Monday, September 10, 2018

The Intellectual Poverty Of The New Socialists

By Richard A. Epstein

Changes in the language of self-identification give us enormous information about changes in political thought. Consider how the American left labels itself today compared to fifty years ago. Back then, American liberalism stood for the dominance of a mixed economy in which market institutions provided growth: deregulation of the airlines in the 1970s, for example, was no sin. At the same time, the liberal vision promoted political institutions that provided a safety net for Americans in the form of social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. The term “progressive” came to the fore recently with the rise of Barack Obama, signaling a rising dissatisfaction with the status quo ante because of the liberal mainstream’s inability to reduce inequalities of wealth and income while empowering marginalized groups like women and minorities. Yet somehow the sought-after progressive utopia never quite emerged in the Obama years.
Slow economic growth and rising inequality were combined with tense race relations, exemplified by the high profile 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and Michael Brown in 2014.
These events have put establishment Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton on the defensive. Spurred on by that old socialist warhorse, Senator Bernie Sanders, young socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both rising political stars likely to join Congress next year. These new wave socialists will push the Democratic party further to the left with their constant callsfor free and universal healthcare, free college tuition, and guaranteed jobs for all Americans—all paid for in ways yet to be determined.
The New Socialists try of course to distance themselves from the glaring failures of the Old Socialists, who suffered from two incurable vices. First, they ran the economies of such places as Cuba, Venezuela, the Soviet Union, and virtually all of Eastern Europe into the ground. Second, they turned these states into one-party dictatorships governed by police brutality, forced imprisonment for political offenses, and other human rights abuses. When viewing the proposals of the New Socialists, one looks for any kind of explanation for how their proposals for the radical expansion of government control over the economy aimed at mitigating income inequality will protect both personal liberty and economic well-being.
The New Socialists thankfully do not stress the old theme of abolition of private property through the collective ownership of the means of production. So what do they believe? One answer to this question is offered by Professor Corey Robin, a political theorist at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who recently praised the “New Socialism” in the New York Times. He proudly boasts of a major uptick in support for socialist ideals among the young and then seeks to explain the forces that drive their newfound success. In a single sentence: “The argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It is that it makes us unfree.”
Robin reaches that conclusion not by looking at the increasing array of products, and career options made available through the free market. Instead, he invokes the type of dramatic example that Bernie Sanders loves to put forward to explain the need for free public health care. Under the current system, we are told that everyone is beholden to the “boss” at work and to the faceless drones who have the arbitrary power to decide that a particular insurance policy purchased by a mother does not cover her child’s appendectomy. Thus, under capitalism, we all bow and scrape to the almighty boss, knowing, in Robin’s words, that when “my well-being depends on your whim, when basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination.”
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