Socialism is perhaps the only ideology that Americans are asked to judge solely based on its “successes.” Considering the massive human suffering that collectivism has inflicted over the past century in nearly every corner of the world, ignoring its most consequential moments seems like an odd way to approach a good-faith debate on the subject.
Yet, after The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig penned a column imploring narrow-minded Western-style capitalist dead-enders to give socialism a spin, she was unhappy with the reaction. Too many critics were pointing to the moral and economic costs of instituting collectivist policies. In a new piece, Bruenig implores critics to make a “good-faith” case when considering socialist “remedies” for the “ongoing failures in the American experiment.” What she meant, and what everyone should have known, was that she was referring to the non-threatening Nordic iteration of socialism.
This is an exceptionally convenient framing of the debate, one that’s been used by fans of the Scandinavian welfare state for decades. It’s tantamount to asking Americans to consider adding a little theocratic monarchy to their liberal democracy because the economies of Oman and Abu Dhabi are doing so well.
Bruenig’s good-faith argument, incidentally, emphasizes the “failures” of capitalism, ignoring its vast and historic successes; and then hitches the case to the roiling anxieties that have sprung up around the election of a single president, Donald Trump. At the same, it demands you disregard Mao, Stalin, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Jong-un, Pol Pot or the dozens of others champions of collectivism — not to mention democratically elected socialists of the Hugo Chávez and Slobodan Milošević variety. Pay no attention to the failed socialist states of Eastern Europe or Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia or South Yemen.
It’s true, of course, if we discount all these people and nations and catastrophes and the starvation and poverty and the shallow graves and mass murder, then yes, there’s probably something of attractive case to be made for instituting fairness by force. And if you completely pry socialism apart for Communism, and act as if one isn’t the outgrowth of other, then yes, a collectivized economy certainly looks more appealing. But there’s no other debate in politics, history or economics that allows for this kind of dispensation. I’m not sure why this one deserves it.
After all, we have plenty of data on the topic. At the height of the socialistic world in 1980, 44.3 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2017, that number was around nine percent. Nearly every nation on earth that has turned away from collectivist economic policies and embraced market-based capitalism has seen the lives of their people improve dramatically.
As for the Nordic welfare state, it’s propped up capitalistic institutions and functions under circumstances that are alien to us. Norway not only has a homogeneous populations, but as Nima Sanandaji — the author of a book that debunks many of the prevailing talking points about the success of Nordic socialism, “Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism,” — points out, Norway has “non-governmental social institutions that are uniquely adapted to the modern world. High levels of trust, a strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that predate the welfare state.”
Perhaps many Americans now think of Oslo rather than Caracas or Pyongyang when socialism comes up. Perhaps this distorted history of socialism — in addition to the expected idealistic attraction to it — has helped popularize the notion at home. Growing up without a Soviet Union and a liberalizing China makes a difference in perception as well. It’s working. Because without super delegates, the United States might have seen the first collectivist candidate leading one of its major parties. Nearly half of American millennials would rather live in a socialist society than a capitalist one, according to YouGov polling data. Millennials polled showed vast ignorance about socialism and communism, with only 71 percent of those asked being able to properly identify communism of socialism correctly.
Of course Bruenig, and most American socialists, aren’t consciously or explicitly “campaigning for genocide” or violence or tyranny. Of course socialistic remedies don’t all turn into tragedies. Of course socialism exists on a spectrum and the Nordic experiment is the most benign version. Bruenig argues that she would “support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor.”
Immunizing the majority of citizens from market forces has never worked in the history of mankind because it’s impossible. In fact, attempting to immunize most people from market forces has never been tried without coercion. But your good intentions don’t give you the right to demand we dismiss a history of socialistic mission creep that most often degenerates into widespread violence and tyranny (at worst) or widespread economic suffering (at best), simply because Nordic nations are an outlier.