Can Socialism Ever Be ‘Democratic’? Here’s What Bernie Sanders Gets Wrong.
Cuba demonstrates why socialism and democracy are simply incompatible.
Over the past few weeks, massive anti-government protests have been raging across Cuba. In response, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said that he was “prepared to do anything” to stop the demonstrations, adding that “We will be battling in the streets.”
Voices from across the political aisle in the United States have come out in support of the protesters and against what many perceive to be repression by Cuba’s Communist government. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that, “All people have the right to protest and to live in a democratic society. I call on the Cuban government to respect opposition rights and refrain from violence.”
By criticizing a socialist regime’s anti-democratic behavior, Sanders seems to be burnishing his credentials as, not just a socialist, but a democratic socialist. Democracy and socialism naturally go hand-in-hand, Sanders insists.
This has been a major rebranding project. Due to its track record, socialism had become associated not with democracy, but with authoritarian regimes like those of Soviet Russia and Communist Cuba. But Sanders and fellow democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez purport to offer a “kinder, gentler” socialism that is compatible with, if not economic freedom, at least “political freedom”: free elections, free political expression, etc.
But not all democratic socialists managed to stay so on-brand regarding Cuba. For example, the Democratic Socialists of America tweeted: “DSA stands with the Cuban people and their Revolution in this moment of unrest.”
At first glance, it may appear that they are supporting the protesters. But their use of capital-R “Revolution” — the same way the Cuban president wrote it — suggests that they are actually supporting the Cuban government as representatives of “the people.”
For the DSA, apparently, what matters most is the permanent Revolution, which means supporting and preserving the guardians of that Revolution: the Communist Party and regime. If safeguarding socialism requires “breaking a few eggs,” then so be it.
Socialism and Democracy
While the Democratic Socialists of America, by throwing democracy under the bus of socialism, are being more hypocritical than Bernie, they are actually being more realistic. The reason is simple: socialism and democracy are incompatible.
Free-market economist Milton Friedman explained why. “It is widely believed,” wrote Friedman in 1961 for The New Individualist Review, “that economic arrangements are one thing and political arrangements another, that any kind of economic arrangement can be associated with any kind of political arrangement. This is the idea that underlies such a term as ‘democratic socialism.’”
But Friedman argued that “‘democratic socialism’ is a contradiction in terms,” explaining that, “there is an intimate connection between economic arrangements and political arrangements, and that only certain combinations are possible.” For political freedom (i.e., democracy), economic arrangements matter a great deal “because of the effect which they have on the concentration or the deconcentration of power.”
“The essence of political freedom,” Friedman wrote, “is the absence of coercion of one man by his fellow men. The fundamental danger to political freedom is the concentration of power. The existence of a large measure of power in the hands of a relatively few individuals enables them to use it to coerce their fellow man.”
The issue is that under socialism — properly defined as the state owning the means of production — it is the central government, not individuals freely exchanging with each other in the market, that determines the allocation of resources. This means that economic power is concentrated among a few people at the top, not diffused among the millions of people making individual economic decisions each day, as it is under a free-market system.
As FEE’s Brad Polumbo noted in The Washington Examiner, such centralization of economic power, “gives that authority enormous leverage it can use to repress personal and political freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, that it would never have in a free market economy.”
This can be seen throughout history. Stalin used his control over the Soviet Union’s food supply to try to starve the Ukrainian people into either submission or oblivion. And today, the Cuban regime is using its economic stranglehold on the country to suppress key personal freedoms — such as the right to protest — as well.
What About Scandinavia?
The counterpoint often raised is that Scandinavian countries, which are alleged to be socialist, are still democratic. But the truth is that those are not actually socialist regimes, as much as Bernie Sanders may want to convince the public that they are. The prime minister of Denmark publicly addressed this, saying “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
As Polumbo explains, “The Scandinavian nations are market-based economies with robust economic freedom, simply with higher taxes and more welfare spending than the United States. In fact, Denmark ranks above the U.S. on the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom index. In terms of actual government control of the economy, the vision embraced by Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and their ilk is actually much more radical than anything found in Scandinavia.”
The Misleading Rhetoric of Socialists
Claiming that Scandinavia is socialist is just one way that socialists mislead people with their rhetoric. The other key way is through using the language of “human rights,” “fairness,” and “equality,” in order to appeal to the egalitarian instincts of young generations.
But the truth is that every time somebody sees the condition of Cuba or the plight of Venezuela, they should understand that those are not examples of regimes straying from the political values that socialism encourages. Rather, they are staying true to them.
As Milton Friedman said over 50 years before the term became fashionable, “‘democratic socialism’ is a contradiction in terms.”
This article was published on July 25, 2021 and is reproduced with permission from FEE, Foundation for Economic Education
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