We could use a radical in the presidential race—someone who really challenges the status quo—but Bernie Sanders isn't it. Sanders of course calls himself a democratic socialist, but that tell us almost nothing. One gets the impression the socialist label was pinned on him and, after resisting it, he decided socialist sounded romantic and embraced it.
Nevertheless, whether you like socialism or not, Sanders is not a socialist: he calls neither for nationalizing the means of production nor for replacing the market economy with central planning. Yet that is what socialism came to mean in the mid-20th century. Democratic socialism meant that socialism would be achieved through the ballot box.
It is worth noting that in late 19th- and early 20th-century America, socialism was an umbrella term that was also used by radical free-market, or individualist, anarchists like Benjamin R. Tucker and Francis Dashwood Tandy, who called his 1896 book Voluntary Socialism. A socialist then was anyone who objected that workers were cheated out of their full reward and that prices of goods were fixed above the cost of production; in contrast to state socialists, free-market socialists attributed these evils to "capitalism," by which they meant the system of government privileges for well-connected owners of capital.
What Sanders favors is an expanded welfare/regulatory state, i.e., more of what we have. When asked about socialism, he praises Medicare. Medicare, however, is not socialism, nor would single-payer for all be socialism. Under state-socialized medicine, government would own and operate the hospitals, and doctors and nurses would be government employees—like the post office without competition. Under single-payer government would pay the bills for private-sector medical care and impose controls that powerful interests would inevitably manipulate to their advantage. Sound familiar?
The welfare state was established by western ruling classes to tamp down discontent among the powerless that had the potential to turn revolutionary. The father of the modern welfare state, Otto von Bismarck, intended government-administered social insurance to keep the Prussian working class loyal to the regime and out of the Marxist and liberal (libertarian) camps. In England, workers initially resisted the welfare state because it was seen as a move by the aristocracy to co-opt the labor movement, which sought to redress its grievances directly.
Sometimes Sanders says that being a socialist means merely that he's neither a Democrat or a Republican. That's not terribly informative. At other times he says it signifies concern about gross income disparities, the high cost of college, and the lack of access to medical care. Again, this doesn't tell us much since radical libertarians share those concerns. What matters are the solutions. Two people can look at the same social problem and argue over whether the best approach is more government, less government, or no government at all. Sanders's preference, more government, would mean expanded bureaucratic control and special-interest "capture," i.e., more of what already ails us.
In 1986, Sanders said, "All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small 'd.' I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives." Considering that Sanders's program would empower bureaucrats rather than people, one could consistently endorse Sanders's objective while opposing his proposals. (See my "Free-Market Socialism.")
He also said, "What being a socialist means is … that you hold out … a vision of society where poverty is absolutely unnecessary, where international relations are not based on greed … but on cooperation … where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire." Again, these are objectives that any radical free-market libertarian could embrace. Where Sanders goes wrong is in aiming to empower bureaucrats and politicians.
Sanders cannot or will not see that expanding the welfare/regulatory bureaucracy would not help those outside the ruling elite. Beefing up the state won't liberate us. Despite his intentions, Sanders is an unwitting defender of the status quo.
Where is the radical who will make the case for individual liberation and purely voluntary social cooperation through freed markets?
This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.