Here’s an understatement: It’s an interesting time for American politics. Many see the rise of populism and the growth of radicalism as a foreshadowing of the undoing of the American experiment. One form of the growth of radicalism in American politics is the rise of self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists both in the House of Representatives and on the presidential campaign trail.
It was just over 30 years ago that the Berlin Wall fell, and with it, the idea that socialism — the government ownership of the means of production and the central management of economic resources — is productive and can lead to flourishing. It would have been difficult to imagine, even 10 years after that, hearing an American politician advocating a kinder, gentler socialism — one that is democratic and thus immune to the lust for power and somehow able to avail itself of the knowledge problem of who should produce what, and when, and for how much.
Modern Democratic Socialists believe not only that they properly understand how to obtain justice for the least of these — itself a monumental goal worthy of our effort — but also to do it in a manner that generates greater levels of prosperity. But have we somehow learned what the Soviet, the Maoist, the Cuban and the Venezuelan governments did not? Is there a way to bring justice to the poor and to also bring egalitarian prosperity to society by giving the state more power to make decisions about the allocation of resources?
The problem with humans is twofold: We are sinful and error-prone. We make sinful mistakes and innocent mistakes. God created us as distinct and unique, but finite, people. We need each other. The great question of political economy is how to take these very people and find ways that we can live among each other and cooperate. The lesson we have learned over and over is that this happens best when we allocate resources in decentralized ways, both through the market economy and the institutions of civil society.
We are becoming more radical because we forget the truths of human nature and God’s desires revealed in Scripture, and we forget the past or look back romantically and wishfully on things we may not fully understand. Populism exacerbates radicalism both on the left and on the right. On the left, it appeals to the ordinary person against the elite, and in turn, it asks those ordinary people to give power to the “right” elites. And ironically, populism on the right does the same. In the end, both socialism and populism create and “us” versus the “them” and erode community and increase centralized power. Increases in power, whether through socialism, nationalism, or otherwise, are always dangerous.
Socialism does not work because it does not respect the truths of human nature and thus cannot lead to greater prosperity. Markets work better, not because they are perfect, but because they have a greater ability to harness self-interested people into the service of others: this is the message we need to bring back into civil discourse.