In the 1970s, my Dad flew from his home in Pennsylvania to a medical center in Houston to have a then-innovative bypass surgery that extended his life by more than three decades. At the same time, my wife’s family was sending bottles of aspirin to their relatives in the Polish socialist paradise. That dichotomy—Americans receiving cutting-edge medical care even as Eastern Europeans were lacking the rudimentary medicines—always stuck in my mind as I’ve written about political systems.
To understand socialism, one needn’t fixate on its most-horrifying elements—gulags, executions and endless repression. Think about the simple stuff.
After Boris Yeltsin joined the Soviet Politburo in 1989, he visited Johnson Space Center and stopped in a typical Texas grocery store. “When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” he later wrote. At the time, Russians waited in line for whatever crumbs the bureaucrats would sell them.
Why are pundits and politicians talking about socialism again, 28 years after the fall of the Soviet Union? Donald Trump’s vow that the United States would never become a socialist country got people talking. Good for him, even if he should stop praising and excusing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who runs a communist dystopia often described as the “the world’s biggest open prison camp.”
The real reason for the renewed discussion, however, comes from politicians on the other side of the spectrum. It’s apparently hip to be a socialist now, even among contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. A year before Yeltsin’s U.S. visit, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took a strange trip to the Soviet Union. A video of the shirtless then-Burlington, Vt., mayor singing with his Soviet hosts as part of a sister-city event has gone viral. That was ages ago. What bothers me is what he—and others on the Democratic Left—have said more recently.
In an article headlined, “Sanders could face more scrutiny for socialist leanings,” The Washington Post referred to the 2016 primary debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders was asked by the moderator in Miami—a city filled with people who fled Cuban communism—about seemingly positive things he had said about Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s socialist strongman Daniel Ortega. “The key issue here was whether the United States should go around overthrowing small Latin American countries,” Sanders said. That was a transparent dodge. One can oppose American military intervention without having a soft spot for dictators.
These days, some progressives describe themselves as “democratic socialists,” which makes the idea sound kinder and gentler. They aren’t thinking about crumbling buildings in Cuba, starving children in Venezuela and genocide in Cambodia, but might be envisioning a facsimile of Portland, Ore.,—a place with cool, fair-trade, vegan restaurants and hip bars, but without all that private ownership stuff. Yet socialistic policies could turn the nicest cities into wastelands.
Apparently, the leaders in those bad socialist places didn’t do socialism right. As a former Barack Obama national security adviser told the Post, “I think the challenge for Bernie is just going to be differentiating his brand of social democratic policies from the corrupt turn—and authoritarian turn—socialism took in parts of Latin America.”
A turn? Authoritarianism is the inevitable outcome—a feature of socialistic systems, not a bug, because those systems empower government at the expense of individuals.
On its website, the Democratic Socialists of America say they “believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.” They don’t offer many specifics, but perhaps your tenants will vote on the rent until you decide to leave the apartment business. These “new” socialists seem as utopian as the old ones. DSA notes that, “a long-term goal of socialism is to eliminate all but the most enjoyable kinds of labor.” Until work is fun, though, someone must divvy up unpleasant tasks on a more equitable basis. You’ve been warned.
Despite air-conditioned homes, full bellies and consumer gadgets courtesy of capitalism, some Americans yearn for a socialist paradise. We can cross one off the list. In 2013, Salon published a piece about the Venezuelan leader’s “full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism” titled, “Hugo Chavez’s Economic Miracle.”
Four years later (with a different strongman but same policies), the BBC described that miracle: “Despite being an oil-rich country, Venezuela is facing record levels of child malnutrition as it experiences severe shortages of food and an inflation rate of over 700 percent.”
Maybe Venezuelans didn’t do it right. Nor did the Russians, or anybody else. Or maybe socialism is a fundamentally flawed idea that always leads to misery by design. We shouldn’t need this discussion in 2019, given mounds of evidence and victims, but here we are again.
Steven Greenhut was the Union-Tribune’s California columnist. He is western region director for the R Street Institute. This column was first published in the Orange County Register.