The debate over Senator Sanders’ socialism is rich with paradoxes. Senator Sanders is not a proponent of socialism, and that is a good thing, for true socialism, whenever and wherever it has been tried, ended in disaster. Nor is America the bastion of capitalism that some make it out to be. In fact, U.S. taxes, spending, and regulation are quite high when compared to truly economically free countries.
…First, Sanders is not a socialist, but a social democrat. Second, the United States does not have a strictly capitalist economy, but a mixed one. As such, it combines a high level of private ownership of capital and the means of production with relatively onerous regulation and taxation. Third, to the extent that what anti-capitalist Sanders supporters really want is a Scandinavian-style social democracy, with its high level of wealth redistribution and income equality, they should consider that even some of the most socially democratic countries on earth are, in one crucial way, more capitalist than the United States.
…What then was socialism? Socialism was an economic system where the means of production (e.g., factories), capital (i.e., banks), and agricultural land (i.e., farms) were owned by the state. In some socialist countries, like Poland, small privately owned farms were allowed to operate. In other countries, like Yugoslavia, small mom-and-pop shops also remained in private ownership. Strict limits on private enterprise limited accumulation of wealth and supposedly provided for a relatively high degree of income equality.
Two important caveats need to be kept in mind. First, lack of private enterprise resulted in low economic growth and, consequently, low standards of living. Thus, while income equality was relatively high (if party bosses and their cronies were excluded from the calculations), people in Soviet-bloc countries were much poorer than their counterparts in the West. Nobody has yet figured out a way of combining genuine socialism with high rates of growth over a long period of time.
Second, top members of the communist parties, which ran socialist countries, were generally exempted from limits on wealth accumulation. As such, communist leaders from Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia to Kim Il Sung in North Korea enjoyed luxuries unimaginable to the rest of the populace. Most importantly, top members of the government were above the law. They could not be accused, arrested, or convicted of ordinary or even extraordinary crimes (e.g., Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot). As such, inequality of status between the governing class and the governed masses in socialist countries was as great, if not greater, as it was under feudalism.
…To many people on the left, unfettered capitalism implies individual greed, vast income inequality, and lack of government protections for the poor. Capitalism is often confused with “crony” capitalism—an odious nexus of corporate and political power that crushes the worker and cheats the consumer. Close linkages between big business and the government have existed before (e.g., fascist Italy, national-socialist Germany, Peronist Argentina, etc.). However, most academics do not refer to such systems as exhibiting “crony capitalism,” but “corporatism.”
In any case, few would argue that the power of big business in the United States today is comparable to the power of big businesses in, say, fascist Italy, though it might be argued that “crony capitalism,” if left unchecked, could one day lead to “corporatism.”
…A vast majority of economists agree that free trade is a crucial driver of economic growth. In fact, there has never been a country that has become prosperous in economic isolation. And, as noted, unimpeded global flow of goods, services, and capital is an essential component of capitalism.
Free trade is also one of the most important elements of agreement between Sanders and Donald Trump—both oppose it. [emphasis: mine] Both are also critical of previous free-trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was concluded by President Bill Clinton, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Confused by voters who voted for Bernie and then for Trump? Look no further than what they have in common: isolationist rhetoric and short-sighted impractical economic plans that are based on emotive tag lines and not facts or logical results of their espoused plans.