Taking Socialism Home to Meet Your Parents
So you come home from your first year at college. You wave goodbye to the rear fender of your friend’s beat up 1998 Toyota sedan as it drives away into the distance. You see your parents standing in your doorway smiling proudly, happy to have you back. You walk inside and sit down to a freshly cooked family dinner to reconnect after a year away. Your parents start to ask you about your life, how are the grades, have you locked down a job for the summer yet, do you remember your curfew is still midnight, and for god’s sakes do you have a boyfriend yet? “No,” you reply, no job and no boyfriend yet, but you have started to really like this idea you learned about in your introduction to political theory class; you’ve become a socialist.
Dad dramatically pushes his chair back and storms off to his study to drink scotch straight from the bottle and contemplate where he failed you, while your mother sobs into her apron, and your little brother runs off to alert the neighborhood watch that there’s a dangerous Marxist guerilla living in the area. The white-picket fence has caught on fire and all of the years of wholesome upbringing and money spent on college tuition have gone to waist…or not. Maybe it should not be so shocking that socialism is seeing a resurgence in popularity amongst many young college-age Americans. Now, this is not the socialism of the radical socialism of envisioned by dusty theorists where the government is in direct control of distributing wealth equally to all of its citizen. Instead, this article refers to democratic socialism, which is growing in popularity because it gives the government the tools it needs to administer economic policy and welfare programs, while still maintaining individual rights such as private land ownership and free markets. This allows the enhanced power of the government to be wielded by the larger populace. Indeed, to those who are educated, the ideas that drive socialism are not so foreign or exotic, but are actually reasonable and effective.
Now, in order to evaluate different forms of government, there must be some agreed upon metric by which to do so. For this article, an effective and efficient government is one that can most successfully carry out its laws and directives. Yet this comes with an important caveat, for a truly effective government must also take the best care of its citizens’ needs. In summary, an effective government must be accountable and responsive to its people, while still creating policy that is actually effective at accomplishing a government’s first job—to provide for its citizens—opposed to blindly following every brash impulse of its electorate. While an authoritarian government might be effective, it is not the most humane because large constituency of people are victim to the wants and choices of the small concentration of power in a ruling party or a dictator. A democracy, conversely, while the choices of the electorate might not always be the best or most humane, does have the largest portion of the total populace making the decisions, which is in theory the most humane form of government. Yet that large and theoretically humane electorate is slow to take action and thus is actually not the most responsive or effective in executing its policies. In this article, I posit that a socialist democracy is the best way to execute effective governmental action in the most egalitarian and humanitarian way.
A student of political theory might tell you that an authoritarian or autocratic government is one of the most effective at just directly carrying out its directives. In terms of the economy, a government that does not have to worry about any opposition, nor any approval, can make the changes it decides are the most beneficial for itself much more quickly than if it had to go through more widely accepted democratic routes. While other nations may make economic success more difficult for autocratic governments by punishing them for their system of rule, case in point the embargos that stood for decades against Cuba, authoritarian governments are some of the most capable in terms of implementing their own policy within the confines of their own economy. When speaking about economic development, Modernization theory puts forward the idea that democracy was something for rich and developed nations, and in order to achieve that affluence other less-developed nations had to go through a period of non-democratic rule. Indeed, this idea is supported by London School of Economics professors Timothy Besley and Masayuki Kudamatsu, who illustrate it thus:
[A]utocratic government is not always a disaster in economic terms. Indeed, throughout history there has been growth and development in autocratic systems of government. For example, the British industrial revolution predates the introduction of free and fair elections with mass participation. Modern China is also a case in point with a spectacular growth performance in a non-democratic setting.
The example of modern China is especially pertinent here, for many other countries in Southeast Asia—Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore just to name a few—all experienced incredible economic growth and success under military dictatorships similar to that experienced by China under single party, autocratic rule. This is because of how efficiently they are able to administer their economic policy. Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati is quoted by G. William Dick to say that “No policy of economic development can be carried out unless the government has the capacity to adhere to it […] Quite often, however, democratic governments lose equanimity and determination in the face of opposition.” Yet, the ability to effectively orchestrate policy comes at a price, for few would disagree that authoritarian or autocratic systems are not the most beneficial to the average citizen, thus violating our second rule for effective governance. In China, the economic growth that the single-party government has fostered has not equally benefitted all of its subjects: the elite have become richer and the wealth is not shared equally. This leads us to one alternative to an authoritarian system: democracy.
Yet while democracies are typically far better for all of their constituents in terms of holding their governing figures accountable to the populace, the question remains: can they achieve the same economic success as authoritarian systems? As NYU professor Adam Przeworski notes, “The reason everyone opts for democracy in affluent societies is that too much is at stake in turning against it” because the alternative is so much worse for the average citizen, especially those not aligned with the ruling party. Furthermore, it is true that, as Pranab Bardhan says in the Financial Times, “Democracies are better able to avoid catastrophic mistakes, (such as China’s […] massive mayhem in the […] Cultural Revolution), and have greater healing powers after difficult times. Democracies also experience more intense pressure to share the benefits of development among the people, thus making it sustainable.”
In essence, Bardhan is saying that democracies avoid dangerous blunders because all decisions must first come from the people or those who they elect to represent them. Yet while it might be better for the average citizen in terms of sharing the wealth, a democracy can prove to be painfully slow and inefficient when it comes to deciding upon and administering economic policy. One needs only to look at the struggle the American government goes through every year to pass a budget to simply keep itself operating, and the number of times it has shut itself down due to partisan differences, to see how cumbersome and lethargic a democracy such as our own can be. As Timothy Besley and Stephen Coate posit in the American Economic Review, “[W]hile political equilibrium does satisfy a certain efficiency property, this does not imply that policies are efficient according to standard economic criteria,” for even if we do manage to agree on an economic policy, there is no guarantee that all of the concessions made to reach that agreement have not stripped the policy of all actual effectiveness. This leaves us with one essential question: how do we maintain the economic efficiency of an autocratic government while imparting the social equity of a democratic one?
Our answer lies back in that one dirty word—socialism. A socialist government has a large federal government empowered by its electorate to be able to more directly implement its economic policies, while giving the fruits of its prosperity to its citizens equally instead of having it funneled directly to the top as an authoritarian system would. Cedric Muhammad of Forbes put it eloquently when he said of socialism that
[a] socialist system that is working well is one that is fully deploying the nation’s resources through a central plan that has the approval of the people. It would be superior to a capitalist system that is working so poorly that its adherents must find excuses for mass unemployment, widely diverging income classes, and deepening social pathologies.
Indeed, it is the effective implementation that is the crux of what makes democratic socialism the best choice for America. In post-WWII America, we had a massively powerful federal government that was able to capitalize on the economic success that the nation was experiencing and return it to the people in terms of social welfare programs. This union of the ability of the government to make decisive and responsive economic actions while still having a government by and for the people that makes socialism such a potent and attractive form of governance. I’ll leave you with another quote from Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University: “Another advantage of the socialist countries is their passionate conviction and dedication to the objective of economic growth—which contrasts visibly with the halting and hesitant beliefs and actions of democracies.” A socialist system gives the government the power it needs to enact successful policy, while still being accountable to and benefitting its people, and that’s an appealing concept.