A recent survey reports 37 percent of Americans over the age of 18 “prefer socialism to capitalism.” After Bernie Sanders near-run candidacy last year, that cannot be much of a surprise. Still, the U.S. historically has stood out among Western nations due to its lack of a sizeable socialist movement. So what’s changed?
Peter Thiel gave an interesting speech endorsing Donald Trump. Many people are very unhappy about the endorsement. I am ambivalent about this aspect, because it is beyond my poor powers of calculation to determine which of the worst pair of major party presidential candidates in American history would do the most long-term damage to the republic. But I disagree strongly with the theme of his speech—that what American needs is to become a “normal country.”
What Thiel seems to mean is that America should resemble most other nations, which are less interventionist in foreign affairs and whose citizens see themselves as acting out of interests rather than some set of unique principles. Becoming a normal nation in this respect would not only represent a change from America’s historic role in the world but be against our long-term interests.
The United States is a very unusual, indeed extraordinary nation, because it is founded on principles rather than ethnicity or conquest. And its principles were mostly fine classical liberal ones. That has made it look and behave very differently from other nations. For instance, it has not had as large a welfare state as other industrial nations or even a socialist party. One of my greatest fears is that this election is making it more “normal” in this respect.
The Republican standard-bearer is not trying to trim our burgeoning entitlements; the Democratic candidate, now influenced by the socialist Left of her party, wants substantially to increase them. Insofar as citizens see themselves as part of a “normal nation” rather than one dedicated to principles of liberty, the United States will decline, as the ever-larger entitlement state creates economic stagnation and a war of all against all.
The people of Brazil confront the impeachment of their President for the second time in 25 years. It is always a traumatic event. What does it mean? Is it true that President Dilma Rousseff is under attack because our elite can’t stand a popular government, as the members of her Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) say? Or is it a constitutional and necessary step to get rid of a thoroughly corrupt government?
American exceptionalism may be disappearing. American exceptionalism posits that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations, particularly those in Europe. The United States was founded on a commitment to principles whereas other nations were founded on ties of blood. Moreover, our principles were those of the Enlightenment, embracing individual liberty and the rule of law.
One of the results, as Seymour Martin Lipset noted, was that the United States has never had a serious socialist party. But in this election cycle a serious socialist has come close to winning the Democratic nomination. Indeed, Sanders would be winning except for the loyalty Clinton enjoys among African American voters. But as the votes of the congressional Black Caucus show, African American voters are the most left-wing bloc economically. Next time they would be likely vote for the socialist candidate who imitates Sanders.
We have also never had a major nationalist party, like the National Front in France. Such parties run not only on protectionism and xenophobia but on preserving an unreformed entitlement state. But Trump’s platform is a somewhat paler version of such virulent European parties.
The combination of Trump’s and Sanders’ rise shows that the candle of liberty by which American exceptionalism glows may be flickering out.
Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”
The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the opposition Labour Party in Britain was conducted in a rather peculiar fashion. All one had to do to obtain a vote in it was to declare on-line that one supported the aims of the party and pay £3 ($4.60). It was rumoured that a number of Conservatives had voted for Mr Corbyn in this fashion, in the belief that Mr Corby was so left-wing that he could never be elected, thus assuring a permanent Conservative government.
Not much has been said yet about the fact that the man now giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed socialist with a picture of Eugene Debs hanging in his Senate office in Washington. Even when his socialism is discussed, for example in a recent Politico article by David Greenberg, more time is spent describing the history of American socialism and relatively little explaining how Sanders fits in.
In both parties’ primaries a real populist is running, the kind of person many of the Framers would have called a demagogue. On the Republican side, the billionaire says we can deport all illegal immigrants and he will persuade Mexico to give the money to build a fence. Although he proclaims himself a conservative, his most substantial complaint about big government appears to be that he is not running it.
On the Democratic side, a self-proclaimed socialist argues that the problem with government is that it is not even bigger. He wants to sharply raise taxes and provide more government jobs. He also wants to criminalize all kinds of voluntary acts, from choosing to work at mutually agreeable wages to trading goods and services with foreigners, including those for whom that trade may mean the difference between subsistence and penury. This tribune of equality would ground down the truly destitute of the world. And, sadly, both these candidates are riding pretty high in the polls.
But these candidacies actually show the relative health of the United States compared to the most comparable democracies—those in Europe. Our populists of right and left are less bad then their populists, less likely to win power, and even in power less likely to do permanent damage.
Future students of our age may well treat Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and James R. Otteson’s The End of Socialism as bookends on an era. Hayek raises the specter of state collectivism in his classic work from 1944. In this new book, Otteson charts socialism’s end, in both senses of that word: the goals it fails to realize as well as its inevitable collapse.
No doubt marketing is an exact science but I doubt that it can fully account for the choices made by people in second hand bookshops. Purchases there depend much on chance and whim; for example, I was in a bookshop in Dublin recently and I found myself irresistibly drawn to a book with a photographic plate of some children, sitting on fences in a wilderness, looking very happy, with the caption ‘Under Socialism the barefooted children ran terrible risks from venemous snakes.’