Don’t normalize socialism

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Sen. Bernie Sanders’s overwhelming success in the Nevada caucuses makes him the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic Party nomination. That Sanders (I-Vt.) is not even officially a member of the party — and is an unapologetic “democratic socialist” — seems to be less noteworthy with the passing of each news cycle.

Considerable handwringing ensued (and continues) following the election of President Trump in 2016, with respect to his “norm-breaking” behavior. Specifically, the often crass and overly direct manner in which he expresses himself has been characterized as demeaning the office of the presidency, and that of our political culture more generally, and opinion leaders (mostly, though not exclusively, of the left) have demanded that such behavior not be “normalized.” Of course, what is deemed “dignified,” “mannerly” or even “normal” is typically in the eye of the beholder and changes with the times (readers of a certain age might recall how scandalous it was that President Kennedy chose not to wear a top hat for the entirety of his inauguration in 1960). 

However odious Trump’s conduct might be to some, the prospect of it being “normalized” in comparison to the risk of “normalizing” Sanders’s political ideals at the ballot box seems like pretty small beer. Much will be done in this election cycle to obfuscate that the Sanders ascendancy represents a potential tectonic change in American society and to our economy.

Both ends of the political spectrum are, and/or will be, guilty of blurring the lines of how radical Sanders’s presidential campaign — and its unabashed promotion of collectivist principles — truly is. Today’s Democratic Party, along with much of the center-left establishment, is so infected with “Trump Derangement Syndrome” that members will engage in whatever delusional ideological gymnastics are required to rationalize their support for a Sanders candidacy. Just this past weekend, economist Paul Krugman tweeted that “a Sanders administration would probably leave center-left policy wonks like me out in the cold, at least initially … (b)ut this is no time for self-indulgence and ego trips… (F)reedom is on the line.”

At the same time, Republicans over the years have so frequently cried wolf about “creeping socialism” in opposing Democratic policies that now, with the real wolf of socialism at the door, such claims appear less credible — or perhaps just less scary. Past political battles over the size of the federal government as a percentage of GDP, the allocation of the federal tax burden, and the composition of the welfare state, whatever their partisan merits, never were about “socialism,” as right-leaning partisans often alleged. The U.S. has been what economists would call a “mixed economy” — defined as one combining market forces with state intervention in the form of regulation, macroeconomic policies and social welfare initiatives aimed at improving market outcomes — since at least the time of the New Deal.

While there undoubtedly has been an inexorable leftward trend in American public policy since the Progressive era of the early 20th century, this trend largely has been incremental in nature and has advanced in fits and starts, with the exception of the New Deal. The New Deal was implemented during the Great Depression and represented a step-change in governmental involvement in the economy in response to what was believed to be an existential crisis.

In 1925, U.S. federal government spending as a share of GDP was less than 4 percent; in 1955, by which time the distortions of World War II-related spending had abated, it was 17 percent.  While there have been periods of consolidation and even slight rollback in federal spending since the New Deal (even as state and local spending were also rising), there never has been a true reversal of the New Deal’s impact on the U.S. economy, and it is the seminal event in the growth of government’s place in American life.

Normalizing socialism in the American political context, with the Sanders campaign as its vehicle, risks shifting the Overton window such that a further massive expansion of governmental intervention in the American economy becomes not only possible, but acceptable.  Sanders’s platform calls for “Medicare for All,” embraces the Green New Deal, offers tuition- and debt-free public college education, and proposes wholesale student loan debt cancellation, among other expansive — and expensive — policies. Some estimates suggest the cost of these policies could be as high as $100 trillion over the next 10 years, on top of approximately $60 billion already expected to be spent at the federal level during this timeframe.  

When added to state and local spending, this would raise the total cost of government to roughly 70 percent of GDP, compared to a share in the mid-30s today; even the European social democracies that Sanders lauds only spend in the range of 45-55 percent of GDP. An intellectually dishonest media, as mouthpieces for the Democratic Party, may try to spin the Sanders candidacy as the lesser of two evils, but the degree to which his policies would transform our economy, polity and society dwarfs the New Deal, Great Society and most certainly anything associated with President Trump, in both word and deed.

The aftermath of the passage of New Deal programs illustrates why it is critical to not normalize socialism. No serious attempts were made to overturn the New Deal consensus following Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, much less 50 or more years later under various “conservative/free market” Republican presidents. Once such policies are “uncorked,” as it were, they risk becoming irreversible.

The reasons for a newfound acceptance of socialism by the Democratic primary electorate — a narrow swath of the broader polity, granted — is an exegesis best left to another day, but arguably much blame can be laid at the feet of a public educational system, alongside advocacy journalism and a shallow popular culture, which jointly champion collectivist ideals and actively seek to diminish entrepreneurship and business acumen, work as a measure of self-worth, and wealth creation as a healthy consequence of self-actualization. Such activities are at best seen as inconveniences to be tolerated in service of feeding the ravenous maw of an insatiable welfare state.

So, let this political season do the work in refuting socialism that the civic institutions sitting at the commanding heights of our culture refuse to do. It is a time for all people of good will — conservatives, libertarians, centrists, “Reagan Democrats,” classical liberals, small business people, and freedom-loving rationalists of all stripes — to make not only an economic efficiency argument against socialism, but a moral one as well. The time for believing there is no need to make such arguments has passed, and the battle is now upon us. 

Richard J. Shinder is a financial services executive in New York and founder of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy. In a 25-year Wall Street career, he has worked in various advisory, principal and managerial roles for firms including The Blackstone Group, Goldman Sachs and Perella Weinberg Partners, among others.  

Tags Bernie Sanders Democratic socialism Donald Trump Economic ideologies Socialism Socialist economics Welfare state

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