Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, but efforts to divine just what that amounts to are all over the place. The country is ill-served by the confusion. His candidacy offers an opportunity for a national debate about socialism but his campaign, to say nothing of his entire public life, would be wasted if we go at it without a reasonably clear understanding of what we’re debating.
I’m going to neither defend nor attack Sanders’ socialism. Instead I’m taking him at his word about this and I’ll just try to construe it as plausibly as I can.
Much of the media commentary is unhelpful because it’s focused almost entirely on the institutional landscape historically associated with socialism. For example, the reason that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says Sanders isn’t really a socialist is that he doesn’t support nationalizing industries and enterprises, a centrally planned economy and other such features that Krugman takes as defining.
Instead of concentrating on institutional organization, we’ll get a better handle on Sanders’ beliefs if we consider socialism’s guiding principles. Thinking about the view that socialism rejects is a good way to get at its basic principles.
The classic statement of what socialists oppose is John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Government, to which Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence is heavily indebted. Locke’s Treatise rests on the core belief that we all have a natural, pre-social property right in ourselves. When he says that we own ourselves, that includes all our natural abilities. Since we own ourselves and all our natural gifts, whenever we apply them to something not already owned by someone else, the property right that we have in ourselves extends to whatever we’ve deployed our abilities on.
Locke’s view that we make unowned things our property—he was talking about unclaimed land primarily—by “mixing our labor” with them has come in for a lot of abuse. Putting that aside, the important point here is that on Locke’s story a society’s aggregate wealth can be resolved without remainder ultimately into the holdings of individuals exercising their natural property rights in first acquisition and exchange.
In contrast to this, socialism rests on the principle that a society’s aggregate wealth is a social product that can’t even in theory be resolved into discreet holdings assignable to individuals. Whatever Locke might have thought about some fanciful pre-social world, in the real world people’s individual abilities are a matter of blind luck, a gift of the genetic lottery. And what people make of their gifts is the joint result of countless accidents of history and myriad people’s actions, most of which we can’t possibly disentangle. So if there’s any owner of a society’s aggregate wealth, it can only be the society as a whole. Socialism is it-takes-a-village on steroids.
With that rough distinction between socialism’s guiding principles and its natural rights counterpart in hand, here’s what makes it so hard to pin Sanders’ socialism down just by surveying his policy proposals.
On the natural rights story, the public sector is a tactical departure from the default private sector populated by all the property-owning wealth creators. Abraham Lincoln, free-labor Whig turned Republican, expressed this view succinctly when he said, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities.”
On socialist communitarian principles, the positions of the public and private sectors are exactly reversed. It’s the private sector that’s the tactical departure from the default public sector where the machinery for allocating the society’s common holdings resides and operates.
Leaving aside the most doctrinaire expressions of the two competing principles, like the former Soviet Union, on the one hand, and our Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, on the other, historically there’s been a lot of overlap between socialist societies and ones based on some concept of individual natural property rights. America didn’t become a socialist society when the excesses of the Robber Barons yielded to the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society. We’ve never fully abandoned the Jeffersonian belief in unalienable rights bestowed on us by our Creator. Nor do socialist societies with heavy tax burdens and generous publicly funded benefits abandon their principles when they embrace market economies permitting brain surgeons greater earning power than chimney sweeps.
Focusing on these basic principles instead of institutional organization helps clear up at least two features of Sanders’ position.
First, he’s been pretty unforthcoming about the cost of his policy proposals, and doesn’t flinch at estimates as high as $60 trillion over ten years. Nor does he seem troubled when his halfhearted attempts to explain where all that money would come are easily picked apart. That suggests that he doesn’t think of enlarging the public sector to a degree rarely seen in our history as reaching into people’s pockets for money that belongs to them to pay for his initiatives. To his mind, it’s just reallocating social wealth that at the moment is very badly distributed. Since society’s aggregate wealth is the social product of the society as a whole, society, through the political process, gets to funnel it into whatever purposes it deems worthy. And as long as the political process is fair and transparent, nobody can claim an invasion of their extra-social, natural property rights, since there aren’t any.
Second, this story helps makes sense of Sanders’ claim that while none of his proposals are “radical,” enacting them would take a “political revolution.” It’s only in a global context that they’re not radical since other advanced societies accept them. But they are radical in American political culture, insofar as it’s still informed by the natural rights view we inherited from John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. So when Sanders says that America needs a “political revolution,” that can’t mean mere tactical departures from our default natural rights principles. That’s not revolutionary. It must mean discarding those principles in favor of the competing socialist principles. That’s what a real debate about socialism has to be about.