The Wall Street Journal has an article today entitled “How To Argue With A Young Socialist.” As a young socialist, I was naturally curious to discover how I can be argued with. The writer, Crispin Sartwell, is not so much interested in giving socialism a fair hearing as in providing Wall Street Journal readers with “clinchers” that can be used if you “find yourself in debate with an energetic new democratic socialist, perhaps even around the family dinner table.” Sartwell’s article produces exactly one argument that you, the thoughtful capitalist reader, can use to embarrass your Sanders-voting, Medicare-for-All supporting niece or nephew. Presumably, since it is the only “clincher” Sartwell presents, he feels it is a knock-down argument. When we hear it, we’ll know we’ve been clinched.
Here is the argument: If socialists think Republicans are bad and shouldn’t have power, why do socialists want to give the government more power, when that power could fall into the hands of Republicans? Let me quote directly from Sartwell’s op-ed so that I don’t accidentally summarize it sarcastically and ungenerously:
If the U.S. were to follow the advocates of democratic socialism, it would involve increasing state control of the economy in many dimensions… Perhaps the government would guarantee things like universal employment at a living wage. In other words, socialism would dramatically increase the government’s power and resources while making Americans more dependent on it for goods and necessities… These vast powers and resources would be overseen by elected officials… [W]hat would it mean, you can ask your young interlocutor, if the U.S. were a democratic socialist country and all that power fell into [the hands of someone like Donald Trump]? … A government that feeds its citizens tells them what and whether to eat. it is possible that the U.S. might end up someday with a leader that the socialists find even more abhorrent than Mr. Trump. So why, you can ask your young friend, is he so eager to give people he may hate so much more power over his own life? … Why would people with this view be so eager to create the powers they believe likely to oppress them?… If the people who wield state power are no better or more trustworthy than anyone else, then the arc of history is liable to bend toward reaction or fascism or oppression. The more powers placed in the hands of government, the deeper this bend is likely to be.
Sartwell evidently thinks the question he asks will so flummox the poor young socialist that there will be nothing left to discuss. You’ll have shown the impossible contradiction in their worldview. Humiliated, they will be forced to rethink their childish position that “everyone should have the right to healthcare and a living wage.”
But I do not think the question gives as devastating a blow to democratic socialists as Sartwell thinks it does. In fact, I think it can be readily answered.
The challenge Sartwell raises is this: We want to expand government power, but in doing so we expand the powers that government has over us. Then when someone like Donald Trump is in charge of the state, we will have handed our enemies the stick with which to beat us.
This is not a trivial challenge. Anyone who thinks the government ought to have certain powers needs to contemplate the risk that those powers will fall into the wrong hands. But deciding whether that risk is worth the benefit depends on what kind of government power we are talking about. Many conservatives do what Sartwell does, and talk about “expanding the power of government” as if there are few important distinctions between different powers. This allows them to combine “the power to pay for universal free college” with “the power to indefinitely detain and torture people” under the same umbrella. Both, after all, constitute expansion of the power of government. But we democratic socialists are in favor of certain expansions and opposed to others, and we are intelligent enough to draw the distinction.
Realize that Sartwell’s argument could have been made in 1935 before the passage of the Social Security Act, or in 1965 before the introduction of Medicare. “You say you want the government to guarantee people an old-age pension,” our 1930s Sartwell would say to a young New Deal liberal. “But have you considered that by expanding government power you are creating a new institution that could fall into the hands of Republicans?” The answer then would be that “the power to guarantee old people an income” is a good power that should be expanded.
Ah, but what if that power falls into the wrong hands? Well, it has fallen into the wrong hands; there have been seven Republican presidents since the introduction of Social Security. And the main threat has actually been that they would take away the benefits, not that they would somehow use the Social Security Administration to oppress people. Likewise the food stamp program. Sartwell says that any government that “feeds its citizens” is telling them “what and whether to eat.” Leaving aside the fact that most citizens probably don’t need to be told “whether” to eat, it’s true that the government can put restrictions on how food vouchers can be used. (“Ban them from buying lobster!”) But the fact that Republicans are constantly trying to limit food stamps doesn’t mean it would be better off if SNAP benefits were taken away. Yes, theoretically, if the far-right controlled all three branches of government, they could use their power to restrict food stamps explicitly to white people. That risk does not mean that we should eliminate the subsidies that currently allow 42 million people to afford meals.
Sartwell does not actually give specific examples of the ways in which he thinks Republicans will use democratic socialist institutions for nefarious ends. When you start to get more specific than “handing powers to the state,” the fears seem overstated. We have had Medicare for 50 years and even under some truly awful presidents it has not posed a threat to the freedom of the citizenry. (Unless you’re one of those types who thinks taxation is literally slavery.) The main risk coming from the right is, once again, that this important guarantee will be taken away.
I do worry a lot about expanded government power. But not the power to create and manage a welfare state. I worry about powers of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment. Now, you might say that I am a fool, because the expanded power of the welfare state does give increased powers of surveillance. When the state knows people’s medical information, it has their most personal secrets. True! But the state’s powers of surveillance are so vast that I honestly don’t see expanded Medicare, or free college tuition, as the domain from which the main threats of abuse will come. I think we have much, much more to worry about from our gigantic military, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. Sartwell is right that the left should worry about what Republicans can do with whatever institutions we endorse. From the historical record, there is much more to fear on this front from our totally unaccountable national security state than from the Medicare bureaucracy. My kind of left—the ACLU kind—fights to put strict limits on the government powers that are easily susceptible to horrifying abuses, and roll back the expansion of the executive’s ability to, for instance, detain, torture, and kill people without trial.
A recognition of the risks of government power is also why democratic socialists so strongly emphasize the “democratic” part of their politics. We believe in having institutions that are accountable and that are controlled by the public rather than by autocrats. We’re not actually trying to have “the president” in charge of American healthcare, precisely because we recognize the potential for abuse when power is concentrated in the hands of a single person. More accountable representation is a big part of the democratic socialist agenda! This is actually a core reason why we have more confidence in government than in private corporations: at least with the government, in theory, you get to vote if you don’t like what it does! On the other hand, we cannot vote out Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook abuses its power. I agree with Sartwell that unaccountable institutions in which single individuals have huge amounts of power are very dangerous. That’s precisely why I don’t believe in such institutions: I am a democrat who wants to make sure that every program is responsive to popular needs and balances representation of the public will with protection of minority rights. Sartwell says we should fear a world in which the president “controls” all of the country’s hospitals and universities. Agreed! That’s why I think decision-making powers in socialized institutions should be decentralized as much as possible.
I have to say, Sartwell’s argument is extremely patronizing. Instead of dealing seriously with the agenda we put forth, Sartwell treats us like idiots who must have never given a moment’s thought to an extremely obvious question. Actually, for libertarian socialists, the question of what power should be held by whom is very important, and we think about it constantly. If this really is the “clincher,” a.k.a. the best argument they’ve got, then I am more confident than ever that the democratic socialists will win. I am grateful to the Wall Street Journal for giving me a renewed sense of hope.
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