Socialism vs. social democracy

Every now and then, the PhD in political science comes in handy. By that I mean, I’ve read some really boring, esoteric, random stuff that goes into a great deal of detail on just about every obscure political thing you can think of. In my master’s program, I took a class on Marx. An entire semester. Read everything the man wrote. All of it. Taught by a Marxist feminist. So, I have a pretty good idea of what his ideas were and where they end up when taken to their logical conclusion.

I’ve also read a whole lot about a bunch of different regime types and ideologies. Liberal democracy, social democracy, electoral democracy, authoritarian dictatorships, fascism, feminism, communism, socialism, gawd…the list goes on and on.

All of this brings me to my main argument here today. Namely, democratic socialism and social democracy ARE NOT THE SAME THING!!

Wait, you say. Yes, they are! I saw a Facebook meme that clearly states that democratic socialism is just wanting all those things we pay for with taxes. Just like the Scandinavian countries do.

No! No it is not! They are most definitely not the same.

*deep breath*. OK, first we go back to Marx. He of the complete lack of understanding of human nature and nationalism. And, bad economic ideas. Marx had essentially a three-step process for moving from capitalism to communism.

  1. Capitalism would build the industrial base for the modernization of the economy and the increasing wealth of society. But, (as he was observing the Industrial Revolution in London), this would result in a great deal of inequality and the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production (businesses) would get wealthier while their employees (workers) would not move up or get poorer. Eventually, the workers would revolt against the bourgeoisie and this would lead to…
  2. Socialism. In socialism (and here’s the important bit folks), the state (government) would now own the means of production (businesses) and provide regulations regarding the economy including wages, prices, production, conditions, etc. Private property (homes, etc) would still be allowed under the socialism phase. Eventually, the state, having regulated everything and created equality among all citizens, would “wither away” leading to…
  3. Communism. In this phase all property and all business would be owned by all citizens in common (the state). No private property, no privately owned businesses. Everybody would contribute to and receive all from the state. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

I’ll tackle the idea of communism and it’s failure to take human nature into account in a later post. What I want to focus on here, is the “democratic socialism equals social democracy” foolishness.

The Scandinavian countries are social democracies. In other words, they are capitalist democracies that tax at a high rate in order to provide a generous social safety net for their citizens. They are most emphatically NOT democratic socialist governments. These governments do not own all businesses or have planned economies. They rely on private businesses to provide the lions share of taxes (IKEA is not a Swedish government owned business, but it is a big source of tax revenue for them). This is such a misunderstanding in the United States that in 2016 the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen felt the need to clarify things in an address to Harvard University.

“I know that some people in the US 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,” Rasmussen said.

(emphasis added)

Catch that? “…far from a socialist planned economy.” They are market economies. Capitalist. That’s the difference and it’s the “planned” bit that gives most people the hives. Still unsure? Still think it might be a good idea to give this system a go? Run this thought experiment. Think about the last interaction you had with a government official. The DMV? Tax authorities? Paying a parking ticket? Now, imagine that individual and all his/her co-workers making economic decisions for the entire country. Wages, prices, output, imports, exports, tax rates, licensing requirements (wait…some of them already do that), product type and manufacture, product providers, employment decisions. All of it made by that person at the DMV/IRS/city office wherever. That’s socialism. And that’s socialism whether you call it democratic socialism, or just socialism.

As Mr. Rasmussen said, the Scandinavian countries are market economies. They are capitalist in nature. They provide generous social benefits. They are not socialIST.

So for the love of all that’s good, right, and bright in this world, stop conflating these terms. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. He wants the state to closely control the economy. For the end result of this idea, please see Venezuela for reference. Most Democratic voters believe that means he’s in favor of social democracy. Based on what I’ve read, he’s not. And, near as I can tell, none of the other Democratic candidates have figured that out.

This has been bugging me for a while now. Thank you for reading. We now return you to your regularly scheduled orneriness.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay