regulations and controls.
As a producer you are a prisoner of the State, because how else shall the government have the access to and control over what some work to produce, so others may have it redistributed to them as the means of “freeing” them from the material and related constraints of everyday life?
And if you are a prisoner of the State as a producer, you are a ward of the State to the extent to which and the form in which you are a recipient of the redistributive largess made available by the political paternalists and their collaborators through the network of “entitlement” programs.
By defining “freedom” as liberation from the material constraints and limits of the human condition, and by demagogically asserting that one man’s material want is the result of another person’s unjust and unjustifiable more material comfort through the interactions of the marketplace, everyone in society is pushed into a forced dependency and compelled obedience to those in power and in charge of the Interventionist-Welfare State.
Political Paternalism Can Break the Will and Spirit of Free Men
Through this we enter into the “soft despotism” about which the famous nineteenth century French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville warned us in his great work, Democracy in America back in the 1830s after his extended tour of the, then, still young United States:
Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves.
It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living? . . .
This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself . . .
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.
Here is the “true freedom” that is the dream and demand of Bernie Sanders and all of the other “democratic socialists” of all political parties who presume that all or at least significant parts of human life need to be micromanaged and controlled by government so people may be liberated from the “tyranny” of not having all they may want without finding effective ways of acquiring it through honest and peaceful work.