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Matthew Stokes: On Socialism

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

The distinction between Republicans and Democrats in America has been remarkably consistent for several years, so much that the average voter could probably give a brief explanation on where the two parties diverge.  Today things are different, and not just because the politics surrounding President Trump have shifted Republican priorities on trade and other issues. The growth of socialism is another marker that was not part of a mainstream political discussion in recent years.   The success of politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders – a strong frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination – and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made socialism an acceptable term. Republicans have understandably bristled at the socialist resurgence, but given socialism’s popularity among younger voters, it’s important to handle the matter with care. If Republicans and conservatives are serious about pushing back against an encroaching socialism, or least socialist sympathies, there are a few things they could do.

Socialism is an old idea; its modern iteration dates at least to the French Revolution.  It has had significant moments in American history for over a century, though much of that history took place in the Midwest.  Politicians would do well to get a brief overview of Karl Marx’s thought, for while I agree that he was an angry, resentful man whose ideas ultimately fail, he raised important questions about capitalism.  

Let’s be clear about what what socialism is and is not.  Socialism is the consolidation of all capital in the hands of the state.  It works to remove capital from individuals and corporations, believing that fairness and justice can be mediated from the top down.  Socialism works from the assumption that the economy is a fixed pie, and that as one person or group prospers, it does so at the expense of another.  Contrary to many of its supporters, socialism is not simply a handful of government programs. Our public schools and libraries are not socialist, nor are the expansive welfare states of Scandinavia and Western Europe, though I would agree the latter share some of its impulses.

From a policy standpoint, we must again be clear.  During a recent floor speech in the House of Representatives, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks spoke against the policy of net neutrality, arguing that it is a socialist policy.  While I agree with Brooks’ position, net neutrality is not socialism.  I agree that it is harmful regulation, but regulation is not complete control.  Nor, for that matter, is single-payer healthcare. These are top-down, highly structured policies, but Republicans should be careful that they do not label every policy they oppose as socialism.  This is just as inaccurate as the progressive left’s tendency to affix the label upon every policy it likes, and it has the added problem of elevating socialism in the event that the Democratic policy proves successful.

Next, it is important for proponents of the free market to make the moral case for the market.  There are so many excellent books on this; I might start with Michael Novak and George Gilder, but the best work in recent years is that of Deirdre McCloskey, who argues that bourgeois values, that is, boring middle class values, are the things that have made capitalism work so well. Critics often suggest that capitalism brings out the worst in us, but this is mistaken.  Markets discourage vice and reward virtue; you cannot run a successful business over the long term while being corrupt and irresponsible. Markets also force cooperation. We often think it’s crude to see people as customers or consumers first, but that is a first step to seeing people as neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Furthermore, the movement of capital through the market improves people’s lives. We make a lot of great things in Alabama; big things like lumber and steel and seemingly small things like high end fashion and craft beer and coffee, but each of those things has allowed people to earn a living and eventually ply their trade in a manner that has benefitted other lives.  Such things are not possible without a free market, and if we’re serious about defending the market, we should say so joyfully and forcefully.

We must also recognize problems and work to find market-based solutions.  Rural healthcare is perhaps the best example of this. A variety of trends have led doctors away from the rural healthcare model, leaving Alabamians in rural areas without a care in their immediate vicinity.  Marx in fact predicated that specialization would make people obsolete; that prediction is not playing out quite as he expected but he was onto something all the same. Free market policymakers should continue to put in serious work to alleviate this problem; Medicaid expansion alone will not solve the problem if doctors are not willing to live and work in a rural community.

It is also important to recognize that what is good for a particular business is not always good for the market.  In 2014, craft beer giant Stone Brewing was looking to build an East Coast operation to compliment its home base in San Diego.  Two bills in the Alabama legislature would have privileged Stone at the expense of smaller brewers.  Stone ended up in Virginia, and while its addition to the Alabama economy would have been meaningful, such measures are ultimately counterproductive to a thriving, dynamic economy.

Lastly, we must look for policies that liberate individuals, communities, and businesses to make their own best judgments.  At the individual level, the state should continue its push for occupational licensing reform, ensuring that as workers become increasingly independent, licenses are streamlined in a way that is wise and productive.  At the community level, we must allow local communities to make their own decisions as much as possible. It is imperative to avoid centralization and push power down to the most local level possible. As it concerns larger businesses, we should continue to deregulate. Complexity favors large businesses who have the resources and capital to jump through the hope.  It stifles competition, which in turn leads to higher prices, poor services, and worse products..

I’m not concerned that we’re going to wind up with actual socialist policies; a lot of very particular things would have to happen in America in order to bring that to pass. The concern is for socialist sentiment; a resentment of others that seeks all remedies through the centralizing arm of the state.  That alone could do enormous damage to our politics and, eventually, our economy. The fight against socialism is quite serious, but it is a fight that cannot be waged with caricature and slogans. Our legislators need to do more than play defense. They should make the case for the market as often as they can, knowing that it makes us, and our state, better.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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