Op-Ed: The ‘Magic’ of Buttigiegism
by Leo Morris
“Socialism” has become such a loose term, open to such a variety of interpretations, that people can end up arguing past each other, some of us attacking something we incorrectly think the other side is defending.
Those of us on the attack tend to be thinking of the formal, classical definition in which the state takes over the means of production, which means we focus on the horrible things that happen when that condition is fully met, e.g., Russia, North Korea, Cuba, et al. Those on the defensive tend to be thinking about all the wonderful things government can do for people when a capitalism-socialism hybrid can create a welfare state in which the needy are taken care of.
Too little thought and debate are spent on the line between the two — the hybrid and the real deal — how we get to that line and how we can avoid going over it (if indeed we should avoid it). That is starting to change, and I expect (or at least hope) the discussion will shift more in that direction as the Democratic Party’s pathological collectivism becomes more evident.
Sheri Berman, writing in the Washington Post, is clearly a supporter of this hybrid, at least an apologist for it if not a full-throated cheerleader. (“Communism certainly failed, but social democracy has arguably been the single most successful modern ideology or political movement. Stable European democracies arose after World War II because a social consensus married relatively free markets and private ownership of the means of production with expanded welfare states, progressive taxation and other forms of government intervention in the economy and society.”)
But there is a crucial fact she cannot escape. She writes at one point:
“. . . social democrats have focused on redistributing the fruits of markets and private enterprise rather than abolishing them.” In another: “ . . . many of today’s democratic socialists lack clear plans for what they want to put in capitalism’s place and how this new economic order would generate the growth, efficiency and innovation necessary to achieve redistribution and raise living standards.” And in still another: “ . . . it is surely legitimate to ask advocates of increased government spending how they would pay for these programs.”
In other words, even if she cannot quite bring herself to say the actual words: Capitalism creates wealth; socialism confiscates it and passes it around. This is the quasi- (pseudo-? neo-? fake?) socialist’s dilemma: How to keep slicing up that pie into smaller and smaller pieces and stop before you get to the point where you have no pie left and you have driven off all the people who would create another pie, at which point you would have to back off and give the pie makers a little more leeway or just go all in, bring out the guns and confiscate the bakery.
This might be the most (unintentionally) amusing line in the whole Berman piece: ” . . . advocates of increased government spending.” God almighty, how much higher can it go? I heard Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now a might-be presidential candidate, recently lamenting conservatives’ “limited” concept of freedom that encompasses only freedom “from” things rather than the much more egalitarian, and therefore noble, freedom “for” things.
Wow, all the way back to FDR. Talk about a fresh new concept.
Cutting to the chase, Bermanism, Buttigiegism and their imitators are just LBJ’s Great Society on steroids, which was FDR’s New Deal on steroids. When the quasi-socialists finally comprehend that their labeling is disapproved of by a great majority of Americans, they will scale back and talk about their plans in terms a lot of Americans will like better, which is: More stuff from the government that everybody else is getting too much of that you aren’t getting enough of.
Then the debate will shift, and it won’t be enough for critics to warn about North Korea and Venezuela. We need to be ready to talk about the democratic socialist countries of Western Europe and how they’re reaching the limits of redistribution, how they maintain free markets (in some cases more robust than ours), how they might not even be able to experiment without the defensive umbrella of the United States freeing them of the need for big military budgets, etc., etc.
It would be a big mistake, I think, to dismiss these redistributionists as extremist, fringe-dwelling zealots. Certainly, their pursuit of socialism (as they define it) is emotional rather than intellectual. If that gives you comfort, you have not considered how many elections have been won aiming for people’s hearts rather than their heads.
I find myself trying to clear away all this clutter by reaching back to philosophy, and end up at Plato’s Republic. We could spend hours arguing whether he really advocated a socialist system or was merely deploying a metaphor to describe the components of the individual soul (I have done so and have the scars to prove it), but the fact is that subsequent collectivists (including, surely, Marx) have looked to his writing for guidance. So, I think he at least deserves the title Godfather of Socialism (apologies to Neil Young and grunge).
Plato’s perfect state was complex and centrally directed, depending on a guardian class freed up for the leisurely pursuit of nobler causes by the looked-down-upon but depended-on activities of the grubby merchants who provided the economic wealth for those awful material goods of our daily existence. And it would all work perfectly because at the top was a philosopher king who had both the power to command anything and the wisdom not to abuse that power.
I think all collectivists, whatever they call themselves, whichever particular hybrid they align with, have always been and always will be in search of that perfect being who can protect us and guide us with absolute fairness and equality. Of course, such a being exists only in the philosopher’s mind and can never be found this side of heaven. But the absolute, if unarticulated, belief in the philosopher king remains unshaken.
This nation has never experienced laissez faire capitalism, the perpetual whining about the evils of “unfettered markets” notwithstanding. The whole point of transforming from a confederacy to a federal system was a stronger central government that could, among other things, regulate commerce so that all would have a fair shot at it. Our best regulations have been those that have tried to diffuse power in the marketplace — with things like anti-trust measures and aid to small-business owners — just as the system of checks and balances diffuses power in government. The worst ones have tried to micromanage winners and losers and dictate the minute details of every life.
If Mayor Buttigieg or anyone else can explain how any collectivist system, whether it seeks to destroy capitalism with overwhelming force all at once or gradually over time with ever-expanding redistribution of wealth, can be created without accumulating too much power in too few hands, please, have at it. That is a debate worth having, and one I think we can win. Or else point me to the philosopher king, and I will bow down to him.
That’s what it’s about in the end — more about power than material wealth. Simplistic though it might be, beating a dead horse it surely is, but I say again (and again and again): Government and its accompanying economic system either celebrate the individual or exalt the group. I will choose the individual every time.
Freedom above all. I believe that with every fiber of my being, and I will preach it with my last breath.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.