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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 3

The deceit of ‘democratic socialism’

There is often as much concealed as revealed in our language. Context and framing are key. The serpent, the subtlest of wild creatures, knew this well when he tempted Eve by asking, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). Careful readers note that he was misquoting God. But the trap was baited. So too with socialism’s modern apologists, who recently added the modifier “democratic” – as though to disassociate the contemporary version from the historic one. “This time it’s different,” they insist. That old authoritarian socialism of the past was never the real thing, you see; it was not “authentic” socialism. True socialism is democratic.

It’s really an old trick and a persistent temptation. The ancient Greek word pharmakon, from which we get the English word “pharmacy,” has a double meaning of both “poison” and “cure.” This ambiguity is founded on the reality that the properties and purposes of things depend largely on whether they are used or misused, on their administration and measure. Such ambiguity can obscure reality, as in the case of “democratic socialism,” which is packaged as its own counteragent. The excesses of utopian totalitarian socialism are supposedly rendered inert through democratic constraints. But are they?

What is socialism in the first place? Is it a noble attempt to express the reality that people are more than individuals? Its bottom line is simply government ownership and administration of the means of production. The stewardship of all of the world’s resources, the deployment of all of the world’s labor, and the coordination and calculation required to discern all the world’s needs and ascertain the most efficient way to meet them cannot be conducted by a show of hands. Such decisions can only be made by individuals from moment to moment because, in the end, they alone truly know their needs and resources. 

Whether putatively democratic or autocratic, all socialism is, in the end, bureaucratic. Even the best and brightest – and bureaucrats are rarely either – will make mistakes in a world of risk and uncertainty, where no person has perfect information. That is the world in which we live, a world in which human frailty and finitude often lead to mistakes. 

This is why markets are necessary. Economic exchange, the innumerable decisions of everyday life, generates tremendous amounts of information in the form of prices. But that information is only reliable to the extent that the prices are arrived at freely. Through them we learn of the relative demand for the world’s resources and the most useful employment of human labor. Only with market-generated prices can the coordination and calculation necessary to meet the innumerable needs of consumers come together with the service, resources, and talent of those able to meet those needs.

In a market economy, stewards of resources are rewarded by their best use in meeting human needs through – get ready for it – profit. After all, poor stewards reap losses. Even the Lord echoed this principle in the Parable of the Talents, when He said, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (St. Matthew 25:29). Entrepreneurs and businesses which fail to meet their customers’ needs quickly find themselves without customers or profits. But bureaucrats who fail to meet the needs of their constituencies simply demand more funding.

It is the logic at the center of socialism that is itself fundamentally flawed. No amount of rebranding or rhetorical obfuscation can alter its deficient anthropology and defective morality. Socialism by any other name is just as ruinous.

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.