When WaPo opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig decided to pen an article extolling the virtues of socialism last week it resulted in what should have been some entirely predictable backlash. This ranged from a polite rebuttal from our own Ed Morrissey to a somewhat more acerbic lecture from Ben Shapiro.
Personally, I found Bruenig’s op-ed to be somewhat refreshing, mostly because the majority of liberals (outside of the Berniecrats) usually make a point of at least pretending to shy away from endorsements of outright socialism, all the while pushing for policies which embody that philosophy in all but name. Still, the debate was a healthy one and it seemed as if we could put the socialism monster back into the closet for a while.
So much for that idea. Apparently dissatisfied with the response she received, Bruenig is back again this week with a defense of her defense (so to speak), claiming that everyone was intentionally misunderstanding her noble intentions and arguing in bad faith. After wasting time pretending that her readers have no clue as to what the phrase “in bad faith” means, the author is quick to point out that she never intended to suggest that the United States go the full Karl Marx route or attempt to duplicate the wonderful results being seen in Venezuela today. (Perish the thought.) She instead implies that she was suggesting something more along the lines of Sweden or Denmark, while immediately noting that some of her critics have already ruled out those examples.
I hadn’t named the Nordic countries in my piece, but my opponents were quick to discard them from the conversation. After all, they’re inconvenient when arguing that socialism necessarily means mass murder and famine. “No, Sweden and Denmark aren’t socialist countries,” the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro noted, apropos of nothing, in his piece on my alleged Stalinism, “. . . they’re capitalist countries with redistributionist tendencies.”
I see. Instead, Bruenig insists that those countries are actually the best examples because they have plenty of redistribution without so much of the beheadings, starvation and death camps for political opponents which generally show up in socialist climates. (Emphasis added)
I think it makes sense to think of socialism on a spectrum, with countries and policies being more or less socialist, rather than either/or. It’s fair to say, for example, that single-payer health care is a more socialist policy than private, market-based health care. But that doesn’t mean that single-payer is the most socialist health-care policy one could dream up, nor that any country that uses such a system is de facto socialist.
Ah, so socialism is on a spectrum. You know… like gender. And what she’s positing is a “more or less” argument, implying that we could all benefit from a limited amount of socialist policy without needing to lurch fully into Pol Pot territory. Of course, there’s one problem with a little bit of socialism. It’s very much like being a little bit pregnant.
It’s worth pointing out that I don’t entirely agree with Ben Shapiro when it comes to his views of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (among other European bastions of socialist welfare ideology) as being “capitalist with redistributionist tendencies.” That view is at least half correct, and those nations certainly wear the trappings of capitalism when it suits their purposes and keeps their citizens happy. But underlying all of the satisfied Swedes with their iPhones, blue jeans, Ikea furniture and K-pop dance parties are a couple of instructive realities.
Keep in mind that the government of Norway, as Bruenig herself points out, owns well over half of that nation’s wealth, as well as a significant majority of the major employers who account for the lion’s share of their GDP. Yes, they give away all sorts of pleasing goodies like health care, college educations, childcare and more, but it’s still completely at the discretion of the government, based on both its continued benevolence and ability to pay all the bills. Remember that the government of Norway is funded in large part by oil. And oil production there is owned in the majority by Statoil, which is simply another way of saying the government owns it. They’ve done very well in the oil market to be sure and they share much of that wealth with their populace. But if and when that oil dries up or they start feeling less generous, that’s going to change and the people will have nothing to say about it.
Also, the citizens of Norway enjoy a number of freedoms which remain at the whim of the government. Free speech is given a nod in their constitution, but the government reserves the right to define “hate speech” and imprison people for it. Most of their newspapers are owned by three large media outlets who still maintain close ties to the government media bureau. Many people can own a gun for hunting there, but it’s still only by the consent of the government. The list goes on. The citizens of Norway (as well as Denmark and others) enjoy a lifestyle which mimics a free capitalist society, but only as long as Big Brother continues to behave charitably.
In the United States, we struggle constantly with the balance required to maintain a system of democratic capitalism. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but we somehow manage it. We’ve been dealing with the chore of riding herd over that “little bit of socialism” and our own tendencies toward redistribution since the rise of the Great Society advocates. (And before that as well, to be honest.) Too little and you have people falling through the cracks, perhaps to their death. Too much and you have Venezuela. But the key difference between America and Norway is that it’s the citizens who monitor that balancing act. In Norway, the state will always have the final word. And that’s the part which Ms. Bruenig seems to fail to grasp.