Donald Trump called Bernie Sanders a “socialist-slash-communist,” proving convincingly that he has no idea what either term means. Senator Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a phrase disconnected from both. Let’s examine some basics.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the term “socialist” means one who advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. It says the term “communist” means one who advocates that all property be owned by the community, and that each person participate according to ability or needs. Socialism and communism are each independent economic theories.
Neither have anything to do with the totalitarian government of the former Soviet Union. For The Donald to call Bernie a “socialist slash communist” is an ad hominem argument intended to arouse visceral feelings towards totalitarian Communism reminiscent of the Cold War. It is baseless slander when applied to Senator Sanders, and should have no place in a legitimate political argument.
While the pure socialist may advocate for government ownership of most business, the democratic socialist does not. With the exception of demanding the abandonment of private ownership of prisons, which was a wrong-headed idea from the outset, and perhaps advocating for the eventual merger of the health insurance industry into a single-payer entity, the democratic socialist appears to accept private ownership of business, provided that the community and the masses are protected by reasonable and effective government regulation.
“Capitalism,” says the OED, means the system where trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Pure capitalism, or laissez faire, means the private ownership without interference or regulation by the government. Under laissez faire, it is only the “private owners” who are in any position to benefit from the economic system. In today’s economy, the “owners” would be the top 2% of us, or perhaps only the top 1%, being those who actually control the resources to push capital, labor and production to their best advantage. The masses, the 98% or 99% of us who do not have this power, would literally be at the mercy of the “owners” under laissez faire.
In the late 1700’s, Adam Smith realized that unrestrained free market capitalism would be intolerable. Smith recognized that if the entirety of the economy was left to vagaries of a market exclusively controlled by the owners, then what he termed the great body of mankind – i.e., the rest of us – would be impacted by “intellectually erosive effects.” He said this was the condition “into which … the great body of the people must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” Thus even Adam Smith felt that in certain circumstances, it was a proper function of government to protect the masses.
The plain fact is that we have not had anything close to laissez faire capitalism in this country from the earliest days of the 1800’s. Certainly beginning with the trust-busting days of Teddy Roosevelt, and continuing to this day we have established an extensive matrix of government regulation to protect most of us from the “intellectually erosive effects” of the unrestrained free market. One might say that our system has evolved into one of regulated capitalism.
What we enjoy from the view on the left is a system of democratic socialism with strong components of regulated capitalism, and a few tendrils reaching towards laissez faire. From the right, the view is of regulated capitalism with a strong dose of democratic socialism, and a few tendrils stretching into classic socialism. Or maybe it is the other way around.
The point is that from wherever we look, we see an amalgam of both economic systems, interwoven, and hopefully taking the best from each. There are considerable differences between regulated capitalism and democratic socialism. In almost every quarter, there is plenty to argue about in the areas of who is entitled to protection and from what, how much is reasonable, whether the involvement is national or best left local, and always, always, how much will it cost and who is to pay.
But certainly we must recognize that these debates are well intentioned, by patriots of good cheer, and are being advanced with honorable motives and a sincere desire for betterment of society. There should be no place here for personal attacks or mean spirited slander.