What Conservatives Believe: Life, Liberty, & that Other Thing – Part II
Updated: Jun 20
“Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In Part I of this series we discussed capitalism as the ideal protector of an individual’s natural right to the pursuit of property. We also touched on the competing economic system of socialism. If you’re reading this series for the first time be sure and check out Part I.
How Do You Take Your Socialism? Latino or Scandinavian?
In Part I I used the term socialist to describe someone who advocates the means of production belong to the state as opposed to the individual. In other words, companies are nationalized and controlled by the state, regulating everything from how much a company will produce to how much it must pay its workers. While this may accurately describe classical socialism advocated by the likes of Marx, the Castro brothers, Mao, and the like, it doesn’t encompass everyone claiming the socialist moniker.
When asked in the Democratic presidential debates of 2016 whether the heavy-handed socialism of Latin American strongmen regimes was what we could expect from a Bernie Sanders administration, Sanders assured the audience his would be a kinder, gentler approach:
“When I talk about democratic socialist, you know what I'm talking about? Social Security, one of the most popular and important programs in this country, developed by FDR to give dignity and security to seniors…When I talk about democratic socialist, I am talking about Medicare, a single payer health care system for the elderly. And, in my view, we should expand that concept to all people. I believe that everybody in this country should be entitled to health care as a right…When I talk about democratic socialist, I'm not looking at Venezuela. I'm not looking at Cuba. I'm looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
Sanders’ distinction is important. The socialism of these Latino and Scandinavian countries differ radically in terms of human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and overall quality of life. Whereas those unfortunate enough to be imprisoned under Latino socialism often risk their lives to escape to a country like ours, progressives like Sanders are fond of pointing out that, by some measurements, the quality of life under Scandinavian socialism is actually better than ours. One of the primary differences between the two is this idea of the means of production. Latino socialism is often most similar to the sort of socialism found in the old Soviet Union: the state controls everything—dictates every output, sets every salary—they own everything. Under Scandinavian socialism, however, the state doesn’t own all the companies; but they do levy astoundingly high taxes. These high taxes provide the revenue necessary to run the sort of cradle-to-grave social programs indicative of a socialist state.
Denmark and Sweden don’t imprison people for making careless statements about the state. They don’t engage in provocative talk about insurrections and revolutions in other countries. They are the kinder, gentler variety of socialism. They are proud of a system that seeks to level all inequalities into one happy utopia. And it should be acknowledged that, for these reasons, they are less of a threat and less intolerable to the conservative than their Latino counterparts. Nevertheless, the conservative believes they have failed at perfecting what Communist and socialist and progressive regimes have been striving to “get right” for more than a century. Any society that treats materialism as humanity’s highest aspirations is destined to fail, as Mark Steyn eloquently argues in his book America Alone. It remains to be seen what sort of expiration date inflicts the materialistic utopias of Western Europe.
It should be noted that calls for the United States to become more like Sweden and Denmark are a bit like suggesting to pessimists they should try being optimists for a while and see how they like it. There are structural, cultural, religious, and historical reasons why such a transition is profoundly unlikely. Scandinavian culture is far more cohesive, homogenous, and distinct from American culture. Their population is considerably smaller, they are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and—perhaps most importantly—they have us to thank for providing an effective national defense rather than having to “pay their fair share” as president Trump would put it. This is a subject I’d like to explore in more depth in a future post, but, to summarize, our country doesn’t meet the basic qualifications to be like a Scandinavian socialist state. And, as a conservative, I believe that’s a good thing.
Millennials and Socialism
Having been burned by the Great Recession and the housing market meltdown of the late 2000s, Millennials have eyed capitalism with unprecedented suspicion or outright hostility. To be fair, the advents of 2008 had far more to do with crony capitalism than the competitive capitalism discussed in part I. What led up to the Great Recession was a combination of insufficient regulations covering an increasingly complex web of derivative/investment instruments on Wall Street and a political culture that encouraged banks to make home loans to people who couldn’t reasonably have been expected to repay them on Main Street (or, as Steve Carell’s character in The Big Short summarized it: “An atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity”).
Regardless, capitalism has shouldered a large portion of the blame for the misery that followed 2008, especially among Millennials. For most of us Millennials, we’d spent our lives up to that point playing by the “rules” society had communicated to us—amassing loads of debt in degrees that we were assured would reap dividends once we entered the workforce, only to find that, by the time we came of age, greedy capitalists had screwed it all up and there were no jobs to be had. Is it any wonder then that Gallup finds 70% of young Americans are ready for a socialist president. To put that in perspective, nearly half of all Americans in that same poll said they would not vote for a “socialist” presidential candidate at all. In fact, self-proclaimed socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won more votes among young Americans than both Trump and Clinton—by a wide margin.
Many older Americans—those who lived through the Cold War—stand aghast when confronted by socialist dogma. They may treat the battle between these competing economic systems as a war that was won years ago. Case closed. To offer socialism as an alternative to our present system seems to them about as harebrained as insisting the South will rise again. Some subjects—right or wrong—are considered so “settled” that those who take an opposing view are mocked for questioning “facts” or “science” or “reality.” People like climate change skeptics, anti-vaxxers, holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, Intelligent Design advocates, anti-GMO demonstrators, and Birthers spring to mind. They may say people who talk as if socialism were the answer to our present dilemmas aren’t to be taken seriously. They should be shunned, pitied, humiliated.
But the Millennials I’ve encountered who engage in such talks are sincere, articulate, reasonably intelligent, and quite serious. Their concerns should be met with genuine sincerity and gravity. If some future generation were to question whether or not Hitler was wrongly vilified or whether women’s suffrage was such a good idea after all, it would behoove us to respond in a winsome and respectful manner. Ridicule will not win converts. The idea that socialism has something better to offer than the free enterprise system may be laughable to those who came of age during the Cold War when the effects of socialism were profoundly evident. But mocking those asking sincere questions risks losing a generation to a system our ancestors fought tirelessly against.
What Exactly is the Difference between a Socialist and a Progressive Democrat?
Shortly before resigning her position as the Chair of the Democrat Party due to damning e-mails that appeared to show coordinated efforts to help Hillary Clinton at the expense of her rivals in the Democratic primaries, Debbie Wasserman Schultz famously had a great deal of difficulty answering what should have been a simple question for someone who is an authority on the Democratic Party. Namely: What is the difference between a socialist and a Democrat? She first fumbled through a “response” on Hardball, then again deflected on Meet the Press when given a second opportunity to reply.
Granted, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, as socialism is a political ideology that advocates a specific economic system, whereas Democrats are a political party that offer policies that can evolve significantly over time. Nevertheless, to the extent it’s fair to label the Democratic party as the progressive party, some comparisons can be made.
As was noted in Part I, classical socialists advocate the means of production operate under public-political ownership where all legal production and distribution decisions are made by the government. Many a progressive-Democrat will insist he wants nothing to do with such a system that limits freedom to this extent. The Philosophical Conservative blog offers some invaluable insight on this point:
“To truly own a particular thing one must also have control over what it yields. Therefore, the progressive is willing to take things a step further and assert that he also does not believe that government should have overall control over the economy, but only the degree of control necessary to assure the existence of "social justice". This position however is only distinguishable from the other to the extent that the Progressive is able to precisely define at what point he is no longer willing to curb economic freedom in the pursuit of this “social justice”.”
I talked a great deal about the conservative’s views on “social justice” here. To summarize, the conservative is often doggedly pessimistic about governmental efforts to right some perceived social injustice and provide for equality. The conservative is also wary of governmental intervention into the free market because he believes that, where it may succeed at providing some equality, it most likely will do so at the expense of the economy overall.
But if “social justice” is a just cause, what sense does it make to speak of constraints on justice? We all agree that murder is unjust. It matters not whether one or many people have been murdered, it is still an injustice. Now, let’s suppose a “social injustice” progressives wish to correct—say, the economic disparity between whites and blacks—requires some governmental control of the free market. The progressive may say that he is only willing to tolerate intervention up to the point the alleged social injustice is corrected. He’s not asking for the government to seize the means of production or nationalize businesses or imprison dissenters. He’s merely asking that the government provide some “equality” by adequately funding efforts to provide jobs or welfare or proper healthcare or education to disadvantaged blacks. He’s merely asking for the haves to pay for the have nots’ benefits.
But how much taxation is necessary for that to happen? Should 10% of the wealth of the privileged by confiscated to provide for some politician’s vision of fairness? Should it be 50%? If social justice demands that the poor have access to better healthcare, precisely how much better must that healthcare be? Is everyone entitled to the level of healthcare currently only affordable to the super-wealthy? Why should the poor have to suffer with subpar healthcare? How would one measure the complexities of the healthcare system? If social justice demands that colleges and universities graduate minority students proportionally with the percentage of the population they make up, how far should we go to deny access to higher education for privileged whites? At what point have we wandered back into the murky waters of classical socialism? The progressive’s ideology, it would seem, has inadvertently given a free pass to socialistic ideas with no discernible limits. The Philosophical Conservative blog continues:
"The problem is that in a great deal of Liberal writing "social justice" is portrayed as an ultimate value, and if this is so, in principle there can be no lengths too great (if necessary) for the realization of this value. If he wishes to hold on to “social justice” as an ultimate value, his only option is to attempt to insist that total economic control will not be necessary in order to achieve his aims. The question however is how does he know this? If he does not yet himself adequately comprehend what his efforts toward “social justice” will require (and most Progressives will freely concede this, trusting in political innovation and discovery to pave the way) and at the same time he must still achieve this ultimate moral good, how can he exclude the possibility that he may eventually have to place the majority of economic power into the hands of the state? The fact that he may not do so all at once is irrelevant. That which is accomplished incrementally is accomplished nonetheless. The only assurance that the Liberal-Progressive can give is to precisely delineate both for himself and for others, how far he is willing to go, and at what exact point he is no longer willing to curb human economic freedom. To the extent that any Liberal-Progressive is unwilling to do this, we must be unwilling to grant him that distinction he insists upon between himself and the Socialist. Socialism is not an insult or an epithet; it is simply an economic system."
Because the nature of progressivism is itself progressive, that is evolving, what once may have only been the philosophical groundwork that paved the way for benevolent interventions in the free market has given way to ever-increasing intrusions. The great social revolutions that began in the 1960s have not resulted in social progressives expressing satisfactions that their work is done. The remarkable achievements of the LGBTQ community in legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States has resulted in a redoubling of their efforts at making life more amicable for the transgendered. At each successive progression the progressive demands more intervention, more intrusion, more weakening of the free market.
In Part III we’ll turn our attention to the difference between the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, and the idea that people have a right to something as nebulous as free healthcare.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his manifesto—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’d like to know what it means to be a conservative without having to read an academic paper.