Current Affairs

Does “The Case Against Socialism” Hold Up?

It does not. A brief look at Rand Paul’s new book.

As the author of a recently-published book called Why You Should Be A Socialist, I was pleased to receive a copy of Rand Paul’s The Case Against Socialism. In my book, I claim that most critiques of the left fail miserably and I imply that the phrase “conservative intellectual” should be treated as oxymoronic. But here, at last, we have something meaty to respond to: a book by a sitting U.S. Senator—a medical doctor no less, and the child of one of America’s most famous Libertarians—claiming to prove the anti-socialist case definitively over the course of 40 chapters. I confess, I was slightly worried when I saw it: What if The Case Against Socialism made Why You Should Be A Socialist look ridiculous? What if its arguments left me speechless? What if I was, to use the expression of our age, “destroyed”? I had better be able to deal with Paul’s case against socialism.

I am pleased to inform you that the socialist position survives The Case Against Socialism. In fact, as we shall see, if you’d like to convince someone that the arguments against socialism are bad, you may as well give them the Pauls* book rather than my own. But you should really only inflict it on someone you truly dislike. For it is a horrible book. It makes for painful reading. It does not make a case against socialism, but it does make a convincing case against nepotism

Let us go through The Case Against Socialism chapter by chapter, to see how the case is made and evaluate its claims.


*While the cover and publicity materials list “Rand Paul” as the author of The Case Against Socialism, and throughout the book Paul refers to himself in the first person, the title and author pages list the book as being co-authored by Kelley Ashby Paul, who is married to Rand Paul. I will be using “Paul” for most of this review to refer to a composite character made from both Rand and Kelley Paul, but I will also use “they” to indicate that this “Paul” is a multi-gendered and plural. (If at any point in this review I accidentally refer to Paul as “he” rather than “they” it is an unintentional error. I do not know why Rand Paul and his publisher did not see fit to credit Kelley Ashby Paul on the cover, or use “we” instead of “I,” and I could make a point about how fitting it is that a book about capitalism should fail to reward a woman for her labor, but given the quality of the end product, Ms. Paul may be pleased that her public association with the book is minimal. 

PART ONE

Introduction

The Pauls begin with, of all things, the assassination attempt against Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. (If you placed a bet on whether the word “Venezuela” would appear within the first paragraph of The Case Against Socialism, you lose. “Venezuelan” is the word that appears.) The book discusses the economic crisis in the country and Maduro’s various crimes. It then promises to link these crimes to “an evil that inevitably and inexorably leads to poverty, starvation, and ultimately violence” and “has killed millions of people and even today threatens a new generation of the naive.” 

Paul quotes Bernie Sanders saying that “People are not truly free when they can’t afford health care, prescription drugs, or a place to live.” Paul comments “I guess Senator Sanders hasn’t noticed that food and medicine are completely unaffordable and nearly unavailable in Venezuela.” Yes, that’s the level we’re going to be operating on here. You may ask Paul: but do countries that have the policies Bernie is proposing to implement in this country have food and medicine that is “completely unaffordable and unavailable”? But Paul has already moved on. 

Paul is worried that millennials are being entranced by “the allure of equality and fairness,” and socialism is casting “such a spell that people refuse to acknowledge history.” They cite the familiar statistics about young people disliking capitalism and being open to socialism. But, they say, these young people falsely assume that “the rich enrich themselves on the backs of the poor,” whereas in fact, “as much of the world embraced capitalism in the 20th century, childhood mortality plummeted” and poverty diminished. Now, we face a considerable risk: 

“Will today’s youth, when they leave their parents’ basements and begin to earn a living, discover that their success depends on their merit and hard work, or will they succumb like Venezuela to the allure of something for nothing?” 

(A friendly writers’ tip for Paul: If you are trying to persuade someone, say a young person, it is best not to include patronizing remarks about how they probably live in their parents’ basement and don’t earn a living or work hard.) 

The introduction is short, but it sets up the task ahead. Millennials are into socialism. But socialism leads to poverty and misery and death. The book will be examining the historical record and proving this. Here, however, we ought to pause and ask what it is fundamentally that we are talking about. Does Paul say in the introduction what socialism is, and therefore what they will be arguing against? 

Well, yes, kind of: Paul cites a Reason Foundation survey of millennials saying that “only 16 percent could identify socialism as government ownership of the means of production,” which is what “socialism is in a historical sense.” Let me pose a possibility here: If Paul says that Socialism is “government control of production,” and millennials call themselves socialists, but when you ask them what socialism is they do not say “government control of production,” perhaps that’s not the central tenet of their socialism. In other words, Paul is chastising millennials for believing in something bad, and then when they do not say they believe in that, he thinks they don’t know their own beliefs, instead of considering the possibility that it is he is simply ignorant about those beliefs. 

In fact, it would be facile and ignorant to call socialism simply “government control of production.” If that were all there was to it, a monarchy could be socialism. A feudal system could be socialism. In fact, all you would need to do would be to point to the most authoritarian government, the one with the most control over anything, and that would be socialism. Even if it were ruled by a small group of plutocrats, or were run by far-right nationalists, if we define socialism by the degree of government control with no regard to how that government operates, the worst and most brutal regimes will be “socialism” no matter what. The Nazis would be socialists because they had a lot of control over production, even though their core racial ideology is horrifying to socialists and Hitler said repeatedly that his “national socialism” had nothing in common with Marx’s socialism. Of course, Paul would probably nod their heads and say: exactly. Socialism is tyranny. But then the case is self-proving: The worst misery under any dictator is defined as socialism. (In fact, “the Nazis were socialists” is precisely what Paul will be arguing later on.) 

Perhaps if millennials do not accept Paul’s definition of our beliefs, it is because we recognize that it is stupid. For us, socialism is not about giving control over production to any government, regardless of how tyrannical it is, but about giving people control over their own lives, by making sure that ownership is distributed across society at large rather than concentrated in the hands of oligarchs. One cannot understand socialism without understanding class: The main economic goal of socialists is to eliminate the existence of an owning class and create rough equality of ownership. Because the government is the entity that defines the legal regime of property and is the main vehicle through which people of a society can act collectively, this usually involves government action. But many socialists have also been anarchists, who want nothing to do with “government control of production.” Many believe that it should instead be distributed through a decentralized network of worker-operated syndicates. “Anarchist socialist” is not a contradiction, it is a well-developed historical tendency, meaning that there must be more going on here than simply empowering a Big Government. 

Now, if you want to know why so many supposedly “socialist” governments have been authoritarian tyrannies, one reason is that slapping the “socialist” label on a state is a great way for a dictator to claim legitimacy: Because worker ownership is a noble principle, the dictator simply says that their government is worker ownership, because government represents the “general will” of the people. It obviously isn’t, because workers have no meaningful power there. To understand this, think about how the same thing happens with the words “democracy” and “republic”: Regimes like North Korea (a “democratic people’s republic”) use them in order to claim to speak for the people. 

That’s why many socialists share a strong opposition to dictatorship. George Orwell, for instance, was a lifelong democratic socialist who was horrified by the Soviet Union. I have previously quoted a leftist Venezuelan union leader who loathes Maduro. But if socialism means government control, how can this be? How could Orwell support socialism but detest Stalin? How could Emma Goldman believe in “communism” but dislike Lenin? After all, brutal governments are doing what “socialism means”: exercising control. But it doesn’t mean that. 

Before I address a few of their horrible arguments head-on, let me make one additional point: Today’s socialists are not just concerned with questions over who owns the “means of production.” Any merely economic definition is far too narrow. They are also concerned with racial justice, gender justice, climate justice, and the elimination of unjust social hierarchies in all forms. It is not just about the distribution of material wealth, but about establishing a broadly egalitarian society in which everyone is treated well, has what they need to live a good life, and not subject to the arbitrary authority of others. One reason that the young people in the poll rejected Paul’s definition is that enacting the Movement for Black Lives Agenda is, for many of them, a core part of their “socialism” but is not captured by narrow economic statements about who “controls production.” 

Thus we have already seen that Paul is ignorant about the subject they have written a book about. But they have more to say, and so, let us proceed. After the Introduction there are 39 chapters in the book (plus a Conclusion), and I intend to address every last goddamned one of them.


Chapter 1: Socialism Destroyed Venezuela’s Once-Vibrant Economy

In chapter 1 the Venezuela argument is fleshed out. It is the usual stuff: Hugo Chavez was a socialist, Venezuela is now poor and suffering. As is typical, there is not much argument made for what specifically is “socialist” about Venezuelan economic mismanagement. As Matt Bruenig has noted, if we are talking about “state intervention in the economy,” many successful countries already have much more of that than Venezuela (and there are plenty of successful nationalized industries). In fact, Norway is more socialist than Venezuela: 

In Norway, the surplus from the oil boom has been used to build a $1 trillion collectively-owned capital fund with the return on that capital going to finance general government spending, including the country’s large welfare state. This capital fund is even colorfully described by the Norwegian government as “the people’s money, owned by everyone, divided equally and for generations to come.” In Venezuela, the government appears to have used the surplus primarily to finance current social spending. This means that, on the thing most remarkable about the two countries, Norway comes away as more socialist. Norway uses its oil sector to build an enormous stock of collectively-owned capital, which then goes to fund social spending while Venezuela skips the middle step. Insofar as socialism is about collective ownership of the means of production, an objective observer would have to declare Norway the more socialist of the two.

In fact, even the Wall Street Journal’s Venezuela reporter doesn’t seem to think Venezuela is “socialist” in any meaningful sense. There’s no commitment to equality there, and Maduro ended up “chucking leftist slogans in favor of straightforward clientelism.” If and when Venezuela has a worker-owned and controlled economy, we may be able to learn some lessons from it, but the central thing it tells us now is that corrupt and incompetent governments are corrupt and incompetent. 

Paul does make one good point in this chapter, arguing that a leftist professor who praised Venezuela for its “radically democratic form of brutality” sounds like his beliefs are horrifying. I agree with that. No to brutality! 

Chapter 2: Socialism Rewards Corruption

Chapter 2 begins with more about Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, pointing out evidence that they put the interests of themselves and their friends above the interests of working people. Paul says that this is not an exception, but the rule, and “socialism and kleptocracy often seem indistinguishable.” To buttress this assertion, Paul offers other case studies, citing “Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak” as “another prime example.” Paul concedes that “history does not remember Mubarak as a socialist,” but:

“…people forget that Mubarak’s rule as an authoritarian directly descended from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism. As Gerard Di Trolio writes at jacobinmag.com, Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was a member of the Socialist International for decades.” 

Now, Paul is right: Nobody does remember Mubarak as being a socialist, because he wasn’t one. And in fact, when we look up Di Trolio’s actual Jacobin article, we find that it was called “Socialist In Name Only,” and was about how the Socialist International had completely discredited itself by admitting authoritarian capitalists like Mubarak who followed zero socialist principles. Paul does not mention Di Trolio’s actual argument that socialists needed to “bury” the organization, because that would show that actual socialists do not, in fact, endorse the policies of Hosni Mubarak. 

Paul then spends an entire page discussing the infamously corrupt ruler of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and the various luxuries he has purchased using state funds. Obiang, however, does not even call himself a socialist. Nevertheless, Paul believes that he is relevant, because he is an example of “big government,” and even if someone does not believe in socialism, so long as they believe in dictatorship, we can still call them socialists. Or at least, that’s what I understand Paul to mean by this passage:

“Not all dictators came to power promising socialism, egalitarianism, and redistribution of the nation’s wealth. Yet, even without an overt socialist agenda, many of these dictatorships share the central tenet of socialism: government ownership of the means of production.”

So they don’t have a “socialist agenda,” don’t use the word socialism, don’t have any egalitarian principles, but they’re still socialists because they’re dictators and socialism means dictatorship. I might as well point at King Leopold as an example of socialism. Here you can see very clearly the central argumentative strategy used by Paul: define socialism as “powerful government,” then find a bunch of horrible dictators and list their crimes, thereby showing what powerful governments have done, and why socialism is therefore bad. We can see how easy it will be to prove that the “Nazis were socialists” by this logic. They’d still be socialists even if they hadn’t had the word “socialist” in their branding, because Hitler believed in Big Government, and that’s the definition! 

There is no more to Paul’s case that “socialism rewards corruption.” (Each of these chapters is about five pages long.) Suffice to say, I think the chapter’s thesis remains unproven. 

Chapter 3: Interfering with Free Markets Cause Shortages

We are now back in (where else?) Venezuela, where Paul explains that the country’s price controls worsened shortages of essential goods. Now, if Paul had read some books by socialists, they might have realized that many socialists are actually critical of careless use of price controls, because we understand how capitalist economies work. If you leave economic power in the hands of a small number of people, and simply try to “regulate” a market through heavy-handed use of state power, you will create inequities. Here’s leftist economist Michael Yates: 

It is difficult to make price controls work in a capitalist economy. [With rent control, for instance,] unless the government is vigilant and willing to punish transgressors, unless it allows rents to rise as a renter’s income rises, and unless it builds decent and cheap housing itself, controls will tend to devolve into a system subsidizing those who don’t need the benefits. And if they are not universal, enormous inequities will develop. 

Now, this is not to say that governments should simply “let the market decide.” We have minimum wages and rent controls of various kinds in various places, and while conservatives insist that these policies cannot possibly work, as an empirical matter we know that they can. In New York City, a study “found no negative employment effects of the city increasing its minimum wage to $15” and “restaurant workers in the city saw a pay increase of 20% to 28%, representing the largest hike ‘for a big group of low-wage workers since the 1960s.’” In Seattle, “workers already employed either saw their take-home pay go up or stay roughly the same while working fewer hours,” and Vox’s Matthew Zeitlin concludes that from the available evidence, it’s clear “the people advocating for a higher minimum wage… were right to do so.” Studies of rent control have shown that its downsides are overstated, the main problem being that controlling rents encourages building owners to kick out residents and convert their properties into luxury condos. But this is an argument for cracking down on luxury conversions, not for allowing rent to rise by 4,000 percent. 

The empirical evidence from social scientists is of no interest to Paul. Their thought is at the level of the Free Market Caveman, who can only grunt “Venezuela bad. Market good.” without actually looking at which policies do what in the real world. 

Chapter 4: Capitalism is the More Moral System

This chapter is 4.2 pages of rapid-fire talking points about inequality. The central ones are:

  • Inequality does not slow the growth of a country’s GDP.
  • There is nothing wrong with inequality anyway, it’s poverty that matters. 
  • The poor have become rich from capitalism because one can “buy shirts at Target for $7,” whereas “before the industrial revolution, the poor lived a life of bare subsistence.”

The first point doesn’t interest me much. While there is plenty of scholarship arguing that economic growth is harmed by too much inequality, I do not consider GDP the measure of much that is useful anyway. Measures like the genuine progress indicator (GPI), which study human well-being rather than just “how many goods and services are produced,” are far more helpful in understanding whether things are getting better or worse. We can easily envisage high GDP growth being compatible with a nightmarish society (in fact, China and the Soviet Union posted excellent growth results during times of hideous oppression), and the fact that an economy’s health is measured in number of things consumed is one of the truly insane features of the prevailing ideology. 

The talking point that “inequality doesn’t actually matter” is common on the right. Often they use the example of a growing pie: If a pie is growing larger, it doesn’t matter if one person is steadily getting more and more pie as a percentage, because everyone will be getting more pie in the absolute. It is better for Jeff Bezos to get $100 billion more and me to get $10 more than for neither of us to get any more dollars. I have responded to this argument at greater length before (as well as in Why You Should Be A Socialist), but there are two important points here: (1) inequality matters because wealth is a form of social power, so that if one person has vastly more of it they also have a disproportionate amount of control and influence, and democracy is impossible (2) small improvements are often used to paper over how just how much the wealthy hoard; for instance, if someone goes from $1 a day to $2 a day, while someone else goes from $100,000 to $1,000,000, the “pie is growing for everyone,” and the increase at the bottom will be used to say that “while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting richer too.” But this overlooks the grotesquely unfair distribution of the newly enlarged pie. 

Finally, people like Paul like to give capitalism credit for improvement in living standards. They do this without offering evidence beyond correlation: Capitalism coincided with these developments, and we can tell a story about how it caused them, therefore it did cause them. But what about public education? What about labor struggles? What about scientific and medical research, much of which has been done by government? What about public health initiatives? What about all the effort poured by governments into building a basic infrastructure on which society can function? Countries that have successfully reduced poverty have had intensive levels of government intervention in the economy—China, for instance, has over 100,000 state-run enterprises. In the U.S., a lot of innovation actually depends on state support, and even nefarious billionaire Peter Thiel admits that the scientists and engineers responsible for a lot of human progress rarely get rich as a result. In fact, the tremendous wealth that surrounds us is the result of the tireless labor of endless workers, though it is always the boss who claims the credit. 

But it is worth noting that even if Paul did adduce evidence that the objectionable features of free market capitalism are necessary for the production of abundance (which they are not), they would still be objectionable. A sweatshop that improves living standards is still a moral abomination, and our focus must be on finding a way to replace a system that depends on totally unequally distributed cruelty. 

Chapter 5: Capitalism Benefits The Middle Class

Here, Paul argues that millennials are “the richest, most privileged young people ever,” that decreases in the price of consumer goods mean that stagnant wages are irrelevant, and besides fail to include “employer benefits like health care, pension, and family leave in average hourly earnings.” Paul cites the impressive number of things an iPhone can do, and everything “bigger houses to more bathrooms to central air-conditioning to high-speed Internet… not to mention virtually everyone on the planet owning a smartphone[. E]veryone’s standard of living has improved. Americans are living longer. Three times more millennials get college degrees as did their counterparts in 1972. You name it.” 

Now, I could point out that it’s rich Americans who are living longer; life expectancy as a whole is declining because poor people are living shorter lives. Millennials do get college degrees, but they get them because they need them, and they have to take on mountains of debt to do so. But I’d actually like to dwell on the “refrigerators are cheap, therefore our society is fair” argument, because you hear it a lot and it’s an opportunity for me to introduce a core part of the socialist worldview that people like Paul do not notice.

One thing that unifies socialists is the conviction that “better” does not mean “good.” “Improvement” can actually be almost irrelevant in assessing questions of fairness, for reasons explained very well by Malcolm X:

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.

(In fact, I’d argue that even that shouldn’t be called “progress,” but rather “what you should have been entitled to in the first place.”) 

Thus many pro-capitalist arguments often take the form: Children used to be sent down mines. Now children have smartphones. Progress! Or: These workers used to do 18 hours of backbreaking agricultural labor. Now they do 14 hours of sweatshop labor. Progress! Or: My bathroom is bigger than my parents’ bathroom was. Progress! 

But relative standards do not tell us much about whether we have a just society. A better measure than “how you are doing today versus how you were doing yesterday” is “what could and should be done?” and how far does our present situation fall short of our potential? This is why socialists were not particularly impressed with Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and are not very impressed with Joe Biden’s healthcare plan. The failure to provide complete universal coverage leads to large numbers of avoidable deaths. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy that did not need to occur, which is why it is grotesque to say “Yes, but there are other deaths we did choose to prevent.”

In the United States today, people suffer and die needlessly in large numbers. This is the central fact that makes the present system an outrage. It does not matter if more suffered and died needlessly in the past. What matters is that the injustices exist and that they are needless. Amazon may treat its workers better than George Pullman treated his, but there is no reason why Amazon workers need to be pushed as hard as they are, or given as few rights at work. This is avoidable, and so it is an outrage. 

It is true that there has been considerable progress in the world, in part because ordinary people have fought very hard to make it happen. (Many people are now covered by living wage ordinances, because working people fought against the Pauls of the world to achieve a decent standard of living.) A great deal of innovation has happened, though very little of it has come from the super-rich. (They tend to be people like Ray Dalio, Warren Buffett, and Leon Cooperman, who have made no clear contribution to social well-being. See some more terrible billionaires here.) Some notions of progress come from fudging the statistics, as Jason Hickel has demonstrated convincingly. But even when we do make progress, none of it justifies allowing avoidable injustices to persist. 

Finally, just for fun, before departing this chapter, let us cite two amusing quotes Paul gives by conservative pundits: 

  • “Inequality of outcome was historically driven by hardened class systems—not so in a free market economy.”  
  • “Far from having the 21st century equivalent of an Edwardian class system, the United States is characterized by a great deal of variation in income. More than half of all adult Americans will be at or near the poverty line at some point over the course of their lives.” 

Needless to say, if you do not think there is a class system in America, you have never seen the difference between the lives of those who pick the vegetables and the lives of those who eat in the five-star restaurants. And the fact that so many of us will end up “at or near the poverty line” is a strange fact to present as a justification for the existing economic order. 

Chapter 6: Income Inequality Does Not Ruin The Economy or Corrupt Government

The title of this chapter is a bit strange, because it’s quite clear that income inequality doesn’t “ruin” the economy—in fact, it’s at the core of a capitalist economy. Once again, pay attention to what the arguments against socialism actually are, because often they will not be against things that socialists think. There are arguments that inequality slows growth, but Karl Marx pointed out that the development of the modern class system coincided with the colossal expansion of our productive powers. (Paul should brush up on the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”) A system designed to extract as much labor as possible can indeed be very productive. 

Most of this chapter simply rehashes points made elsewhere, but a few Paulisms are worth responding to.

  • “In a true free market, you become rich only when you sell a service or product at a price that people will voluntarily pay. Hence, you get legitimate and well-deserved billionaires like the Walton family.” Excuse me, but most of the Walton family are heirs. They inherited their wealth! They didn’t do a thing to earn it, except pop out of the right uterus at the right time. It’s comical that Paul points to intergenerational wealth transfer as his example of American meritocracy.
  • “For all the negative press Walmart has received for providing low-paying jobs, consider that… Walmart reported that its average store manager salary was $175,000 annually.” Do you wonder why Paul cites the salaries of management and not those of ordinary workers? It’s because an ordinary Walmart worker, if they worked 40-hour weeks for 52 weeks a year, would earn only $29,600 at the company’s average hourly rate. Try supporting a kid on that! All while the Walton heirs pocket billions in profits they did no work to earn. This is an example of hard work being rewarded? Paul says that “if unequal incomes are based on merit” then “there is no basis for complaint.” But surely the existence of Wyatt Koch is enough to prove that “merit” and wealth are only loosely correlated. 

Chapter 7: Under Capitalism, the 1 Percent Is Always Changing

Here, Paul argues that because there is turnover in who the 1% are, “America really is the land of opportunity and income mobility.” In fact, there has been a substantial decline in income mobility over a period of decades, but I am not really interested in that. More important is that for socialists, the question is: What is life like for people at the bottom, and are their deprivations avoidable? If some given percentage of people win life’s lottery and make it to the top, that’s lovely for them, but we believe that every single person deserves to live decently. 

More importantly, we can’t just look at the United States. Capitalism is a global system. The U.S. is “the 1% of the world,” and so while American socialists understandably talk a lot about the conditions of Americans, when we’re talking about who ends up on top, we have to look at the divide between the global elite and the global working class. The U.S. is in many ways like a walled garden, a land of milk and honey surrounded by armed guards who ensure that the global poor do not get in and take any of it. Principled libertarians understand that the existence of militarized borders exposes the idea that we live in a “free market” as a complete and utter sham. In fact, admission to the 1% is carefully guarded and controlled. 

It does not matter whether an Indian lavatory attendant once became a billionaire. It does not matter if five of them did. What matters is the relative condition of Indian lavatory attendants versus billionaires. The slightly changing composition of the power elite is of less interest than the existence of a power elite and the violence and propaganda that it uses to make sure the global poor do not share in this earth’s bounties. (Ah, but some are earning $4 a day now instead of $2.50, so Capitalism Works!) 

Chapter 8: The Poor Are Better off Under Capitalism

“Complaining about inequality is basically a variation of envy or coveting,” Paul says on the first page of this chapter. To see why this is a silly thing to say, imagine a “democracy” in which some people had one vote and other people had 1 million votes. The people with one vote complain that the inequality is unfair. “Ah, you are just envious,” replies the Paul of the hypothetical.

In a manner of speaking, it is indeed true that there is a kind of envy here, in that the person with nothing believes that the person with something ought to share. But it is a perfectly justified kind of envy. The envious person is right that the other person is an asshole. 

This chapter repeats the attacks on the concept of “inequality” dealt with in chapter 4. Like many others, it is a grab bag of unconnected talking points. Here are the two noteworthy ones:

  • Paul recounts an anecdote about a Swedish person who was denied a prescription for a new drug because it was “significantly more expensive than the older medicine.” Paul says that the patient was not only denied the payment but was “prevented from buying the drug himself” because the “Swedish equality police argued that ‘it would set a bad precedent and lead to unequal access to medicine.’” Now, I tried to find where this came from. Paul cites an article by conservative economist Walter Williams, who cites an article from the conservative Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which cites an article from 2007 in a local Gothenburg publication. The article has disappeared, so I used the Wayback Machine, and I don’t speak Swedish, so I had to run it through Google translate, but it appears as if the presentation of the story is (surprise!) completely misleading. In fact, the Swedish news story says that while 200 patients in Sweden are receiving the new drug and having it paid for, one person was denied it, because decisions are made locally and that locality had not approved the new treatment. Funnily enough, this seems to be an argument for a more centralized government insurance program! The article is about how Swedish healthcare is “not equal” because some Swedes have been given a treatment that other Swedes haven’t. Sounds like the “Swedish Equality Police” have actually been asleep on the beat and need to do their jobs!
  • Paul says that without financial incentives, innovations do not get produced. “Absent sufficient financial incentives, someone like Bill Gates [might never create] Microsoft.” He quotes Ludwig von Mises, who says that “only because inequality of wealth is possible” does wealth grow substantially, and “if government destroys this incentive, it also destroys productivity.” Now, this is merely asserted rather than proven; rather than attempt to demonstrate that wealth is a more significant psychological motivator for creativity than, say, the intrinsic rewards of creation or the social esteem of one’s peers, conservatives simply take it as a given that people are driven by financial self-interest. This should be highly contentious, because innovators themselves almost always deny it. Mark Zuckerberg would almost certainly say that what he was thinking of when making Facebook was finding a way to connect people, not making billions of dollars. But even assuming financial motives matter (and they do to some extent), the mistake is in assuming that it requires levels of inequality as extreme as those we have presently to sustain present levels of innovation. If wealth taxes had meant it was only possible for Mark Zuckerberg to earn a maximum of $500 million (less than 1 percent of what he ultimately did earn, but still enough money to give one almost godlike powers), would he have acted differently as a Harvard sophomore? Implausible. Likewise Bill Gates and Microsoft (though arguably the world would have been better off without Bill Gates’ “contributions,” as Rob Larson shows in his excellent new book Bit Tyrants). 

PART TWO

Chapter 9: Bernie’s Socialism Also Includes Praise For Dictators

This chapter points out that while Bernie Sanders is critical of civil liberties violations, he supported the Sandinista government in the 1980s and praised reductions in illiteracy and homelessness under Fidel Castro. Since Paul’s criticism of Sanders here is actually fairly mild (“I sympathize to a degree” and “Now, to give Bernie his due, the Sandinistas got rid of Somoza, a U.S. supported dictator”) and the correct democratic socialist position is obviously to support a left government to the extent it is democratic and oppose it to the extent it isn’t, I don’t think this chapter needs much time spent on it.

Chapter 10: Today’s American Socialists Don’t Know What Socialism Means

Now, this is an interesting chapter title, because once again we see Paul saying that socialism means something different to what socialists believe it means. Presumably we’re going to hear that socialism means death and tyranny, but because today’s socialists say they don’t believe in death and tyranny, they’re ignorant and not really socialists. 

Indeed, Paul says that while today’s socialists say they “do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy,” they actually do, because they think that while “the whole economy should [not] be centrally planned,” “major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy” will need government planning. “So in other words,” Paul says, “the new socialists are both for and against government owning the means of production.” 

Well, this is silly. It comes from the assumption that socialists today ought to have a single “system” that they are implementing, when actually socialists are trying to build different types of institutions that embody a certain set of principles. Yes, government ownership can be an important part of this; public libraries, for instance, are state-owned, state-run free learning centers. What about public universities? Does Paul think these are “all powerful government bureaucracies” comparable to the worst Stalinist repression? (Actually, they probably do.) But because we socialists are capable of basic reasoning, we understand that there is a distinction between public hospitals/power companies/airports and a fully centralized economy where all decision come down from a government planning board. 

Instead of dealing with the actual policy proposals of socialists—such as Bernie Sanders’ worker ownership plan—Paul says that “if asked to define [socialism’s] meaning,” millennials will give you “some drivel about ‘I’m for fairness.’” Excuse me, but “some drivel about fairness” is a deeply uncharitable description of the contents of Current Affairs and Jacobin. Pick up Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution book, for instance. It’s full of very clear descriptions of the social problems that Bernie’s socialism aims to fix and a clear vision of the kind of society a socialist would like to live in. In fact, here’s a Current Affairs article on building socialist institutions. Here’s an entire socialist think tank offering policy proposals that embody socialist principles. It’s not that socialists aren’t answering Paul’s question, it’s that Paul isn’t listening. 

Chapter 11: Bernie Sanders Is Too Liberal To Get Elected In Denmark

This chapter is very brief, but it contains a rather stunning example of intellectual dishonesty that should completely discredit Paul’s entire work. Consider this paragraph:

The Danes are vocal in distancing themselves from Bernie’s policies and quite emphatically don’t want to be known as a bad place to do business. The executive editor in chief for Politiken, a Danish newspaper, writes: ‘There is this idea that we are a heavily regulated society with a closed economy. The opposite is true.’

Now, sometimes I like to play a game with myself called “I Bet If I Look Up The Original Quote This Person Will Be Saying The Exact Opposite Of What You Say They’re Saying.” Paul quotes this editor to support the idea that Denmark is actually further to the right than Sanders and is a small-government free-market country. Let us turn then to the original article from which Paul’s quote is drawn. As you will see, they cut it off before it gets to the actual point: 

“There is this idea that we are a heavily regulated society with a closed economy. The opposite is true,” said Bo Lidegaard, the executive editor-in-chief of Politiken, one of Denmark’s leading newspapers. “If by socialist you mean regulated, restrictive, the individual is not free to do what she or he wants, that is not what we have here. We have a society where the individual is perhaps freer than any other society because the government is securing the social contract so comprehensively.”

So Lidegaard is actually not saying that the government is smaller than you think and Bernie is wrong. Instead, Lidegaard is saying that people like Paul are mistaken to assume that having an activist government that supports social welfare means tons of regulation and a closed economy. Paul does not want readers to know what Lidegaard meant, and so simply cuts off the inconvenient part of the quote that praises government. 

Paul also quotes “Lars Christensen, a Danish economist” as saying that Bernie would be seen as “too leftist” by the major Danish political parties. When we look up the original article, we find the same person quoted as “Lars Christensen, a Danish economist known here as an outspoken critic of his homeland’s model.” This is important, because Paul is trying to suggest that “the Danes” are “vocal in distancing themselves from Bernie.” But that requires Paul to portray “outspoken” Danes who are critical of the country’s mainstream as the mainstream, simply by declining to note the politics of the speaker. 

Now, it is true that the center-right prime minister of Denmark gave a speech, which Paul gleefully quotes, in which he responded to those who “associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism.” It is worth, however, quoting from the prime minister’s speech at length: 

“I know that some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish.”

“We have universal health coverage — you don’t pay to see your doctor or go to the hospital. We have a high degree of social security. You are entitled to benefits if you lose your job, if you get sick, if you are disabled. We have one year of maternity leave. We have subsidized early childhood education and care, and we ensure care for our elderly if they cannot manage on their own.

“We also have a strong and free educational system. Students in institutions for higher education and university do not pay for their education. On the contrary, they receive educational grants for studying.

“So, what is the catch, you might ask. The most obvious one, of course, is the high taxes. The top income tax in Denmark is almost 60 percent. We have a 25-percent sales tax and on cars the incise duties are up to 180 percent. So, in total, Danish taxes come to almost half of our national income compared to around 25 percent in the U.S. Quite a substantial difference.”

So, while the prime minister notes, rightly, that Denmark is not a “planned economy,” he also points out that there is “quite a substantial difference” with the United States, because you don’t pay to see your doctor, college students get free education, and there is subsidized childcare and parental leave. Paul’s point that Denmark is some kind of low tax, free market haven is undercut in the exact speech he cites. In fact, the prime minister emphasizes that the taxes are high and the social safety net is huge: The country does have many of the social programs that Bernie Sanders is advocating. We see, when we look at the full quote, that Paul is wrong to suggest that Denmark is a low-tax country that rejects Bernie’s main proposals as too far left, because the prime minister admits they have high taxes and generous services.

Chapters 12-18: The Nordic Countries 

12. No, Bernie, Scandinavia Is Not Socialist

13. Sweden’s Riches Actually Came From Capitalism

14. The Nordic Model Is Welfarism, Not Socialism

15. Sweden Is Shrinking Taxes and Welfare

16. Welfarism Requires High Middle Class Taxes

17. American Scandinavians Have It Better Here Than In Scandinavia

18. Swedish College Is Free But It’s Not Cheap Or Universal

Chapters 12-18 are all on the Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Now, there is a divide between conservatives on how to deal with the Nordic countries. Bernie Sanders says that the kind of social democratic policies that these countries show that many of Bernie’s ideas aren’t radical. In response, conservatives adopt one of two approaches: (1) They say that while these countries are successful, they are “not socialist.” Instead they are “actually capitalist.” (2) They say that these countries are “socialist,” but that this does not prove their model could/should be imported here. In United States of Socialism, Dinesh D’Souza takes path 2, because he notices the problem with path 1, namely that if the Nordic countries are “actually capitalist,” that would show that social democracy doesn’t destroy a country and therefore undermine the case that Bernie is a radical. (D’Souza argues that Nordic socialism works for them but depends on unique aspects of Nordic culture.)

Paul chooses path 1, arguing in response to AOC’s claim that “My policies most closely resemble what we see in the [Nordic countries]” that actually the Nordics are capitalist countries, not socialist ones. Personally I find this particular debate over placing a given country in the socialist or capitalist box rather unhelpful, because I view socialism as a set of principles that can be embodied (or not) in the way a society runs, and it exists on a spectrum. AOC’s claim is that her policies are like those in these countries, so the relevant question is: How do those countries operate, and do these policies work well? 

Paul does not offer a serious policy evaluation, just a long string of misleading talking points. For instance, the idea that these countries have little regulation is false; they just have far more efficient regulation. Paul then says: 

“Not only are the Scandinavian countries largely free of consumer price controls, but they also lack control of minimum wages. Those on America’s left who clamor for fifteen-dollar-an-hour federal minimum wage laws might be somewhat embarrassed to discover that Scandinavian ‘socialism’ has no minimum wage yet workers seem to thrive.”

But as Matt Bruenig points out, the whole reason there aren’t minimum wages is that  unions in these countries are so strong that labor’s bargaining power is enough to force a living wage out of corporations:

In Finland, it is the business lobby that pleads for the creation of a minimum wage and the unions that repeatedly slam the idea as a right-wing ploy meant to undermine the wages of workers… The lack of minimum wage is not because of market liberalism. It’s because the labor institutions in the country are so far left that the minimum wage is seen as conservative by comparison.”

In fact, in Finland, 84 percent of workers are unionized! Given Paul’s belief that these are dynamic capitalist economics, they must think having a strong labor movement is compatible with capitalist efficiency.

Paul says that there is “limited state involvement in the economy” and  “The Nordic countries have never gone so far as to attempt to take over the means of production.” In Norway, at least, this is false, since the state owns a staggering amount of the means of production. Paul repeats discredited talking points suggesting that when Sweden was more socialist it stagnated but then a right-wing government saved it; in fact, neoliberal policies were terrible

Some of the talking points are irrelevant, or offer a good lesson in the failures of informal logical reasoning. Paul points out that in Norway, “there are still more college students from wealthier families than poor families.” So they’re not perfectly egalitarian and still have social injustices. So what? What does this tell us about free college? Paul notes that “since many blue-collar jobs pay quite well in Scandinavian countries, and the welfare state is almost paternal,” many people don’t go to college there who would go to college here. Again, so what? Aren’t well-paying blue collar jobs a good thing? Paul devotes a chapter to the point that Scandinavians in America are better off than the average Scandinavian (which could be a function of the type of people who immigrate), but again, this proves absolutely nothing about whether the policies of Scandinavia are better at delivering well-being to the country as a whole. 

And, of course, Paul emphasizes the taxes. When conservatives want to portray Scandinavia as Actually A Bunch Of Free Market Capitalists, they say that taxes are low and minimum wages don’t exist and such. But then when they want to make the case that actually these countries are a Big Government horror show, they point to the much higher taxes (for an overview of Nordic taxation see here):

Today’s new American socialists must come clean. They love, love, love Scandinavian ‘socialism’ but they ignore the fact that the Scandinavian welfare state is actually financed by extraordinarily high middle class taxes. In America, these socialists claim they will finance their dreams of ‘Medicare for All’ by sticking it to the rich and leaving the middle class alone. Which is it? Come on socialists international, which is it? 

Let me answer Paul’s question, and clear this up. In fact, we do not say that taxes only fall on the super-rich. We say that the super-rich must pay much more, and what we say about middle-class taxes is that Republicans like Paul are misleading people. When they say that Medicare For All will “raise your taxes,” they are trying to suggest that if you are middle class, you will end up with less money in your pocket after Medicare For All is introduced. In fact, this is the opposite of what will happen. You are already paying for healthcare. Medicare For All is meant to save you money. Bernie Sanders does not deny that taxes will go up, what he says is that you need to look at the savings as well. When you look at the bottom line, social democratic policies aren’t sucking your money, they’re making you better off. That’s the whole point. 

Conservatives say things like “raise your taxes” and “those countries have high middle class taxes” to scare you into thinking that social democracy makes you poor. If you actually look at the numbers, the taxes are structured so that they hit people who can absolutely afford to pay, and even most of those people get their money back in benefits. Socialism or not, there is nothing to fear from making America a bit more Nordic. 

(Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project has ably demolished many more right-wing talking points about Nordic countries and usually when you hear a right-winger say something about Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Denmark you should look up what Bruenig has written to find out why the talking point is garbage.)

PART THREE 

Chapter 19: Socialism Becomes Authoritarianism 

This chapter tries to make the case that all socialist policies are inevitably authoritarian. It gives the usual parade of Stalinist states. Of course, socialists may point to the achievements of the Sewer Socialists who governed cities extremely well in the early 20th century, or the achievements of democratic socialist Tommy Douglas, Canada’s most revered historic leader, who gave the country its treasured universal health care system. Neither was authoritarian—there were no gulags, no purges. Paul then quotes Ayn Rand acolyte George Reisman explaining that socialism’s ultimate intent of making industries the common property of the people inherently requires authoritarianism, namely “the violence necessary to confiscate and redistribute all property”:

Socialism eventually requires ‘a massive act of theft—the means of production must be seized from its owners and turned over to the state. Such seizure is virtually certain to provoke substantial resistance on the part of the owners, resistance which can be overcome only by the use of massive force.

Now, I should note first that “all property” is a mistake. Democratic socialists believe strongly that everyday people should have property, and one of the reasons that we object to the present system is that it has so little respect for their right to possess and enjoy what is rightfully theirs (see the commentary on climate change in a later chapter). But this is an opportunity to address a common libertarian argument that can hook people easily. The argument is that if the government, say, nationalizes a factory, it is committing an act of theft, and because government will enforce its laws, it is actually committing a thuggish kind of armed robbery. Bernie Sanders’ corporate democracy plan, then, which requires corporations to distributes percentages of their shares to their workers, would be an “authoritarian” act, because it is an infringement on property rights.

Here I would like to remind you of what a “property right” is in practice. A property right is the right to exclude other people from something and have that exclusion backed up by the force of the government. Owning my house means that if someone tries to take it in violation of the existing legal process, the government will step in, through the police and the courts, to make sure you keep it. People will be punished by force if they try to take something that is lawfully mine.

What this means is that all property rights involve government use of force. If the ownership of a factory is transferred from a capitalist to the workers, the government is simply deciding that henceforth it will assign the entitlement differently and protect a different party. Now, you may say “well, that’s just a fancy term for theft.” But how do we decide which party ought to be the one with the right? Yes, it’s true, that a capitalist has the right now. But what is it that gives them that right? True, it is codified in law, but if the law changes, so does the property rights regime. The question that the capitalist needs to answer is: Why should that rights regime not be changed? The socialists have an argument for why it should: The people who do the labor ought to have the ownership rights. The capitalist replies that they are entitled to their property, but where does that entitlement flow from? Screaming “theft” is an evasion of the root philosophical question, namely how does the state assign rights?

I point this out to show that Reisman is being demagogic, and is hoping that by saying Authoritarianism he can browbeat you into not thinking very much. Why is the existing property rights regime the correct one, when it conflicts with our basic moral instincts about what constitutes a just distribution? That is the question we socialists ask, and to say “under the property rights regime that exists today, what you are proposing is theft,” is circular.

There is also some misleading material about nationalization in this chapter. Beware: Libertarians always point to failures of governments and ignore the successes. So they’ll point to Amtrak but ignore other countries’ functional public rail systems. Or they’ll point to America’s public schools but ignore great public schools around the world. Or they’ll point to bad public airports and ignore good ones. Or they’ll refuse to acknowledge the existence of well-run nationalized companies. Don’t fall for this crap!

Chapters 20-22: Nazis!

20. Hitler Was A Socialist

21: The Nazis Hated Capitalism

22: The Nazis Didn’t Believe In Private Property

Oh, here we go. I’ve put the “Nazis Were Socialist” myth to bed elsewhere, so I do not want to spend much time repeating myself, but let us review. The argument here is that the Nazis believed in “government control” and disliked “free markets” therefore they were socialist. But this is like saying that because Churchill and Stalin both “empowered the military” and “disliked Hitler,” they shared a political ideology. It focuses on an irrelevant commonality and ignores a colossal difference. The difference between Nazism and socialism is that Nazis are not egalitarians, not anti-racist, not in favor of worker control, not in favor of strong unions, not anti-war, not anti-prison, not anti-nationalist. Everything we believe in, they opposed.  Now, it’s true that Hitler believed in “government” and we believe in “government.” But this is about as meaningful as saying that if Hitler had “politics” and socialists have “politics” they are the same. The whole line of argumentation is childish and nobody who pursues it has any serious interest in understanding left politics. 

Chapter 23: Socialism Encourages Eugenics

Chapter 23 quotes a number of early socialists endorsing eugenics, plus liberals like John Maynard Keynes. The history of eugenics is indeed ugly, and people with all kinds of politics endorsed it. Since, however, there have always been many socialists who did not support eugenics, and many people who supported eugenics were not socialists, the key lesson here seems to be: Do not be the sort of socialist who supports eugenics. Since I do not see anything implying support for eugenics anywhere on the DSA website or the Sanders 2020 campaign platform, I think we can take comfort that today’s socialists have successfully avoided this pitfall. 

It is worth adding that if you don’t like eugenics and Social Darwinism, you should be strongly opposed to free market libertarianism. Under a system in which people are rewarded in accordance with their “productivity” rather than entitled to basic economic rights, those who are less physically and mentally capable of the type of work rewarded in the market will find it impossible to survive. Even assuming that capitalism is “meritocratic,” which it is not, it would produce a society stratified by ability, with the weakest having the least and the very weakest having nothing at all. There would probably be a huge life expectancy gap between rich and poor, with those who can succeed in the Darwinian struggle living while those who cannot being condemned to early deaths. It sounds nightmarish. 

Chapter 24: Your Degree of Enthusiasm for Socialism May Decide Whether You Live Or Die 

Chapter 24 might well be my favorite chapter in the book. First, he cites Alexander Solzhenitsyn—mark the “Solzhenitsyn” square on your Right-Wing Bingo card—talking about how applause for Stalin lasted indefinitely because people were afraid to stop clapping, and a factory director was allegedly once arrested for being the first to stop clapping. “How, pray tell, am I connected to the factory director arrested for unenthusiastic applause?” Paul says that in 2013 (it was actually 2015, but no matter), he was criticized by “necons” for failing to clap enthusiastically enough for Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli president spoke before Congress. Paul says that he does “not recount this episode to compare myself to the horrors of real-life regimes that have and still do kill for the crime of insufficient clapping” but merely to “warn of what happens” when “any dissent” is “enough to rally the politically correct police.” Perhaps you are as amused as I am that what Paul has provided is not proof that your enthusiasm for “socialism” has consequences, but in Congress that your enthusiasm for Israel has consequences. And of course, I could not agree more. 

PART FOUR

Chapter 25: Socialism Promises Equality and Leads to Tyranny 

Here I would like to note how many defenses of capitalism are a kind of “speculative fiction.” They tell us a story of a progression of events that “will” happen. But they are often very shaky in examining the evidence of whether those things do happen. They are fables, and they sound plausible in part because they make sense given the parameters and premises of the imaginary fable-world in which they take place. If you assume, for instance, that a lunch counter proprietor would have a financial incentive not to turn away customers because of their race, you can tell a story about a world in which discrimination disappeared through the competitive operations of the free market. But in this world, the actual one, there is no reason why this would necessarily take place: If the white customers are all bigots who would threaten to take their business elsewhere if the establishment desegregated, the financial incentives for the owner would (and often did) run in the exact opposite direction.

So it is with the story about socialist policies inevitably leading to tyranny. One of the bibles of the free market types (for yes, theirs is a religion, one that believes a great Invisible Hand ensures justice for all if left to do its will) is The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek was one of the originators of the “Nazism and socialism are the same, because they both believe in ‘planning’” talking point, and he posited that government planning of economic activity would take us on a path to totalitarian control. Conservatives have been repeating this over and over ever since. But it’s worth pointing out that Hayek was swiftly proven completely wrong. His book came out in 1944. In 1945, after the end of World War II, the socialist British Labour Party swept into power and ousted Winston Churchill. They proceeded to introduce a fully nationalized healthcare system, one of the most radically egalitarian in the world. Fully state-run hospitals, free to all. “Pure Socialism,” Labour’s radical leftist Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, called it. 

Was socialized medicine the road to serfdom? No. The British National Health Service is the most respected institution in the country, commanding greater admiration than the Royal Family. It is so nationally beloved that politicians of both parties have to pledge to protect it (even Conservative Boris Johnson has been heaping praise on it, especially after its nurses and doctors saved his life). Far from infringing on freedom, it actually makes people more free. As my British-Irish colleague Aisling McCrea writes, government healthcare is less of a bureaucratic pain in the ass, less costly, and eliminates people’s need to worry about whether and how they can afford treatment. It frees you from having to spend hours on the phone negotiating with your insurance company. It frees you to think about the other things you’d rather be doing with your life. And despite scare stories taken from unrepresentative anecdotes, when we look at actual data the British system does well—a 2017 Commonwealth Fund study placed the U.K. number one in the world for effective healthcare services based on 72 indicators. (Of course, Paul cites the “rationing” that the service does, without noting the rationing that private insurance companies do every day in this country, and that is far less equitable.)

The “socialized medicine” bogeyman, then, is speculative fiction. It is a story about a world that could exist, one in which every new task given to government necessarily resulted in evil bureaucrats oppressing the people. This is a story many people are inclined to believe, in part because they have been told their whole lives that government cannot work, and in part because neoliberal politicians have been disinclined to make government work properly, thus giving people bad experiences that sour them on it. Libertarians live in the imaginary world of their heads, and their conclusions are usually at odds with what actual health policy experts and many knowledgeable economists think. 

In fact, they’re even at odds with what Friedrich von Hayek thought! Despite his insistence that central planning would take us all down a deadly path, in The Road to Serfdom he actually says government-provided healthcare—and even a right to food and housing—is fine: 

 [T]here can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody. … Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individual in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. 

    “Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong… [T]here is no incompatability in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.”

Hayek says that in the details, it is possible for poorly-designed versions of such programs to have negative effects. But this comes across as an endorsement of a more radical social welfare state than even many Democrats advocate today! This shows you how radically rightward politics have moved over the last decades. The position of Friedrich von Hayek is now considered a form of “crazy socialism” advocated by the “fringe” politician Bernie Sanders. (This, by the way, is a good reason why we should actually open old books that are talked about more than they are read. Adam Smith wasn’t anything like a modern American free marketer either.)

Chapter 26: All Aspects of Culture Eventually Become Targets For The Planners 

This chapter is about Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As a staunch opponent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution who would not support any of the atrocities described in this (quite long) chapter, I see no argument here against any of what I have advocated in Current Affairs or Why You Should Be A Socialist. 

Chapter 27: If No One Has To Work, No One Will

The title, we should note, is false. Rand Paul himself does not “have” to work, having had a long career as a successful doctor that should make his Senate career financially unnecessary. But he persists in his labors. Why? Well, because presumably his work as a United States Senator is intrinsically rewarding and he believes it is a good way to foist his ghastly libertarian politics on the world. 

But this chapter is not actually even about the question of what motivates people to work. It is just (in its entirety) a description of an NPR news story about a group of farmers who resisted Mao Zedong’s farming policies in 1978. The lesson of the story is that “violence is not an aberration but a necessary tool if you want a society made ‘equal’ by redistribution of wealth and property.” Now, I am on the side of the farmers against Mao, but this is a good opportunity to rebut a common libertarian point about “violence.” You will often hear people like Paul saying that “taxation is violence,” because if you don’t pay your taxes you can be put in jail. But they do not note that property rights themselves depend on the same kind of violence. Claiming something as your property is claiming the right to exclude others from using it through violent force, regardless of their need or your lack of need. The entire system of private property is based on forcible exclusion. Of course, property is claimed to be “legitimate” while taxation is “illegitimate.” But it’s not clear where the right to enclose the commons as private property could derive from, while taxation has a perfectly defensible claim to legitimacy. That’s not to say that having the government expropriate all of someone’s wealth is acceptable, but the idea that taxation is a violent act of theft while property is simply the exercise of non-coercive “liberty” is simply false. 

Chapter 28: The Cure For Failed Socialism Is Always More Socialism

Chapter 28 is about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Paul shows that under Pol Pot, the Khmer dictatorship eliminated private property, instituted a system of slave labor, and killed countless Cambodians. Paul writes:

“We must also acknowledge that a Pol Pot-type passion for equality remains a threat to the peace and well-being of every nation… we should never forget that the killing fields of Cambodia will stand forever as a grotesque monument to egalitarianism, and take heed that those who preach the egalitarian gospel of envy are, whether they know it or not, apostles of Pol Pot.”

When I read passages like this, I do wonder whether the person writing it can possibly mean what they say. Does he really think Bernie Sanders is an “apostle of Pol Pot”? He can’t.

Pol Pot did not believe in equality. He believed in inequality, the inequality of power between Pol Pot and the people over which he ruled. He may have insisted that he did so in the name of equality. But it was a perversion of egalitarian ideals, not an enactment of them. Slavery is the most unequal possible system. An egalitarian must necessarily oppose dictatorships and monarchies. 

This should be obvious, but authentic equality requires people to be equal. Not “the same,” mind you. But equal in their basic rights and their capacity to live a fulfilled life. If you want to get a sense of egalitarian ethics, don’t look at the horrific class system instituted by Pol Pot, but at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which presents a vision of a kind of social equality that isn’t a cruel sham. Anyone who pretends they can’t see the difference Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” and the UDHR’s aspiration for basic entitlements to health, education, and a livelihood is being willfully ignorant. 

Chapter 29: Poetry Can Be Dangerous Under Socialism

Chapter 29 discusses Stalin’s crackdown on dissidents, including the poet Osip Mandelstam. The chapter explains that dictatorships quash disagreement, and shows that this is harmful and horrible. Indeed, Stalinism is bad—many of Stalin’s victims were dissident socialists. Anyone who believes in Stalinism should come away from this chapter unsure whether their beliefs are actually sound. 

Chapter 30: It’s Not Socialism Without Purges

This chapter is dedicated to telling the story of a friend of Paul’s called Jon, whose father was killed by the regime of Joseph Stalin. I am sympathetic to Jon, but I would also point out the irrelevance of this story to a discussion of Bernie Sanders and the contemporary socialist movement. If it is not socialism without purges, why have American socialists spent the last century at the forefront of the fight for civil liberties and freedom from government coercion? Why are so many of them prison abolitionists? Why did Eugene Debs say that while there was “a soul in prison, I am not free”? Democratic socialists in this country have had an excellent record of sticking up for the rights of dissidents, and it has been their nemeses in the Republican and Democratic parties who built the U.S.’s giant system of mass incarceration. 

PART FIVE

Chapter 31: Socialism Expects Selfless Rulers and Citizens

The title of this chapter is false. In fact, it’s precisely because we recognize that “rulers” tend to be corrupted by their power that we are such strong supporters of popular participation in governance. But the actual theme of the chapter is “utopias.” Paul is against them. Paul says:

Because humankind is not selfless (and even if it were, no two people would ever agree on what the utopian ideal would be), the standards for a utopia are naive. The leaders would have to be superhuman to overcome natural self-interest and find agreement on what exactly the ideal striven for by all would be.”

Paul quotes Karl Popper: 

“The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of the few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship.”

And Mises:

“At the bottom of all totalitarian doctrines lies the belief that the rulers are wiser and loftier than their subjects and that they therefore know better what benefits those ruled than they know themselves.”

Paul adds:

“To believe that history has a direction and that any one individual or government should assist history along that path is not only utopian but ultimately dangerous. Just ask the victims of the gulag or Auschwitz.” 

Now, I have to say, I find this a bit extreme. True, there are dangers to presuming that one is on the right side of history, but surely Paul does not think that Martin Luther King’s “arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” philosophy is rightly placed alongside the Nazi gas chambers. In fact, that’s grotesque. 

I am very pro-utopia. I have an entire chapter of Why You Should Be A Socialist about utopian thinking and why it’s valuable, and I think Paul’s concern is completely overstated. The problem is authoritarianism, rigidity, and a lack of self-criticism, not utopian thinking itself. Not all utopias are ruled by philosopher kings; one of my favorite pieces of utopian literature is News From Nowhere. Anyway, if you follow the guidelines for utopian thinking laid out in Why You Should Be A Socialist, there is very little risk it will lead to gulags and guillotines. The key is not to have a fixed set of blueprints, but a set of humane principles that guide different attempts to improve the world.  

A final point: Conservatives often speak pessimistically about people’s “natural self-interest” ruining everything, but they rarely offer actual evidence. In fact, it turns out that their assumptions about human nature are often false. The “tragedy of the commons,” for instance, which is supposed to mean that self-interested maximizers will deplete resources held in common, doesn’t hold in reality; what actual happens is that formal and informal social rules are developed for how to use common property sustainably. (See Elinor Ostrom’s brilliant Governing the Commons, research for which she won the Nobel Prize.) The assumptions about human nature are just assumptions, and I often think that when free market libertarians say that “people would do X,” they are really just saying “well, I would do X,” not realizing that other people aren’t nearly as self-interested as themselves. 

Chapter 32: Progress Comes From Rebels and Dreamers

There’s no need for me to dispute the thesis of this chapter, since in Why You Should Be A Socialist I have long sections about the rebels and dreamers that dared to believe in suffrage, abolitionism, the eight-hour workday, the end of child labor, and the National Health Service. Paul, however, does not write much about what particular kinds of dreams are worth dreaming. Instead, this chapter is a tribute to the “spirit of the individual” through the examination of Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, and Zamyatin, with a dash of George Orwell. Since my kind of socialism, like Oscar Wilde’s (and George Orwell’s), also believes in the spirit of the individual and is skeptical of centralized power, there is not much here to discuss.

But I would like to quickly address something Paul says about utopias. He says:

[W]hen the workers’ paradise is here, what then will men strive for? When history ends and the state melts away, what then? The great insight of Dostoyevsky is that even if it were possible to achieve such a nirvana it should still be opposed, because a fundamental aspect of who we are is our desire to attain. ‘Man is a creative animal… destined to strive consciously towards a goal.’ And we need that impetus to survive—a utopian goal achieved eliminates that impetus. Finding any utopia, arriving at any Eden, is not to be desired because the end of history would in actuality be the end of a fundamental part of man’s nature. 

Paul is not the only one I have seen worry about getting bored in paradise. I think the concern is a fairly minor one, since we are so far from having a utopia that we could make giant strides toward it and still have plenty left to “attain.” I do not believe a “perfect world” is realizable, and the primary value of utopias is as “guiding stars” that help us keep making forward motion. It is actually because we always need something new to aim for that it is worth comparing our inevitably flawed existing society to the ideal, and figuring out where we are falling short. 

However, I also differ from Paul on the question of whether a utopia, if attainable, would be desirable. If we think about what “utopias” consist of—the absence of war, abundant resources to make sure everyone lived well, the flowering of culture, universal free healthcare, meaningful work (or no work!) for all, it is only a boring world if one is a boring person. In fact, the elimination of material deprivation and drudgery will free us up to explore the universe’s limitless wonders, to make things, to watch things, to take things apart and put them back together, to invent, to wander, to love and sometimes simply to live, enjoying the gift that is the earth without feeling any need to be doing anything at all. But if you are the type who cannot live without some giant project to be working on, remember that there is one waiting for us: the exploration of the vast mysterious cosmos above us. Once we get to utopia, that’s when we begin the real future, the Star Trek one. Personally, one of my great frustrations with the petty, unnecessary human conflicts—those that Paul seems to think makes life worth living and constitute “history”—is that they get in the way of our species’ true destiny, which is to explore and understand (rather than simply to “produce” and “consume”). I am pissed off with capitalism, and with nation-states, because I want the people of earth to come together around the centuries-long unifying mission of finding out what’s out there in this unfathomably big universe that we have almost no real comprehension of.

So do not worry: In the utopia, there will be plenty to do.  

Chapter 33: Freedom Is Not The Inevitable Outcome of History And Must Be Protected

This chapter is an argument against Francis Fukuyama and asserts that history does not necessarily move in any one direction according to a fixed logic. I have no argument with this chapter, especially because it also contains some sound criticism of both Bill Clinton and neoconservatives. 

PART SIX

Chapter 34: Socialism Leads to Cronyism 

There is a typical move made in libertarian discourse, in which the libertarian will say “ah, of course I do not think all of the features of the present economic system are good. But the problem is not capitalism. It is crony capitalism.” And the crony part of capitalism is blamed for all of its ills. If we had a pure free market, things would be better. Funnily enough, this is the mirror image of what people like Paul accuse socialists of doing, namely saying “well, the real thing has never been tried.”

Paul does not, in this chapter, flesh out what “crony capitalism” actually is, but usually it is described as corporations having undue influence over the government, and soliciting handouts from it (government bailouts are often cited as an example). The problem is those capitalists who decry corporate-friendly government do not typically favor any measures that would reduce corporate influence over the state, such as restrictions on campaign finance and the “revolving door.” If we didn’t want corporations to make the laws, we would need to tightly restrict their political activity. We would also need to restrict their ability to hire vast teams of expensive lawyers to get every law interpreted in the way most favorable to them. I will take libertarians seriously on their opposition to “crony capitalism” when they start favoring measures that would prevent it. 

In this chapter, Paul also notes the interesting fact that the “robber barons” of the 21st century are often Democrats, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. I do not disagree, and am not fond of either man. Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal is an excellent history of how the Democrats became a party that served the interests of the super-rich.  

Chapter 35: If Socialists Can’t Find A Crisis, They Will Create One

The thesis of this chapter is that “climate alarmists are using the ‘crisis’ of climate change to scare people into relinquishing the freedom and prosperity of capitalism in exchange for a global socialist welfare state.” Paul is particularly pissed off that climate activists focus unduly on the United States, citing UN climate official Ottmar Edenhofer saying that we “redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy,” and “one has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore…” Paul comments: 

Basically they want to let poor, undeveloped countries emit unlimited carbon dioxide. After all, as even Edenhofer acknowledges, ‘in order to get rich one has to burn coal, oil, or gas.’ And they want to put heavy carbon restrictions on developed countries like the United States. While that would slow our economy and limit our freedom, Edenhofer thinks we deserve it because we ‘have basically expropriated the atmosphere of the world community.’

I think this is worth explaining, because while Paul’s comments here seem to be a defense of Property Rights against a scheme to redistribute wealth, they actually reveal that free market libertarianism has nothing to do with property rights and everything to do with maintaining the power of the ultra-rich.

To understand why, it’s important first to understand the “property rights” consequences of climate change. While Paul says that says “the United States actually reduced CO2 more than any nation in 2017,” if we look at cumulative emissions of CO2 (i.e., who contributed to the most to this problem in total), the U.S. and other Western countries have made a massively outsized contribution:

The U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of cumulative emissions, Europe another 33 percent. Paul of course mentions China’s emissions (they quote the Washington Times): “it doesn’t really matter how much America reduces its greenhouse gases because China and India cancel out any and all progress we make”), but China is responsible for under 13 percent of cumulative emissions (and India only 3 percent!) 

Let’s be clear on what this means. Paul agrees with Edenhofer that the burning of fossil fuels helps make poor countries rich quickly. The United States’ vast wealth is in part built on its use of fossil fuels. But fossil fuels create a giant problem, in the form of climate change. If Paul was serious about property rights, they would realize very quickly what Edenhofer means when he says that we have essentially “expropriated” wealth from the rest of the world. By burning fossil fuels, we damage the property of people around the world who did not burn fossil fuels. Rising sea levels may wipe out cities in Vietnam and Thailand this century, but not because of what Vietnam and Thailand have done. Our actions have, in part, imposed consequences on them that we have not paid for.  

If you negligently damage someone else’s property, ordinarily you would be liable for the damage in court. Surely Paul would agree with that. If you enrich yourself by damaging someone else’s property, you need to pay them for the damage. This is why climate change is seen as an act of theft from less developed nations by more developed ones, and why many developing nations resist the idea that they should be the ones to reduce their emissions. From their perspective, the U.S. and Europe have enriched themselves, and are now demanding that nobody else do the same. But this wealth is ill-gotten. We owe reparations for a harm we have done. And any libertarian who was serious about property would recognize that.

This is what Edenhofer means when he says that climate policy in this domain is not really even “environmental policy” at all. Once we have agreed on the emissions targets, the policies we set involve fundamental questions about who should pay what. If fossil fuels are kept in the ground, the corporations that own them will lose a lot of money. But if they are taken out, they may enrich the corporation but damage the property of many others through exacerbating climate catastrophe. The question of climate change policy is inseparable from the question about how the wealth of the world should be distributed and what “rights” should be protected. 

Paul does not care to think about these questions, because Paul doesn’t really care about property rights. America can destroy other people’s property as much as we like (and of course, the “property rights” of Native Americans are meaningless, whereas the rights of the thieves that colonized and murdered them are Inviolable). Free market freedom is the freedom of the boss to do as he pleases regardless of its effects on other people. 

Chapter 36: Socialism and Climate Change Alarmism Go Together 

Climate change calls into question some of the central dogmas of libertarianism, because it implies that the policies favored by American capitalists are not actually about a principled commitment to freedom or property rights. This is one reason why many on the right are skeptical of mainstream climate science. (When I debated a libertarian from the Cato Institute at Pomona College in 2018, and brought up climate change as an example of a catastrophic free market failure, he responded by saying that his friends in Washington had told him a lot of dire climate predictions were just “Chicken Little stuff.”) So it is unsurprising that Paul devotes a chapter to questioning whether climate change is a very serious problem.

The chapter just recites a series of discredited talking points by climate change deniers. A few will suffice to show that Paul is uninterested in actually discussing the science:

  • Paul says that one should ask “climate change alarmists” whether they’ve heard of Milankovic cycles, which explain some changes in the earth’s climate by changes in the earth’s movement through space. Here is an article from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory patiently explaining that since these cycles operate over very large spans of time they do not explain the rapid changes in warming that have occurred in our time.
  • Paul says that “Researchers are also finding evidence that loss of glaciers may not be as dramatic as predicted. According to a March 2019 article in National Geographic, ‘NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) has revealed Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier, the island’s biggest, is actually growing, at least at its edge. The article quotes NASA oceanographer Josh Willis: ‘the thinking was once glaciers started retreating, nothing’s stopping them. We’ve found out that’s not true.’ Sigh, I suppose it’s time for another round of I Bet If I Look Up That Source It Will Turn Out Not To Be What You Say It’s Saying.  Here’s some more from it: “ despite the fact that this particular glacier is growing, the whole Greenland ice sheet is still losing lots and lots of ice. Jakobshavn drains only about seven percent of the entire ice sheet, so even if it were growing robustly, mass loss from the rest of the ice sheet would outweigh its slight expansion… “Over 90 percent of the heat that’s trapped from greenhouse gases are warming the oceans,” [Willis] says. “So we know in the long run, this cooling is going to pass. When it does, the glacier is going to retreat even faster than it was before.”… The interaction of warm currents eroding ocean-facing glaciers already impacts Antarctica; 10 percent of its coastal glaciers are currently in retreat. Naturally, Paul ignores all the glaciers that have melted and focuses on the one that didn’t. (For more on how much glaciers have melted, visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Glacier Mass Database.) 
  • Paul says: “When climate alarmists wail and gnash their teeth over rising ocean levels, I like to remind them that the oceans rose some four hundred feet in the last twenty thousand years, well before man began burning fossil fuels… Perhaps nature itself has something to do with climate change?” Let us take a quick trip to the Smithsonian, which patiently explains that what matters is changes in the rate of sea level rise: “…But over the past century, the average height of the sea has risen more consistently—less than a centimeter every year, but those small additions add up. Today, sea level is 5 to 8 inches (13-20 centimeters) higher on average than it was in 1900. That’s a pretty big change: for the previous 2,000 years, sea level hadn’t changed much at all. The rate of sea level rise has also increased over time. Between 1900 and 1990 studies show that sea level rose between 1.2 millimeters and 1.7 millimeters per year on average. By 2000, that rate had increased to about 3.2 millimeters per year and the rate in 2016 is estimated at 3.4 millimeters per year. Sea level is expected to rise even more quickly by the end of the century. Scientists agree that the changes in climate that we are seeing today are largely caused by human activity, and it’s climate change that drives sea level rise. Sea level started rising in the late 1800s, soon after we started burning coal, gas and other fossil fuels for energy.” Or you can visit the page launched by 13 government agencies, as part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (initiated by Reagan), which affirms that: “Human-caused climate change has made a substantial contribution to sea level rise since 1900, contributing to a rate of rise greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years.” 

I hesitate to spend any more time on this. Paul has not read any of the scientific literature. This is fringe stuff, and not even well-argued (some climate denial propaganda is masterfully put together). It’s in here because unless Paul denies mainstream climate science, Paul will have to admit that there is such a thing as a collective social problem requiring coordinated government action to solve it. This Paul can never admit, because their ideology is fixed. They are hoping that the audience is unfamiliar enough with the facts to swallow this nonsense.  

Incidentally, this chapter includes nothing about socialism. 

Chapter 37: Socialist Green New Deal Allows For No Dissent

You might think this chapter would be about the Green New Deal. You would be wrong. It is not even mentioned. But here are other things this chapter is about: how Twitter banned someone for saying that “men are not women,” how a Democratic Pennsylvania legislator once doxxed and threatened someone, how Facebook has a liberal bias, how Steve Scalise was shot by a supporter of Bernie Sanders (Paul is generous enough to say that he doesn’t blame Bernie for this, though this raises the question of why it’s relevant at all), how the media promoted Jussie Smollett’s “hoax hate crime,” how a Muslim woman once falsely claimed to have been attacked by Trump supporters, and how Paul himself was once attacked by his neighbor while mowing his lawn. Paul does not really attempt to tie these threads together, so I am not sure what they say about socialism.

The closest that the chapter comes to discussing the Green New Deal is when it mentions that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Chellie Pingree once sent a letter criticizing tech companies like Facebook and Google for sponsoring the right-wing “LibertyCon” conference. (Although remember, the tech companies are censorious leftists.) Paul approvingly quotes the Federalist saying that it is a “veiled form of intimidation” for a member of Congress to criticize private companies (after Paul, as a member of Congress, has just criticized those same companies). I am not sure what the theory of coercion here is, because it seems to imply that speech is a form of exercising power. I do not think Paul actually wants to adopt that theory, though, because it would radically contradict the libertarian idea that the only unacceptable kinds of coercion are those involving direct violence upon someone’s person or property. I think Paul is just whining here. Anyway, there’s nothing about the Green New Deal, and socialism too goes essentially unmentioned in the chapter, so let us move on.  

Chapter 38: Fake News and Propaganda on the Rise in America

This entire chapter is about that incident in January of 2019 where a teenager in a MAGA hat smirked at a Native American man in a tense standoff near the Lincoln Memorial. This has nothing to do with socialism. 

Chapter 39: Welcome to the Panopticon

Chapter 39 is about why the Chinese surveillance state is bad. I agree that the Chinese surveillance state is bad. It also discusses ways in which the United States national security state is becoming similarly invasive. I agree that the United States national security state is invasive. Chapter 39 is correct.

Afterword: Finding Common Ground

Having compared Bernie Sanders to Hitler and Pol Pot, Paul’s concluding chapter is a plea for cooperation, pointing out that on issues like civil liberties and criminal punishment reform, Paul has worked with Democrats. But Paul makes it clear that on the question of capitalism versus socialism, they will cede no ground whatsoever:

Any shift in the direction of socialism not only damages economic prosperity but also threatens liberty… As long as you refrain from violence and fraud, as long as you honor your contract, government should leave us free to voluntarily interact in the marketplace. Capitalism, the freedom of voluntary exchange, is what made America great.

It is worth remembering just how radical Paul’s libertarianism is. Even though Paul has said that Denmark is a “capitalist” country, Paul does not believe we should have the kind of guaranteed healthcare, education, and family leave that Danes have. In fact, Paul believes that any shift in this direction is a threat to liberty, and reaffirms the free market libertarian position that government’s role in the market should be limited to stopping violence and fraud. This means Paul believes that there should be: 

  • No laws against racially discriminating among your customers. You could explicitly give white people better deals because they are white. You could also tell black people you were declining to hire them because they were black. 
  • No mandatory parental leave, meaning many women would keep having to return to work within weeks or even days of having had a baby. This is widespread in the United States, and it is incredibly cruel, and Paul is fine with it. 
  • No law against firing a woman for getting pregnant.
  • No minimum wage.
  • No restrictions on child labor.
  • No protections for trying to organize a union, meaning workers could all be fired and replaced for trying to bargain collectively instead of individually.
  • No limit to how much your rent can go up each year, meaning if your landlord says “It’s going to be $3000 instead of $1000” you will lose your  home. 
  • No restrictions on political campaign spending, meaning that ordinary people will continue to find it almost impossible to compete for public office.
  • No laws against demanding that your employees have sex with you if they want to keep their jobs, or firing employees for voting for the wrong political candidate.
  • No public school system.
  • No Social Security.
  • No unemployment benefits.
  • No food stamps.
  • No Medicare, no Medicaid.

And most of all, there should be no compromise: Paul says very clearly that we have freedom to the degree that we unleash the free market and restrict the power of government, and we have socialistic misery to the extent that we do not. 

It should be obvious by now that I do not think Rand & Kelley Paul know very much about socialism. In fact, I’m not even convinced that either of them has ever read a book by a socialist. (I, on the other hand, have read far more books by libertarians than any human being should ever be subjected to in a lifetime.) To say that The Case Against Socialism fails is overly generous, because it implies that this book makes a case. In fact, as you’ve seen, it’s just a disconnected series of childish talking points, which misrepresent source material and have almost no logical structure. Socialism, the ostensible subject of the book, is barely defined, so that Hosni Mubarak, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Bernie Sanders all fit under the umbrella. Or maybe Bernie doesn’t, because Actually Nordic Social Democracy Is Capitalism, but maybe he does, because single-payer health care and any attempt to stop climate change are socialist plots to erode our liberty. Who knows? Socialism is mostly just defined as “the thing that is bad,” and if you find a young person who believes in socialism but doesn’t support bad things, you just tell them they don’t understand their own beliefs.

I hope readers see Paul’s book for what it is, but we can’t just laugh, because it’s also quite frightening. The fact that Paul sees socialists as the equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot means that capitalists who share Paul’s view will stop at nothing to destroy us. They may even resort to extreme and antidemocratic measures. That does happen: look at the liquidation of the communists in Indonesia, or Pinochet’s torture and murder of dissidents in Chile, or the murder of protesters in contemporary Bolivia. So far, American socialists have mostly been left in peace because we have been marginal, but if we began to pose a real political threat, would those who see us as Adolf Hitler begin to treat us as one ought to treat a resurgent Nazi movement? I don’t know, but when I read Dinesh D’Souza’s book saying Trump ought to “deploy the IRS, the NSA, and the FBI against the Left” and start stringing antifascists to lamposts, I certainly got a chill. I get the same chill reading Rand Paul suggesting I’m a menace to liberty who should be classified along with Pol Pot.

Paul actually makes clear in the “common ground” chapter that for them, there is no common ground between capitalism and socialism. It’s liberty or death, and they’re convinced they stand for liberty. It is the liberty of your boss to tell you what to do, a strange inversion of freedom in which being sexually harassed at work or denied a meal at a lunch counter because of your race is permissible thanks to “freedom of contract.” Nobody should want to live in a world like this, and The Case Against Socialism shows definitively that capitalist thinking is immoral, ignorant, and shallow. Read it if you want to see how weak the other side’s case is. 

More In: Socialism

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Spreading Sweetness and Light! Current Affairs takes on hellfire, why teens love socialism, the magic of Motown, and the legacy of Huey Long. Cover art by Aleksandra Waliszewska.

The Latest From Current Affairs