Courtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 25,000 likes and 44,000 shares. This meme points to a litany of items that are supposedly examples of democratic socialism, and gives us an ultimatum. Choose democratic socialism, or give it up! While some of these are stretches at best, other items do deserve some rebuttal.
To properly analyze this claim, we need to keep in mind the correct definition of democratic socialism. It’s not “everything that government has ever been involved with or laid its hands on”. The term has been defined and analyzed here on this site, but a concise definition comes from Wikipedia:
a political system wherein there is democratic control of a socialist economic system
This means a society that is democratically chosen, and the means of production are “collectively owned”, usually by the state. Where private property is either abolished or subservient to public property. When looking at items on the list, we should examine it in two ways:
- Is this item provided through socialist means?
- Must it be provided through socialist means, and/or is it better that it is?
To encompass all government under the banner of democratic socialism is wrong. Government is simply the agency that exercises control over a given area with respect to laws and other programs. More specifically, government is the entity that has a monopoly on the use of force in a given area. How and when this force is used, which rights are respected, and how this entity is funded can vary widely. For example, the fledgling new nation of Liberland in Eastern Europe is trying to set up a society where the limited government is completely run through crowd-funding efforts. Ironically, it’s the neighboring governments that are impeding their progress. To say “all government” is democratic socialism is a non-sequitur.
There are certainly many aspects of the military that are socialist in nature. It’s not privately owned or operated, and it’s generally funded by forced taxation. In some cases, it can even even conscript citizens to serve involuntarily, thereby violating the most sacred property right, one’s life. On the other hand, it gets virtually all of its supplies and equipment from private contractors, and it’s not an example of egalitarian principles, as privates make substantially less than generals. The military is the part of government that often does the most harm and most threatens individual liberty. This has been quite evident throughout history, so it’s not as if armies in general have been positive aspects of civilization that we should be applauding and thanking.
However, a just and free society needs to protect rights, which includes defending its citizens from outside threats, should they exist. In this sense, a military that conducts itself properly is valuable in society. As with the “all government” item above, the types of armed forces a society uses can vary greatly from each other, as can the way it’s funded. An all-volunteer force that is funded without coercive taxation would not be socialist, while a military that drafts its members, and exists by taking other people’s property would be examples of socialism. In this sense, the choice of what to give up is probably not what the meme is getting at!
Airlines are private entities, and clearly not an example of democratic socialism. Most of the infrastructure and airspace is publicly funded and controlled, but it need not be (and largely is not) in a socialist way. In the US, air travel and infrastructure is funded almost completely through user fees by those who use it, not an “each according to his ability, each according to his needs” type system. Fuel taxes, landing fees, gate fees, passenger fees, not to mention sales from concessions, parking and taxis are all used to fund our airports and national airspace system. It’s not only feasible, but likely beneficial for the aviation system to become more privatized. Canada seems quite successful with their private air traffic control system. In the US, airfares have dropped by 50% since deregulation in the 70s. Before that, there was a system where the government controlled which routes could be flown by who, and how much they could charge.
As with air travel, roads can, and should, be paid for by user fees. There are plenty of examples of private roads, including many gated communities, shopping centers, mining and logging roads, as well as toll roads like the Dulles Greenway, which is privately built and operated. There is no reason why the government needs to own and operate the highways, and it could likely be done much more efficiently and better with private companies. A common objection is that highways become a “natural monopoly”, and drivers would be gouged by exorbitant prices because there are no other options. This is not supported by economic analysis, as this paper shows, nor is there an example of this ever happening. Furthermore, state owned roads means state enforcement of rules on those roads. The majority of police interactions (and abuses) initiate from citizens pulled over for traffic violations. Chances are private roads would enforce their rules in less invasive ways.
For more detail, professor Walter Block makes a compelling case for privatized roads in this book, free online.
To say governments are not the best managers of water resources would be putting it mildly. Scandals abound, including millions of fraud and waste in LA, where taxpayer money was spent on steak dinners and trips to Hawaii, among other things. Then there’s Flint, which basically provided lead contaminated water while lying about it to its citizens. The taps from democratic socialist Venezuela have recently turned filthy. Water, like other utilities, are often thought to have the same problem as roads, with the “natural monopoly” rationale used for government takeovers, or granting monopoly rights to one company. This is an economic fallacy, which was exposed in economist Walter J. Primeaux’s book, Direct Utility Competition: The Natural Monopoly Myth with these findings:
- Customers have gained substantial benefits from the competition, compared to cities were there are electric utility monopolies.
- Contrary to natural-monopoly theory, costs are actually lower where there are two firms operating.
- The theory of natural monopoly fails on every count: competition exists, price wars are not “serious,” there is better consumer service and lower prices with competition, competition persists for very long periods of time, and consumers themselves prefer competition to regulated monopoly.
As Dr. Harold Demsetz of UCLA points out:
Six electric light companies were organized in the one year of 1887 in New York City. Forty-five electric light enterprises had the legal right to operate in Chicago in 1907. Prior to 1895, Duluth, Minnesota, was served by five electric lighting companies, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, had four in 1906. … During the latter part of the 19th century, competition was the usual situation in the gas industry in this country. Before 1884, six competing companies were operating in New York City … competition was common and especially persistent in the telephone industry … Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among the larger cities, had at least two telephone services in 1905.
Are we still to believe we’d have no water or services without democratic socialism?
The failure of socialized water management is easily eclipsed by public schools. According to the “nation’s report card“, 2/3’s of 8th graders aren’t proficient in areas like reading, writing and math, and the historical trend is in decline for most subjects. ACT, the college entry testing agency, says 76% of high school graduates aren’t adequately prepared for college in basic subjects. This is despite spending almost $12,000 per student each year. Imagine the outrage if this type of failure was in a school system served by private companies?!
But why not have a private system? Clearly, private schools function quite well, which is why some parents choose to pay for them even though they already pay taxes for the public schools. The prevailing view is that private schools only work for the wealthy, but if we look at many developing countries it’s exactly the opposite. In Africa and Asia, private schools have sprouted up in many areas due to the complete failure of the government schools. Some of these educate the poor for as little as $1/week, and do a better job than the corresponding government-run schools. Historically, Britain was the most literate society in the world during the 19th century before they had state-run schools.
There’s also been a revolution in home schooling recently, with the opportunities online curriculum offer. There are countless schooling options now for every type of parent. For example, the Ron Paul Curriculum costs $250/family per year, and gives a robust K-12 education. Under this program, students do things like build robots, start a Youtube channel, start a business, and excel in writing and speaking. It’s history courses are much more in-depth and comprehensive than what most of us had in high school, and is taught by a PhD (see video below). Clearly, there are many options besides socialized government schools to educate kids, and most of the options are better.
Big Bank Bailouts/Corporate Subsidies
This is more fascist than socialist, as it’s used to prop up private institutions. Either way, we should be glad to give it up!
Border Patrol/Police/Fire Departments
As with the military, police services are necessary to protect rights in a free society, but have historically also been responsible for much tyranny and abuse. They are often funded and operated through socialist means, but need not be. Take the Threat Management Center in Detroit, a private security firm that has flourished in some of the most dangerous areas of Detroit, due to the failure of the city police to protect its citizens. Crime has dropped dramatically in the areas they operate due to their unique and innovative tactics, and in over 20 years they haven’t killed anyone, nor have they been sued. The upside to private police forces is not only are they more efficient and less costly, they can be fired, and must actually serve their clients.
There are 256 private firefighting companies in the US, expected to grow to 320 by 2017. Many have quite good records, and do the job for less. A completely voluntary system would also be possible, but are often dismissed by common objections like “what about homeowners who don’t pay?” and “wouldn’t they just let your house burn down if you missed a payment?”.
These objections could largely be solved through market mechanisms. Homeowner’s insurance would likely either mandate fire coverage, or offer cheaper rates to those who bought it. It’s doubtful a company would refuse a willing customer who’s house was on fire. They would likely charge a significant fee, but this is similar to purchasing AAA in advance vs. hiring a tow truck when stranded. A just legal system could cover other issues. If a fire threatened neighboring properties, other homeowners could call the fire department and stick the negligent homeowner with the bill, or the firefighters could put out a fire and put a lien on the property, if warranted.
TV & Radio
It’s unclear how these are socialized or would need to be. There are public stations and the government controls certain “public” airwaves, but this is not a benefit. There has been a tremendous revolution in quality TV programming with Netflix and Amazon, no one could seriously argue the choices were better when consumers were only left with the FCC regulated stations. Same thing with radio and the explosion of quality content on XM radio or podcasts.
This probably comes from the argument that since government had a hand in some of the technological research, like ARPANET or GPS, the internet and our cell phones wouldn’t exist without socialism. Here is a pretty solid rebuttal of this argument, and shows how in many ways the government slowed down and stifled progress with the internet. Government has spent billions, if not trillions on various military research programs over the years, so it’s not surprising that they had their hands in many areas. However, government spending tends to “crowd out” private research, and often takes the most talented minds out of the private sector. The dramatic success of the internet is not due to central planning, but due to its decentralized and unregulated nature of free people pursuing their own interests. The dramatic success of smart phones is due to private companies creating devices and innovative apps the government could never match.
Also, it’s interesting to look at Africa, which traditionally had a socialized telecommunications networks that were awful, averaging just 4 land lines per 100 people in 2009. With the advent of private cell phone companies, this has dramatically improved, with 84% of Africans now having cell phones.
It’s not clear how private insurance is an example of socialism.
There are plenty of examples of privately owned or run parks. Take New York City. Some are more exclusive, like Gramercy Park. Others are completely open to the public, like Zuccotti Park. Bryant Park, once an eyesore and haven for drug dealers, has been transformed into a vibrant, aesthetically pleasing and extremely popular park after becoming privately managed. Furthermore, it’s financially self-sufficient, getting its revenue from events, as well as the bordering businesses who benefit tremendously from having a desirable place for New Yorkers to congregate. Since the government zones and operates most parks, there is little incentive for private parks to spring up, but there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t. Residents want to live in places where they can enjoy the outdoors, and businesses want places that attract potential customers. Whether for philanthropic or business reasons, these spaces would exist absent socialism, and even government owned parks could be run self-sufficiently without needing to tax those who never use them.
There’s even a good case to be made with national parks. For example, Acadia National Park in Maine was initially preserved and set up by wealthy land owners who wanted to preserve the area. Far from wanting to commercialize it, businessmen like Rockefeller spent much money and effort to keep the natural beauty intact. Eventually, these owners turned the management over to the National Park system, but they need not have. Rockefeller alone donated thousands of acres, as well as money to help preserve areas around Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton and Shenandoah. All throughout the US there are examples of private land trusts and easements, which preserve both private property rights and the environment.
This is a curious item on the list. Money is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, and one that certainly doesn’t need socialism to exist. As primitive barter trading was clearly inefficient (these dozen eggs will be 1/20th of your horse, please!), money evolved throughout human civilization. Gold and silver became the most popular forms of money, as they were best suited for the job (desirable, scarce, durable, divisible, compact, etc.). Bank notes and paper money eventually came on the scene, but they were backed by gold. Eventually, governments and central banks controlled the currencies and severed gold from our money, but this is neither necessary nor desirable. There are many instances of governments ruining currencies, along with their citizens’ wealth. One has to look no further than democratic socialist Venezuela to see this type of destruction.
With new technology, competing forms of money have popped up, like bitcoin. However, these alternative currencies, like gold, can now only exist on the periphery of economic trade. This is due to measures like legal tender laws that allow the government to keep an essential monopoly on money (a good article explains why here). Anyone who directly competes with the US dollar will be imprisoned, as the creator of the Liberty Dollar found out. Any form of money that might be superior to the US dollar is neutered, as the legal tender laws and capital gains taxes all but prevent it from being used in any contract or loan. One has to ask, if the government’s issuance of money is so great, why do they need monopoly privileges no other person or business could ever get?
Many of the items on this meme’s list are indeed provided for through socialist means, but there’s a case to be made for doing it a different way. Certainly, there is no ultimatum to choose socialism or forfeit these goods and services. The debate over which is the best way to provide these items (socialism or a private, voluntary system) is one worth having.