After decades of trying, Bernie Sanders seems finally to have made the political landscape safe for socialists. Not long ago, calling a politician “socialist” was an insult. Now candidates such as New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez follow Sanders’ lead and identify as such. These self-proclaimed socialists, however, seem to have little understanding of what they advocate. Sanders might be able to make socialism politically safe, but he cannot make socialism sensible.
Sanders’ biggest problem is that he seems not to understand what socialism even is. In a 2015 debate he said, “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway.”
“In Denmark,” he said, “there is a very different understanding of what ‘freedom’ means.” Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen disagreed, pointing out in a speech delivered at Harvard that Sanders missed some important details in his attempt to make America Danish. “I would like to make one thing clear,” Rasmussen said. “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
Sanders has a solid track record for ignoring evidence, and Ocasio-Cortez is following in his footsteps. She recently declared herself “not the expert on geopolitics” — while appearing on national television to discuss geopolitics. And despite studying economics, she remains confused as to how something as simple as unemployment is measured. What neither seems to realize is that they inadvertently make the case not for socialism, but for economic freedom.
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Economic freedom, the ability to engage in transactions free from government interference while simultaneously being protected from fraud, theft, breach of contract and other malfeasance, is at once a measure of limited and of effective government. While there is no perfect way to measure economic freedom, competing methods yield consistently similar results. The most recent of these, the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom, lists the United States as the 18th (out of 180) most economically free country in the world.
This is far short of the No. 4 ranking the United States held in 2007, the decline from which coincided with a dramatic increase in the scope of the federal government’s power and spending following the housing crash. According to Heritage, the United States ranks 153rd out of 180 for tax burden, 125th for government spending and 129th for the fiscal health of the government. In 2018, the United States ranked 48th for trade freedom, but that was before President Trump’s trade war heated up. We should expect further declines in this area in next year’s report.
But here’s the rub: Democratic socialists in the United States call for us to be more like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Yet two of those countries, Denmark and Sweden, are more economically free than the United States, sitting at 12th and 15th in the Heritage rankings. Though at the bottom of the list for freedom from taxes (180th and 179th), Denmark and Sweden score much higher than the United States for freedom from government spending (13th and 3rd), effectiveness of their judiciary (9th and 5th), and business freedom (3rd and 11th).
Socialism has a consistent track record for any who care to take a sober look. The Soviet Union and Venezuela tried it and disintegrated. China and North Korea tried it and suffered mass starvation. Every country that has ever tried socialism has either retreated toward economic freedom, or has employed mass violence to force its people to remain socialist.
All of this should be perfectly obvious to American socialists, but they are as resistant to history as they are to economics. Consequently, they learn from neither.
If socialist politicians truly cared about improving the lives of the less well-off, they would do everything in their power to unleash the forces of economic freedom, because economic freedom works. No matter how politically safe Sanders and others make socialism, they cannot make socialism work. This is why “socialist” became an insult in the first place.
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona.