March 14, 2019 Reading Time: 12 minutes

Another election cycle has begun, even though it is less than a half a year since the November 2018 congressional elections. Donald Trump seems unlikely to face a serious challenger for his re-nomination as the Republican candidate for president (unless explosive revelations place his public standing in serious doubt in the coming months). But the Democratic field already has well over a dozen declared serious candidates, each one of them eager to be chosen as Trump’s opponent for the presidency of the United States in the autumn of 2020.

Already a plethora of promised political goodies are being presented to the voters with every word spoken by these would-be occupants of the White House. You want good and accessible health care, and all free of charge? No problem. How about forgiveness for your college loans? A legislative act will take care of that. What about financial and other reparations for things done to people long dead with whom you may have no personal biological connection, and to be paid for by others whose ancestors may not have been guilty of any slave-based or prejudicial sins? Who will get and who will pay will all be based on the respective color of everyone’s skin. Feel slighted or envious because someone has a noticeably higher income than you do? No worries, some of what they have can be redistributed your way.

What about a guaranteed government job for life, or protection from domestic or foreign competitors, or a minimum income every month into your bank account from Uncle Sam? Or what about grandiose government plans to fix the environment, save the planet, give everyone “social justice,” and with no worry about who is going to pay for it and in what amount? Let’s also not forget various government programs to make you happier and healthier, with paternalistic political “nudges” to move you in the direction that those you have elected know to be the right choices that you would have picked for yourself if only you were as rational and informed as the elected politicians and their learned expert advisors.

But lest it be considered that this diarrhea of political promises and policies only emanates from the Democratic party, let us not forget the current Republican president, who tries to bully private enterprises concerning where they should invest, in what types of production, and which groups of workers should be hired; who wants to build walls dictating who may peacefully come and go across a political line on a map, even if private individuals want nothing more than to make personal decisions about where to live and work, and about whom to hire at what are mutually agreed wages; who no longer wants the U.S. military to report the civilian deaths caused by American drone attacks in other countries with which the United States is not at war; who threatens trade wars with other nations through arbitrary executive authority in the name of meaningless concerns about import and export balances between the U.S and various countries around the world.

These are all meant to make America great again. By the way, what does “greatness” for America mean, and at what sacrifice to the interests and betterment of actual individual Americans?

Feared or Wanted Socialism Is Actually Already Here

The political auction season, in other words, is once again upon us, with other people’s money up for sale to those who can muster the larger coalitions of voters on Election Day to determine the outcome of who wins in November 2020 and takes the reins of political power in January 2021.

It is not only about other people’s money being up for grabs, but also the degree of remaining freedom of everyone in the society. With government programs come political restrictions on what you may do, how you may do it, and with whom, within the ever more tightly woven web of interventionist regulations and income redistributions imposed on all in the country.

At the same time, don’t be particularly worried (if you are) about the threat of the triumph of “democratic socialism” in America. You see, it’s already here, and has been for quite a while. Back in the mid-1940s, the classical liberal author Garet Garrett (1878-1954) penned an essay called “The Revolution Was.” The gist of his argument was that those who feared a coming collectivism and socialism in the post-World War II period failed to appreciate that that revolution had already happened.

Intellectually, the change toward the ideas of collectivism and government planning of our everyday life had occurred in the beginning decades of the 20th century. The climate of opinion had begun to shift away from the limited government and individualist political philosophy upon which the country had been founded and mostly operated during the first century and a quarter of its existence, to a general policy perspective of political paternalism.

Institutionally, the great change had occurred in the 1930s with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. At first, the American economy was changed into a fascist-like planned system, but even after the Supreme Court overturned its core programs in 1935-36, government regulations and redistributive activities continued to transform the United States. Political power was greatly centralized in Washington, D.C. Government taxing and spending increasingly dominated social well-being and took many choices and decisions out of the hands of private consumers and producers.

With the New Deal came a centralization of power in the president as the supreme leader and distributor of government largess, which brought about a significant reduction in the role of both Congress and the state governments. People came to take it for granted that their economic security was dependent upon and could not exist without the paternalistic handouts provided by those in government. (See my article “When the Supreme Court Stopped Economic Fascism in America.”)

As Garet Garrett expressed the outcome of this process:

In the welfare state the government undertakes to see to it that the individual shall be housed and clothed and fed according to a statistical social standard, and that he shall be properly employed and entertained, and in consideration for this security the individual accepts in place of entire freedom a status and a number and submits his life to be minded and directed by an all-responsible government.… A government that had been supported by the people and so controlled by the people became one that supported the people and so controlled them.

Big Government in America

In the current federal-government fiscal year of 2019, Social Security–related spending will be about 25 percent of the budget, with health care–related federal expenditures coming in around 28 percent more of the budget. Net interest on the national debt due to decades of past government borrowing is another 8 percent of the federal budget. So about 60 percent of Uncle Sam’s expenditures in 2019 will be on the core “entitlement” programs and the net interest cost for all those many previous years of budget deficits.

Back in 1969, Social Security and the major federal government health care programs ate up the equivalent of 3.5 percent of that year’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019, they will consume 10.1 percent of GDP, for an almost threefold increase over the last 50 years. The federal government in the fiscal year that began on October 1, 2018, and will end on September 30, 2019, will spend almost $1 out of every $5 in the U.S. economy, or a total of around $4.41 trillion.

The state and local governments in the U.S. will spend, respectively, about $1.8 trillion and $1.99 trillion in 2019, for a combined total amount of government expenditures at all levels of $7.56 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that GDP in 2019 will be $21.5 trillion, which means that government, as a whole, will spend 35 percent of everything produced in the United States.

If that is not already a long way on the road to socialism…

The Changing Meanings and Methods of Socialism

Of course, that raises the question, what is socialism? In the 19th century and through a good part of the 20th century, socialism mostly meant government nationalization of the means of production, with central-planning agencies deciding what got produced, and how and where it was produced, with government distribution of the total output to members of society.

The big dispute among socialists in especially the 20th century was the question of how to bring about such a transformation of society from private ownership and enterprise, to state control and planning. Those who became known as the “communists” insisted that only violent revolution could successfully and completely wrest away the means of production from the exploiting hands of the capitalist owners. Plus, constant vigilance against the danger of anti-socialist counterrevolutions required a one-party dictatorship of the proletariat, with government-directed “re-education” and suppression of all reactionary thought. In the process, between 100 and 150 million people were killed in various ways by such communist regimes in the name of building the bright and beautiful collectivist utopia to come. (See my articles “The Human Cost of Socialism in Power” and “Socialism: Marking a Century of Death and Destruction.”)

Many socialists in the Western democracies rejected this path of terror and outright dictatorship to bring about a socialist system and a planned economy. These “democratic socialists” wanted the same thing — a centrally planned economy with government redistributive programs to ensure “social justice” and economic equality. But they insisted that it could be done more gradually and without violence through democratic elections by winning the majority of the voters over to the socialist ideal. They also stated that while the individual’s economic liberty would be curtailed and in many areas eliminated, there need not be any significant reduction in personal and civil liberties, as traditionally understood.

Thus, the difference between communists and democratic socialists well into the middle decades of the 20th century was not the desired end — a nationalized and centrally planned economy — but the political means to attain that shared vision of the planned society of the future, and what status certain civil and personal liberties would have in the utopia to come.

Socialism Shifts From Planning to the Welfare State

By the 1960s and 1970s, most Western socialist parties had turned away from the idea of a fully centrally planned economy along Soviet-type lines. It did not “deliver the goods” of either a more prosperous or socially egalitarian society. And it came with few personal freedoms or civil rights. Democratic socialists backtracked. They asked, what is it that we desire in a new society? The answer: the end to capitalist exploitation and abuse of workers, and a more equitable distribution of income and wealth for the benefit of all.

The new, modified democratic-socialist ideal became the more extensive and intrusive welfare state with a wider range of government interventions and regulations over the marketplace. Self-interested private enterprise does produce the golden egg of material wealth. But harness those enterprises through government oversight and regulatory policies to ensure fairness for the workers in the marketplace, social safety nets to guarantee everyone economic security, and fiscal policies to not only reduce income inequality but nudge businesses into the directions that those in political office consider better serving of the “public interest” than unrestrained market-driven profit-seeking.

In the United States, after America’s flirtation with economic fascism during the first years of the New Deal between 1933 and 1936, the institutionalized ideal of the regulated economy and the redistributive state became known as the new “liberalism,” rather than socialism. Socialism always had a rather bad name in America, mostly being considered something radical and bomb throwing and advocated by, well, undesirable and subversive foreigners and cultural and ethnic “aliens” attempting to undermine “real” Americanism.

It was said that the new American liberalism merely wanted to fulfill the unfinished tasks of the older, classical liberalism. Nineteenth-century liberalism had only focused on “negative” protections of freedom — that is, on preventing aggressions against life and personal property, and the securing of impartial rule of law with basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, and the voting franchise.

But the new liberalism was meant to complete the freeing of mankind, not just from murderers and thieves, and the corrupt and tyrannical monarchies and aristocracies of the past. What good are these negative freedoms if you do not have enough to eat, or a roof over your head, or a job paying a “living wage,” or security from old age and illness, or educational opportunities, or…?

Was this not what the “good elements” of socialism had always been about: economic justice, fairness, and equality? Wasn’t ending capitalism and establishing socialist central planning merely the means to achieve those ends by substituting the common good and the general welfare over personal and private interest through the institution of private property?

Socialist Ends Through Interventionist-Welfare-Statist Means

But what if these ends can be attained without the social and economic upheaval of totally tearing down the existing institutions of society? What if “private power” can be replaced with “people’s power” through the democratic process? What if the motive of personal gain (which however reluctantly must be accepted as a part of an unchangeable human nature) is redirected within a narrower corridor of fair dealing and producing what “society” really needs through activist and enlightened government policies introduced by those holding political office who truly care for the betterment of humanity?

And what if the excessive wealth unfairly garnished by the wealthy private enterprisers from the workers is taxed away for the social good and the uplifting of the poor, the downtrodden, and the less fortunate in society? What does it matter if these regulations and redistributions are called a new, positive liberalism, or democratic socialism, or the interventionist-welfare state, or anything else it might be labeled?

In fact, is it not better to get away from labels that carry misplaced ideological and political baggage? We’re just talking about a fair, just, and good democratic society in which everyone gets a fair deal and a helping hand. Isn’t that what America and real Americanism should be considered to be all about? So don’t confuse this better and more socially just society with Soviet communism, it was said. We don’t have gulags and we respect people’s rights to a wide array of personal freedoms, so what liberty has really been lost? To earn an extra million dollars, or destroy the environment for profit? That isn’t lost liberty; it’s winning a higher freedom and a better well-being for all. Or so it has been argued. (See my articles “Barack Obama and the Meaning of Socialism” and “Obama’s ‘Middle Way’ Between Capitalism and Socialism Means Less Liberty.”)

From Class Conflict to Racial and Gender Warfare

If you oppose these political purposes and programs, you either hate your fellow man, or you are a dupe and a victim of reactionary ideas that are on the “wrong side” of history. The notion that someone might challenge, criticize, and oppose this “leftward” drift in America precisely because of a concern for liberty, prosperity, and justice for all does not fit within the mindset of American modern liberals or democratic socialists.

The only thing that has changed in recent years is that the democratic socialists are increasingly calling for a shift back to forms of traditional economic socialism — that is, centralized planning and control in the name of saving the planet and radical social justice as captured in the recently proposed Green New Deal. If it were to be implemented, what would inevitably accompany centralized planning would be reduced personal freedom, as the command economy supersedes whatever remaining degrees of individual choice exists even in a constrained arena of hampered market activity. Every step in the direction of more and clearer centralized government planning shows the lie to the belief that personal freedom or prosperity can survive to any meaningful degree in real socialism-in-practice.

Overlaid on the usual socialist clichés about class conflict and the rich versus the poor has been added, as well, a darker and potentially more dangerous tribalism that classifies, defines, and wants to dictate government policies on the basis of race and gender. Welcome to America’s democratic-socialist variation on national socialism: Who you are, and what you deserve to get or should be penalized for is determined by your race and gender, and all the “intersectionalities” around and in between.

You are not an individual; you are the race and gender collective to which you have been assigned or to which you “feel” yourself to be a member. Race and gender are considered to be real in determining statuses of privilege and oppression, yet, are also matters of how you think of yourself in your mind.

Here, no doubt, is a dividing line between the older Marxian socialism and America’s new race-and-gender socialism. In the traditional Marxian lexicon of social relationships, one could be loyal to or a traitor against the social class to which “history” had assigned you based on your private ownership or not of the means of production. But in the new world of race and gender socialism, you can be the race or gender with which you identify, or indeed anything in between, as long as it coincides, that is, with certain politically correct understandings of things. The race and gender socialists clearly incorporate an element of the 1960s hippie way of thinking: “It’s all in your head, man.” Reality is what you want it to be, whether you’re high on drugs or not. Just think in an ideologically correct manner. (See my articles “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality” and “An ‘Identity Politics’ Victory Would Mean an End to Liberty.”)

Political Elections Are Conflicts Among Competing Socialisms

So we have entered the new presidential and congressional election cycle for 2020. And it’s all about socialism, not only in the pro or con rhetoric used by those in the Democratic  or Republican parties, but in the substance of what each and every candidate is bringing to the policy table to justify bigger and more intrusive government, to buy votes through the bread and circuses of the modern interventionist-welfare state that is threatened with slouching even more in the direction of “green” forms of old-fashioned government central planning. (See my articles “The Green New Dealers and the New Socialism” and “The Nightmare Fairyland of the Green New Dealers.”)

The classical liberal friend of freedom has this consolation that he knows from sound economic reasoning and the experiences of every socialist-planning episode in the past that it ends in disaster, that at the end of the day socialism fails. So he knows that in the great sweep of history, there is no workable alternative to a competitive, free market economy for the preservation and furtherance of both freedom and prosperity.

But what is also clear is that the friend of freedom has an important task in these events: He must be the voice for explaining not only why the world needs free market liberalism for material betterment, but why it is that human beings should not want governments to dictate, determine, and direct their lives.

In other words, the classical liberal must remake the moral case for individual liberty and the individual rights without which freedom cannot last in the long run – and remake the case for why the paternalism of socialism and the welfare state leaves us less human than we can or should want to be.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

Books by Richard M. Ebeling

Get notified of new articles from Richard M. Ebeling and AIER.