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Friday, July 13, 2018

The Questions Stephen Colbert Should Have Asked Democratic Socialist “Rock Star” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stephen Colbert, and millions of Americans leaning toward socialism have no knowledge of the economic problem.


An alarming number of millennials prefer socialism. Given their beliefs, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which a socialist populist succeeds Trump in 2020. If there is a sustained economic downturn between now and 2020, such a scenario is more likely.

Twenty-eight-year-old, self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently upset ten-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley in the Bronx.

Ocasio-Cortez was an immediate media sensation. The New York Times called her “an instant political rock star.” Appearing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert she was asked to explain her agenda and ideology:

COLBERT: What is your agenda? Because you describe yourself as a democratic socialist, and that’s not an easy term for a lot of Americans. What is the meaning of that for you? What does ‘socialist’ mean to you?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: For me, democratic socialism is about — really, the value for me is that I believe that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.

COLBERT: Seems pretty simple.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Seems pretty simple. So what that means to me is health care as a human right. [applause] It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to a college or trade-school education, if they so choose it. And I think that no person should be homeless, if we can have public structures and public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States. [applause]

Democratic socialists believe in the abolishment of capitalism. They seek to define life’s necessities which the government is then to provide. Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda includes Medicare for all, free tuition at public universities, as well as federal job guarantees.

What Ocasio-Cortez and millions of Americans who support socialism really believe in is spending more of other people’s money. As they explain the sources of social problems, they falsely conflate government spending with easy solutions.  H.L. Menken warned, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

To her economically illiterate and ahistorical fans, Ocasio-Cortez tells a simple story; and, like most politicians, Ocasio-Cortez exudes confidence.

“An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true,”  Nobel laurate Daniel Kahneman cautioned.

Kahneman adds, “Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence.”

Unasked Questions

Colbert’s questions didn’t probe Ocasio-Cortez’s simple statements. He could have pointed, for example, to “progressive” San Francisco. In San Francisco, homelessness is rampant. Some compare conditions in San Francisco to the third-world. The resulting decay of urban living has caused a major medical association convention to cancel.

Put San Francisco’s homeless problem in the context of public policy restrictions on development, imposed by “progressive thinkers”: Government restrictions on development have helped push the median price of a home in San Francisco to more than $1.6 million.

Facts won’t change the fixed minds of adamant socialists. Defending her views, one can anticipate Ocasio-Cortez saying not enough money was spent in the right places. On housing, she would say, the source of the problem is the profit motive of developers. As a socialist, she would promise next time, with government taking over entirely, it will be different.

Here are other questions Colbert did not ask, and those who support socialism aren’t asking either: Do you believe only socialists are “moral”? Do you think other people are opposed to proper housing, jobs, and healthcare and block simple solutions because they are not as caring as you?

In his book The Law the 19th Century French economist Frédéric Bastiat exposed the false premise behind those who think government is the only way to achieve social and economic ends:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Generative Questions

A generative question is something that points us to the unknown and stimulates further inquiry. Here are a few generative questions that Colbert could have asked: What are the conditions under which human beings flourish? Why does power corrupt? Why until recently in human history did each generation live in poverty, much the same as the generation before?

Hayek responded: “I think they could exist as some sort of medieval system. They could exist in that form with a great deal of starvation removing excess population.”

These questions require more than soundbite answers.

Those in the audience cheering for Ocasio-Cortez, like all of us, mostly have good intentions. They want to be good citizens, good parents, and good neighbors. However, they are profoundly ignorant of how voluntary human cooperation leads to progress.

In 1977  economist Thomas W. Hazlett interviewed Nobel laurate F.A. Hayek. Hayek responded to Hazlett’s question about whether socialism was logically possible:

I’ve always doubted that the socialists had a leg to stand on intellectually. They have improved their argument somehow, but once you begin to understand that prices are an instrument of communication and guidance which embody more information than we directly have, the whole idea that you can bring about the same order based on the division of labor by simple direction falls to the ground. Similarly, the idea [that] you can arrange for distributions of incomes which correspond to some conception of merit or need. If you need prices, including the prices of labor, to direct people to go where they are needed, you cannot have another distribution except the one from the market principle. I think that intellectually there is just nothing left of socialism.

Hazlett followed Hayek’s answer with this question: “Could socialist economies exist without the technology, innovations, and price information they can borrow from Western capitalism and domestic black markets?”

Hayek responded: “I think they could exist as some sort of medieval system. They could exist in that form with a great deal of starvation removing excess population.”

Today we see that “sort of medieval system” and starvation in Venezuela and North Korea. Now some want to bring that scourge to America.

Today millions of Americans cheer for trite solutions not understanding that socialist solutions will bring endless misery for themselves and others.

The Real Economic Problem

Professor of neurobiology Stuart Firestein, in his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science writes, “Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

Firestein asks us to consider “if we are too enthralled with the answers.” He urges us to embrace the “exhilaration of the unknown.” Those cheering for Ocasio-Cortez were clearly enthralled with her glib answers.

Socialists are full of glib answers—more spending—but they are short on the willingness to ask questions that lead to further inquiry. Ocasio-Cortez and others might consider if the economic problem is merely a problem of redistributing wealth. Their question might lead them to study Hayek.

In his classic essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek explained what the economic problem is:

The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Ocasio-Cortez, Stephen Colbert, and millions of Americans leaning toward socialism have no knowledge of the economic problem. Invincibly ignorant, they assume the problem away by embracing the idea of redistributing other people’s money.

If you don’t know what the economic problem is, there is no possibility of discovering solutions to the problems you see. With a willingness to explore questions, more knowledge will be discovered. Freedom, not simplistic answers based on coercion, promotes voluntary human cooperation and creates economic progress, raising the well-being of all.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.