What is Democratic Socialism? Lipstick on a Pig
A new mania has gripped the American left: Democratic socialism. The ideology embraced and popularized by Bernie Sanders has seen rapid growth, predominately among young political actors who hope to fundamentally overhaul the American economic system, but recognize that the traditional “socialist” label only polarizes. So, to dress the dead ideology, they’ve conveniently stuck a loved word — “democratic” — in front of it and have taken their anger to the internet to commence a “political revolution” (whatever that means) one meme at a time. With that said, what is democratic socialism, really?
Even democratic socialists struggle to answer that question. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) lauds “our socialism” as a means to “a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution” of goods, presumably, and “non-oppressive relationships.”
That sounds wonderful until you realize it’s the meaningless collection of buzzwords that drive masters of the English language insane.
What is democratic socialism’s goal and how is it implemented?
What does this mean? How does a government implement the popular control of resources and production?
Herein lies the rub. Democratic socialism organizes around a core belief that the people should control resources and production through democracy. But, at best, this is impossible, and, at worst, it’s a sure road to oppression and tyranny.
Democratic ownership and allocation of resources and production immediately cannot naturally happen because, in a nation of any size, considerable disagreement about the control of resources will arise, making any sort of popular, or democratic, agreement impossible. But that assumes democratic socialists want all individuals to equally participate in incredibly complex decisions, naturally a terrible idea and an impossible feat of coordination.
So perhaps democratic socialists don’t mean an active democratic control but rather democratic control through free and fair elections in which various candidates submit proposals for how state-owned/centralized resources and capital should be distributed among the population. Except this would also fall to pieces immediately.
Minimal-winning coalitions explain why. The theory, introduced by William Riker, contends that any political party or faction would expand to a size just big enough to win an election or ensure passage of a desired bill. Doing so enables the coalitions members to compromise as little as possible.
Take a simplistic example in which a five-member legislature debates a stimulus bill that needs majority support. The legislators have ideal points (the amount of spending they believe to be most effective for the economy) as follows: A) $100 billion, B) $75 billion, C) $60 billion, D) $40 billion, E) $25 billion. Lawmaker A introducers her $100 billion spending bill, but no one signs on. So she proposes an admit to lower spending to $75 billion and lawmaker B then supports the measure. They still need one more to guarantee passage and so offer another amendment bringing the number down to to $60 billion and achieve the minimal winning coalition. If the coalition tried to attract more support, they could only do so by lowing the stimulus and moving the successful package further away from their ideal points. In short, a minimal winning coalition (versus an expansive supermajority) ensures legislation that maximizes ideal points for its members.
Of course, that problem can be alleviated by mandating supermajority support for bill passage, but that moves away from the proclaimed goal of popular control.
This logic extends to any number of issues a polity faces. Coalitions seek maximum benefit even though it my displease others. Consider, too, that across a broad range of issues, some coalition members might care little and simply support the proposals offered by concerned members. Such logrolling (to be a bit unfair) helps establish “long coalitions,” or parties (see “The Party Decides” for an in-depth explanation) that exist to win elections and deliver ideological goals to its constituency without necessarily turning outside of itself for the support needed to pass legislation (action that would necessarily require compromise and thus a deviation from ideal points).
A democratic socialist society in which each election became a referendum on the distribution of society’s resources and goods would naturally incite many arguments about optimization and result in displeasure for some, perhaps many. Any given coalition could become malicious, recognizing that by establishing a minimal winning distributional coalition it could monopolize government resources and simply ignore the needs of its opposition. Democracy and democratic control could actually exacerbate the very inequality against which democratic socialists rail.
So if direct and indirect democratic control won’t work, perhaps DSA members would prefer the traditional socialist central planning in which the state controls the means of production and unelected technocrats distribute goods based either on contribution or need, both of which are purportedly democratic.
Except that’s not democratic and it invites corruption and kleptocracy.
Those are the best case scenarios: It simply doesn’t work and the system collapses or enacts market-based reforms to salvage itself (some argue that democratic socialism embraces the market so long as all needs among the citizenry are met. If we classify those needs as solvable by welfare benefits, we’ve described social democracy, not democratic socialism. Scandinavian countries, heralded as democratic socialist utopias are actually market-based social democracies).
At its worst, the democratic ownership of the resources and production simply invites tyranny. Democracies already invite corrupt actors who seek, largely through democratic means, to assume and consolidate power for their own vanity or profit. Add to that natural incentive borne from the inherent corruption of humankind the spoils of state-owned resources, and demagogues have every incentive to gain power no matter the cost because its payoffs are so high. Controlling the means of production means controlling society. The leader and her political party can reward loyalty while punishing opponents into poverty. They can skim from the state and, by starving opposition of economic life, nip their ability to meaningfully compete in elections.
Democratic socialism’s implementation by any of the means outlined above simply enables and invites tyranny through centralized economic control.
So, what is democratic socialism?
In short, a disaster waiting to happen. The ideology relies on lofty dreams that ignore human reality, as evidenced by the entirety of our history. It assumes a level of beneficence amongst all people that simply does not exist and dreams of utopia without outlining the steps needed to get there. Like any fairytale, it arouses the imagination, but could never be implemented.
What is democratic socialism? A resuscitation of a failed ideology that either could never exist or, if brought into existence, would quickly devolve into tyranny.