What is Democratic Socialism?

What is Democratic Socialism?

This is a question which has never been more pertinent in a US presidential election cycle with the prominence of democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, enjoying an unprecedented look as the Democratic Party nomination. It is also worth noting that the front runner Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has done little to distance herself from this “Democratic Socialism” label. So in order for the American public to make an informed choice, this term needs to be defined in a specific way.

Now, if Facebook memes are your main source of political information, you might start to get the impression that democratic socialism is a calmer and wiser version of the socialism which decimated the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and any other society which tried a centrally planned economy. In a way, that’s true, but you might also get the impression (if you use Occupy Democrats as your guide) that democratic socialism is not a strange concept at all to America and that America has used democratic socialistic ideas many times during our existence. At best this sentence is misleading if not an outright falsehood.

Let’s start with a definition. Democratic Socialism (or Multi-Party Socialism) is a governmental system which uses taxes as a means of controlling the economy, especially by redistributing tax dollars in ways that benefit society’s less well-off. The hallmark of democratic socialism is a mixed economy–that is, an economy which allows free enterprise to exist but uses an aggressive and big government mindset to own and manage certain industries and create a massive safety net for the entire nation. The safety net might include single-payer healthcare, (Canada, UK) tax payer funded education (Denmark), housing, job training, and many other benefits. (You’ll already notice that I didn’t use the word “free” as Bernie Sanders uses it. That is, “free higher education” – “free healthcare” because there’s no such thing as free higher education. It should be correctly labeled as tax-payer funded higher education.)

Supposedly, if you google “75 ways that America is a socialist country” you’ll have your “proof” that America is already socialist and that this movement towards Democratic Socialism is nothing to be alarmed about. But this thought is disingenuous on many levels. The first and the easiest one to understand being that even if America is socialistic in 75 ways, it doesn’t mean that America would be better if it was socialistic in 76 ways or that America would be worse if it was socialistic in 74 ways, or in five ways. This is no way to gauge whether a country qualifies as a democratic socialist country or not.

The United States is only “socialist” in the sense that any nation with a democratic or republican style government naturally will have certain “social” aspects to the way they govern. Every country is socialist to a degree. If it wasn’t, it would be called anarchy. The theory of American democracy comes from what is called the Social Contract Theory. In this theory of how governments formed, people willingly and voluntarily banded together to form a government for the good of their community. It wasn’t through compulsion. This means that people willingly give up certain rights for the good of everyone so the rule of law and order could reign supreme. This way, the government is derived by the people, and the rights given are also agreed upon by the people, not the government. By extension, the social contract theory may create many areas within society which uses a more socialistic approach to maintain order or to accomplish large tasks which they couldn’t accomplish on their own–building roads, building school systems, and using government to provide for the needy. All of these are legitimate and useful ways for governments espousing democracy to act. But these in themselves do not make a country a democratic socialistic country. And just because a country has socialist elements doesn’t mean that democratic socialism would make it even better.

America has long espoused a robust market economy, with the role of government as that of a regulator, but not a major portion of the country’s economic output. This is in stark contrast with a mixed economy where the government plays a much larger role in the economy. America’s market-economy-past has had both its triumphs and failures. America became an unprecedented economic engine from the late 19th century through the 20th century. Innovation and limited government oversight drove economic progress. Unfortunately, in the midst of this tremendous growth, many workers, imigrants, and poor members of society were left behind, forcing the government to step in and rightfully regulate the playing field so free competition could survive and workers could make a fair wage in a safe working environment. These changes started in the early 20th century and ebbed and flowed in various degrees over the next few decades, until the Franklin Roosevelt administration drastically expanded the reach of government as a means of combating the Great Depression.

Since the 1930s, the general trend of American economics has been larger government oversight and regulation, and an ever-expanding federal government which controls more and more of the economic system. And while America still has a market economy today, it has gradually moved closer to a more mixed economy in various areas. It has also expanded America’s safety net to unprecedented heights.

Yes, it’s not just Canada that has a safety net. America has a huge one. Massive, really, and this reality often gets lost in the midst of political soundbites on TV. But think about these examples:

  • Fifty million Americans are receiving some kind of federal government assistance. That’s 1 in 6 people.
  • A typical family earning less than approximately $40,000 a year pays no federal income tax. None. But, if they have children or are in other types of circumstances, they will even GET money back from the government. (child tax credit) Repeat, they will get a tax credit even though they didn’t owe any taxes. These can add up to thousands of dollars.
  • Millions of American students receive Pell Grants and federally backed school loans.
  • Most poorer families can qualify for free health insurance, and this did not start with Obamacare. Many states have for years offered tax-payer funded healthcare to the neediest of citizens.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the services that the government supplies in 2016. What about tax rates? Democratic socialism demands high taxes from their citizens. Where does America currently stand in that regard? Do the rich “pay their fair share” as the democratic candidates like to say?

  • The highest tax bracket for 2015 is 39.6% (this of course does not include state income tax, social security, medicare, capital gains, or the local tax you pay at stores) Meaning that the highest earners in America easily pay more than 50% of their income in taxes, while, if I can remind you all again, the lowest age earners pay no federal or state income tax (though everyone pays the SS, medicare, etc…)

Is a 50% tax for the rich fair? That’s up for you to decide.

If all of this happens under a MARKET economy, then what exactly are the Democratic Socialists wanting?

  • Democratic Socialists want a mixed economy. That means more government control over industry – especially the banking industry.
  • They want to drastically increase tax rates, especially on the rich – 70% is not an uncommon goal. Others have espoused a top tax rate of 90% for the richest of Americans after their income hits a certain threshold. While these sounds extreme, it’s not unprecedented, as this was, believe it or not, the highest tax rate under the Eisenhower administration.
  • They want to institute carbon credits to squeeze the producers of fossil fuels.

This is just a small list of what Democratic Socialists want. The problem is, this vision is far removed from the vision of the founding fathers because of one crucial ideal: liberty. Democratic socialism, by its nature, limits liberty. As has been said, “The bigger the government, the smaller the individual.”

One of the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution is limited government. The founders were expressly concerned with a government which would have too much say in their lives, so the powers of the federal government are expressed powers – meaning those specifically written in the constitution. If they aren’t listed, the government doesn’t have that power. Likewise, the rights of citizens were specifically put in the constitution to limit the government’s ability to curtail individual freedom.

One more thing about freedom. We have in America the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Equality. American ideals were never centered around equality but has held liberty to be more important than equality. Equality is a European value. (See French Revolution.) In this way, Democratic Socialism is historically not an American value. We have always espoused the individual. We have upheld personal responsibility. We have never wanted the government to tell us what to do, what we can make, what field of study we should focus on, or how successful we can become. We have always been innovators, dreamers, individuals searching for happiness the way we see fit. Our equality comes from the equality of opportunity – the idea that if you work hard enough in America and show some grit, then you can do what you love, live where you want, and espouse to dreams with no limits. These are all goals which conflict with democratic socialism in one way or another.

So that’s where we’ve come from. It’s up to the American people to decide whether we want to change our priorities as a nation, or to uphold what the Founding Fathers held dear: freedom from an overreaching government.

That’s my take. What’s yours?


5 responses to “What is Democratic Socialism?”

  1. An interesting perspective. Now just for the sake of comparison, French public spending is roughly 50% of GDP. Which puts it at roughly 1000 billion Euros, about 1,100-1,200 million dollars. About the amount of US Federal budget for a population of 60 miilons. Compare that to US population. Only 5 million people are private sector employees, the rest of the population are civil servants, unemployed and retired… 😦

  2. Very well written and logical. Just seems a tad oversimplified. The founding fathers (no mothers) had a very limited view of whom should enjoy liberty and what liberties should be for even those qualifying. They weren’t too interested in slaves bearing arms. Is education a privilege or a liberty? Is an educated population including women, all races, immigrants even a positive thing for the country? Health care wasn’t much of an issue….there wasn’t any to speak of. Anyway……not apples to apples.

    • True, not a direct comparison because of how complicated modern life has become. Just laying out some principles that are easily seen in American history. Thanks for the comment.

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