David Bentley Hart recently has written an essay entitled “Socialism Is Not a Scary Word.” He is a distinguished scholar, a terrific writer and masterful debater.
The title is correct in the technical sense. The word itself is not scary. However, the reality of socialism and its history is scary enough to bring on nightmares for those still in contact with reality.
The essay uses a traditional debate in the opening phase: demeaning and mocking your opponent and, more generally, those holding views different from yours. Nearly two centuries ago, Sen. Daniel Webster notably used it in his rebuttal of a speech made by Sen. Robert Hayne, a states’ rights advocate.
Unfortunately, the current essay on socialism never really escapes from this initial mode and becomes preoccupied with mocking those who are suspicious that socialism might not work out so well in our country. It mocks conservative Ben Stein for possessing “the effervescent charm of a despondent tree sloth.” It then blames Stein and the “excitable right” for linking socialism to the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
The linkage, though, is not held only by the excitable right. Hitler was the head of the Nazi government, and Nazi is the abbreviation for “Nationalsozialist” – socialism with a “z.” And Stalin was the head of a “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Socialism, because it destroys competition, was essential to their rise to leadership,
Both Hitler and Stalin were dictators, as was Fidel Castro. Why is it a comic level of excitability, then, to see socialism as a chapter in a book that ends in dictatorship, chaos and impoverishment? The late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, saw Fidel Castro as his role model and socialism as his desired economic system. He succeeded in transforming the most successful economy in South America into a poverty-stricken, barely functional system. According to the essay, though, seeing socialism’s role in today’s chaos in Venezuela is somehow “amusing.”
The essay is correct when it calls Venezuela a “military kleptocracy.” Unfettered capitalism combined with a powerful and ambitious military establishment represent a major threat to democracy, capitalism, freedom, and everything we hold as precious in our lives. In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of what he called the “military-industrial complex” in our country for just that reason.
If you can ignore its ladled-on sarcasm the essay is also right when it discusses health care. It is clear that our present system is broken, but it is far from obvious that the solution is socialized medicine. Part of the problem there is where should the limits of socialized medicine be? Should it control medical schools, practitioners’ incomes, techniques and skill levels, or simply pay the bills?
The United States is a very different country from any other, and what works for Europe may not work satisfactorily here. Some of their ideas don’t even work there anymore as their open borders policy gave them a more diverse population to deal with.
Size is also a factor. There is no country in Europe that has an economy anywhere near the size of ours. It doesn’t make socialism impossible here, but it is a hurdle that must be addressed. The U.S. military, for example, has had many experiences of building and training successful elite, small-unit programs that proved to be disappointing when expanded.
Our government has never demonstrated any talent for managing anything. And since all economic programs and systems break down eventually if relentlessly subjected to poor management, ours would be no exception.
Additionally, socialist programs in the U.S. are, as operations of the federal government, subject to Congress’s penchant for meddling. Our legislative body also can be overly responsive to the media-backed whining industry, and this encourages its worst meddling urges.
Our size, population diversity, and management structure are formidable obstacles to an efficient socialized medicine system, but not unsurmountable if addressed honestly and effectively. And, especially when it comes to health care, capitalism without compassion is not a worthy goal.
Ultimately the essay is disappointing because the mocking seems to take over until it resembles the sad one-liners in the last days of the tired format, unfunny celebrity “roasts” that once filled time on TV.
The definitive work on the general subject, and an excellent starting place, remains Joseph A. Schumpeter’s book, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.” Originally published in 1952, and still in print — which says something by itself — it provides an un-politicized analysis and perspective on how the forces released by those systems interact.
The motto of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, where Dr. Hart is an affiliated scholar, is “Let us engage in discourse that matters.” Good idea. Let us begin.
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