“Socialisms” and Harnessing Capitalism for the Common Good

| Present

While I am not an economist or political scientist, I am a US citizen and believe that it our responsibility as US citizens to know about different socio-economic systems and to be engaged in discussions about civic, economic and social issues. Whether we know it or not, these systems deeply affect our everyday lives. Especially now that we have an avowed democratic socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, running for President, it is vital that voters know what his brand of socialism is, what it is not, what type of socialism exists in our Western peer nations, and how these systems might relate to capitalism.

Socialism can be defined as “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.” “Democratic socialism,” which is propounded by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America, holds that “both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.”  It seems that it is these types of socialism and the assumption that they will inevitably lead to USSR-style Communism that causes fear among many Americans. However, Soviet-style Communism did not work, and most Westerners recognize this and do not want to have anything to do with it.

A third system, “social capitalism,” is a regulated capitalist economy combined with a robust social safety net for all citizens. It is “social capitalism,” whether known by that term or not, that is found in Europe, Canada, Australia, Iceland and other developed nations.

What is important for US citizens to know, and which I introduced in my earlier blog on the common good, is that these social capitalist countries have been functioning at an extremely high socio-economic level – for upwards of 60 years, since the end of World War II. Despite what right-wing politicians in the US, various pundits and many average Americans think, this “social capitalist” system works – that is, it produces unparalleled prosperity, widespread health, low levels of violence, unemployment, individual indebtedness and incarceration, and fair, generous workplace policies. It is this system, not ours, that developing nations are adopting or attempting to adopt.

One fascinating measure of the success of social capitalism is the World Happiness Report, the first of which was commissioned for the UN Conference on Happiness and held in April 2012. The US does not rank in the top 10 on recent happiness surveys – Iceland leads in the latest one, and countries like Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and the Netherlands routinely land at or near the top. Therefore, is it not a no-brainer that we should seriously examine what those nations are doing right and emulate them? While socialists and democratic socialists ultimately want to dismantle and replace capitalism, other progressive intellectuals, such as Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Bill Clinton Administration, do not believe in abolishing capitalism. Creating a social safety net that benefits the majority of the population (and not just the poor), which is paid for by fair taxation, is not necessarily incompatible with a regulated capitalism, as can be witnessed in the nations with the “happiest citizens.”

Let us then ask ourselves some critical questions. What do we want as a nation: immense wealth held by a handful of people, while nearly half of our children live in poverty, or a vast middle class that leads a secure, comfortable life? Do we want crumbling roads, underfunded police and fire departments, and mass shootings at our schools and churches or a safe, peaceful, prosperous, healthy society for everyone? What is the best way to achieve this – the “American way” of the past 40 years, which has left millions of us in the dust, or the “European way,” which has produced the opposite?

Here is my take:

  • Democratic Socialists have many good ideas that need to be seriously considered;
  • Americans who may be inherently fearful of any of the “socialisms” should keep an open mind: some “socialist” proposals might actually work to their own benefit and that of their loved ones; and
  • we as a nation should look to Europe and other successful nations to see how we might together find creative, innovative ways to harness capitalism and the strengths of our economic and social systems for the common good.

Do we not owe this to Americans who currently suffer tremendously – and to future generations?

For further reading

Steven Hill, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010.