Well, they’re not really socialists. They’re European-style social democrats, who believe in a robust redistribution of wealth (“from each according to her ability, to each according to his need”) and government control of some of the means of production–like the health care system. The question of how much government should redistribute has been the central argument in American politics since the passage of the graduated income tax in 1913. Even the vast majority of Republicans believe in Social Security and Medicare.
So we’re talking about 50 shades of socialism here, but the gradations are still important. Take health care: Bernie Sanders is proposing socialized medicine, and Hillary Clinton isn’t. The majority of Americans get their health insurance from their employers through private insurance companies. It’s a clunky system, and Sanders wants to eliminate the middlemen–the insurance companies. Clinton believes government should help those who can’t get insurance through their employers–the poor (Medicaid), the working poor (Obamacare), the elderly (Medicare). There couldn’t be a clearer difference between liberalism and socialism, and yet Clinton refused to describe it that way in the Jan. 17 presidential debate; in fact, she empretzeled herself with a weak attack on Sanders, saying his plan would jeopardize the advances that Obamacare has brought. Her campaign has charged that Sanders would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it. (True, but he’d eliminate insurance premiums–a net gain.) In fact, the best argument against Sanders’ health plan is the essential case against socialism–which Clinton’s supporters raised after the debate–and its next of kin, redistributionism: it dampens incentives, which dampens creativity, which leads to poverty. It is the difference between the “fairer” but more lugubrious European economies and our riskier but more dynamic way of doing business. At their best, Democrats are like European conservatives, leaning toward more fairness and wary of government control.