Why are so many young Americans suddenly calling themselves democratic socialists? I think many of them simply want to distinguish themselves from socialists who might have supported dictatorial regimes such as the former USSR and Maoist China, or who today might support North Korea. They want to signal that for them, political liberty is just as important as, say, economic justice.
But are the concepts of democracy and socialism even compatible?
No. While socialism’s goals may be lofty, its means are inherently at odds with democracy. In the end, “democratic socialism” makes no more sense than “voluntary slavery.”
Democracy means different things to different people. To some, democracy is an end in itself, a goal that may be worth sacrificing lives for. To others, democracy is at best a means for making a small government somewhat responsive to its citizens or a means to transfer political power peacefully. Thus, as F.A. Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “Democracy is essentially … a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.”
Democracy poses an insurmountable problem for socialism.
But I think most of us can agree that the ordinary meaning of democracy is at least tied to the concepts of political self-determination and freedom of expression. In this way, people tend to think of democracy as a shield against others more powerful than themselves.
As with democracy, you can interpret “socialism” as either an end or a means. Some people, for example, regard socialism as the next stage of Marx’s “laws of motion of history” in which, under the authority of a proletarian dictatorship, each contributes and receives according to her ability. A more moderate version of socialism might envision a politico-economic system that places particular goals, such as “social justice,” over any individual’s profit-seeking plans.
Or, you can think of socialism as a form of collectivism that uses a particular set of means — political control over the means of labor, capital, and land — to implement a large-scale economic plan that directs people to do things they might not have chosen. In its use of collectivist means, this kind of socialism has much in common with fascism, even if the two differ strongly in the ends they seek to achieve.
What happens when you try to combine democracy with socialism?
Let’s say a socialist government has to choose between only two ends: greater income equality or greater racial justice. Even in this simple, two-alternative case, it has to define clearly what equality and justice mean in terms that everyone can agree on. What counts as income? What constitutes racial justice? What constitutes more equal income or justice? At what point has equality been achieved or justice served: perfect equality or perfect justice? If less than perfection, how much less?
Coercion and self-direction are mutually exclusive.
These are a few of the tough questions government authorities would have to answer. And, of course, these authorities would be dealing not with a limited number of goals but with a multitude of ends and “priorities” that they would have to define, rank, implement, monitor, and so on. And when conditions change in unpredictable ways, as they always do, the authorities would have to adjust the plan continuously. Under such circumstances, the fewer the people who have input into the final plan, the better. That’s why, if the idea of democracy embodies the liberal ideals of self-direction, of enabling ordinary people to meaningfully choose the policies that will rule them, and of self-expression, then democracy poses an insurmountable problem for socialism.
When government is small and limited to undertaking only those policies that almost everyone agrees on — for example, taxing to finance an effective territorial defense — then democracy might work relatively well, because the number of areas on which a majority of voters and decisions-makers need to agree is small. But when the scope of governmental authority expands into more and more areas of our daily lives — such as decisions about health care, nutrition, education, work, and housing — as it would under socialism, agreement among a majority of all eligible citizens on every issue becomes impracticable. The inevitable bickering and dissension among people in countless interest groups on the myriad pieces of legislation bogs down the political process.
How much individual self-expression, how much self-determination can a central authority tolerate, democratic or not, when it seeks to impose an overarching economic plan? Planning on this scale requires the suppression of the petty plans and personal aspirations of mere individuals, and the submission of personal values to those of the collective.
Tocqueville said it well:
Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
The system may grind along this way for a while, but the temptation to abandon true democracy — by transferring decision-making authority to smaller groups of experts in each field, for example — becomes harder and harder to resist. In such circumstances, making swift, effective decisions becomes more desirable and less possible. The lofty goals of theoretical socialism — the international brotherhood of workers and global economic justice — tend to be swept aside by local concerns of hunger and security, opening the door to (nonproletarian) dictatorship.
As F.A. Hayek eloquently put it,
That socialism so long as it remains theoretical is internationalist, while as soon as it is put into practice … it becomes violently nationalist, is one of the reasons why "liberal socialism" as most people in the Western world imagine it is purely theoretical, while the practice of socialism is everywhere totalitarian.
Someone might reply that while such problems might apply to full-fledged socialism, the kind of democratic socialism that today’s intelligentsia advocate is far less extreme. If so, the question becomes this: In a mixed capitalist economy — regulatory-state, welfare-state, or crony capitalism — to what extent do these consequences emerge? How robust is the trade-off I’m describing?
Clearly it’s a matter of degree. The greater the degree of central planning, the less the authority can put up with deviation and individual dissent. I also realize that there is more than one dimension along which you can trade off self-direction for direction by others, and some of these dimensions do not involve physical coercion. For example, groups can use social or religious pressure to thwart a person’s plans or shrink her autonomy, without resorting to physical aggression.
More socialism means less real democracy.
But there is no denying that along the dimension of physical coercion, which is the dimension along which governments have traditionally operated, the more coercive control there is by an outside agency, the less self-direction there can be. Coercion and self-direction are mutually exclusive. And as government planning supplants personal planning, the sphere of personal autonomy weakens and shrinks and the sphere of governmental authority strengthens and grows. More socialism means less real democracy.
Democratic socialism, then, is not a doctrine designed to protect the liberal values of independence, autonomy, and self-direction that many on the left still value to some degree. It is, on the contrary, a doctrine that forces those of us who cherish those liberal values onto a slippery slope toward tyranny.