Persons of a reflective bent all too often underestimate the enormous strength that truly abysmal ignorance can bring. Knowledge is power, of course, but—measured by a purely Darwinian calculus—too much knowledge can be a dangerous weakness. At the level of the social phenotype (so to speak), the qualities often most conducive to survival are prejudice, simple-mindedness, blind loyalty, and a militant want of curiosity. These are the virtues that fortify us against doubt or fatal hesitation in moments of crisis. Subtlety and imagination, by contrast, often enfeeble the will; ambiguities dull the instincts. So while it is true that American political thought in the main encompasses a ludicrously minuscule range of live options and consists principally in slogans rather than ideas, this is not necessarily a defect. In a nation’s struggle to endure and thrive, unthinking obduracy can be a precious advantage.
Even so, I think we occasionally take it all a little too far.
Not long ago, in an op-ed column for the New York Times, I observed that it is foolish to equate (as certain American political commentators frequently do) the sort of “democratic socialism” currently becoming fashionable in some quarters of this country with the totalitarian state ideologies of the twentieth century, whose chief accomplishments were ruined societies and mountains of corpses. For one thing, “socialism” is far from a univocal term, and much further from a uniform philosophy.
I have a deep affection for the tradition of British Christian socialism, which was shaped by such figures as F. D. Maurice (1805–1872), John Ruskin (1819–1900), Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), Thomas Hughes (1822–1896), F. J. Furnivall (1825–1910), William Morris (1834–1896), and R. H. Tawney (1880–1962), though I have also been influenced by such non-British social thinkers as Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), Dorothy Day (1897–1980), and E. F. Schumacher (1911–1977). None of these espoused any kind of statist, technocratic, secular, authoritarian version of socialist economics, and none of them was what we today think of as “liberal.” And yet their “socialist” leanings were unmistakable.
Moreover, just because a totalitarian regime happens to call itself socialist—or, for that matter, a republic, or a union of republics, or a people’s republic, or a people’s democratic republic—we are under no obligation to take it at its word. What we call “democratic socialism” in the United States is difficult to distinguish from the social-democratic traditions of post-war Western Europe, and there we find little evidence that a democracy becomes a dictatorship simply by providing such staples of basic social welfare as universal health care. At least, it is hard not to notice that the social-democratic governments of Europe have always gained power only by being voted into office, and have always relinquished it peacefully when voted out again. None of them has ever made war on free markets, even in attempting (often all too hesitantly) to impose prudent and ethically salutary regulations on business. Rather than gulags, death camps, secret police, arrests without warrant, summary executions, enormous propaganda machines, killing fields, and the like, their political achievements have been more in the line of the milk-allowances given to British children in the post-war years, various national health services, free eyeglasses and orthodonture for children, school lunches, public pensions for the elderly and the disabled, humane public housing, adequate unemployment insurance, sane labor protections, and so forth, all of which have been accomplished without irreparable harm to economies or treasuries.
I suppose a social-democratic state could begin to gravitate toward true authoritarianism, in the way that any political arrangement can lead to just about any other. The Third Reich, after all, was born out of a functioning parliamentary democracy. The 2016 U.S. election proved that, even in a long-established democratic republic, just about anyone or anything, no matter how preposterously foul, can achieve political power if enough citizens are sufficiently credulous, cowardly, and vicious. In just the past few years, we have seen bland American neoconservatism rapidly evolving into populist, racist, openly fascist, mystical nationalism. Anything is possible.
But to this point, it seems fair to say, the Western European democracies—as well as the Oceanian states and Canada—have all acquitted themselves fairly well on the civil liberties and “rule of law” fronts. And surely no one would deny that, approve of them or not, eyeglasses and milk are not gulags and summary executions.
Or so you would think. Judging from some of the negative reactions to my Times column, there are a good many persons to whom this is not at all obvious. The most lunatic response I read came from some fellow whom some jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church has injudiciously consecrated as a priest. His attack on my column was published in a forum associated with the Acton Institute (a sort of toxic-waste site for the disposal of emotionally arrested and intellectually abridged reactionaries). For this fellow, there are no differences here worth noting: children’s milk subsidies, concentration camps, modern Denmark and Canada, the USSR, the New Deal, the Cultural Revolution, public subsidies for healthcare or railroads, the execution of dissidents, Victorian Christian socialism, twentieth-century Soviet communism, present-day Venezuela, present-day Britain, industry partly governed by labor, industry wholly seized by the state—somehow, in his mind, it is all one and the same thing, a single historical phenomenon inexorably leading to the same mass graves. Any day now in Sweden, it seems, free dentistry will mutate into a secret state-police apparatus and a sprawling archipelago of reeducation camps.
Just as absurd in its way, though perhaps more morally distasteful, was a column by Tom Rogan in the Washington Examiner repeating certain fashionable neoliberal lies about European, Canadian, and Oceanian health care—long delays in triage, shortages, lack of choice among physicians, and so forth. I have received medical attention in any number of countries over the years and, while no nation’s system is perfect, I can assure anyone curious on the matter that, if you are in real need of medical attention, in almost all cases you would be far better off in France, Canada, Germany, or Italy than you are here. Certainly we Americans—routinely running the gantlet of finding an “in-network” primary-care physician, securing an “establish-care” appointment (usually months away), waiting upon referrals and insurance approvals, choosing among expensive tests, and so on—endure “triage” processes of an especially byzantine complexity. Choice of health-care provision is far freer in most other countries, in fact, simply because insurance companies cannot limit one’s decisions, while costs are either minimal or nonexistent, even though the care is as good or better. As it happens, the only economically advanced nation in the world today where someone is likely to be denied access to necessary care or affordable pharmaceuticals is the United States. Only here, for instance, can a poor person die for want of the money needed to buy insulin or undergo dialysis.
Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. This is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores. An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose. Even so, one has to ask, what state apparatus in the “free” world could be more powerful and tyrannical than the one that taxes its citizens while providing no substantial civic benefits in return, solely in order to enrich a piratically overinflated military-industrial complex and to ease the tax burdens of the immensely wealthy?
Our cruel, inefficient, and monstrously expensive health system makes this obvious. Nations that provide either single-payer healthcare (like the UK) or a well-administered public option (like Germany) do indeed tax their populations for the purpose. But this is hardly a gross imposition on their citizens. For one thing, they distribute tax liability far more equally across income brackets than we do. For another, they strictly regulate the prices providers may charge. The result is that the cost of health care in these countries is roughly half what it is here per capita, and the actual cost for individuals (especially those who are not extravagantly rich) is only a fraction of what we are expected to pay for the same services. The relative pittance most of us would be taxed to sustain a real public option or national health service would be—so long as our legislators were willing simultaneously to regulate pharmaceutical and other medical providers humanely and sensibly—as nothing compared to what we actually pay right now for the privilege of discovering, when the next shockingly unexpected medical bill arrives, that we still have far more to pay.
Consider: our insurance premiums already cost most of us more than we would be taxed for a health system like the one in Canada or in Sweden. Even if our employers pay most of the putative bill, this results in considerably lower real wages for us than our European counterparts receive. If we are so unlucky as to have to buy our coverage directly, the cost is invariably exorbitant while the benefits are meager and grudging. And at that point our financial liabilities have only just begun. Quite often, deductibles alone far exceed any debts the average European or Canadian or Australian need ever discharge for medical care. Then there are, for no particular reason, the copays we have to add to what we have already paid our insurers. Then there are the absurd prices our bought-and-sold political class permits pharmaceutical firms to charge and insurance companies only partly to cover. The price of insulin alone, for example, here as nowhere else in the civilized world, is a crime against humanity—one, in fact, that actually kills a substantial number of American diabetics each year. If we need to use the emergency room, and especially if we must call for an ambulance, the costs are almost unimaginably multiplied. Then, of course, when truly serious illnesses arrive, insurance companies deploy battalions of adjusters to deny us the very coverage we thought we were purchasing with our atrociously excessive premiums. These vigilant souls will do all they can to abbreviate our treatments, curtail our hospital stays, deny us as many therapies as possible, refuse approval of the newest therapies or drugs, or at least delay approval until (ideally) we have died. If we fall terminally ill, we will spend our last days fighting for every penny of coverage at each discrete stage of our illness. And then, in all likelihood, our families will go deeply into debt anyway. Of course, even all of this is true only if we are among those fortunate enough to have any coverage at all.
Is this freedom? From what, exactly? Certainly not from the state. The heavy hand of centralized government is no lighter—its proprietary power over its citizens is no smaller—here than anywhere else in the developed world. Quite the reverse. Certainly, where taxes are concerned, no government in the developed world is any more rapacious and no legal authority any more draconian. Here, moreover, no less than anywhere else, the state governs trade, makes war, passes laws, delivers mail, does all the most basic things the modern state does; but here also, to a greater degree than in any other advanced economy, the government raises its revenues for the express purpose of transferring as much wealth as possible from the working and middle classes to corporations and plutocrats. It really would be hard to imagine a democracy whose state wields greater power over the lives of average persons. To me, at least, it seems obvious that, where health care in particular is concerned, Americans are slaves thrice-bound: wholly at the mercy of a government that despoils them for the sake of the rich, as well as of employers from whom they will receive only such benefits as the law absolutely requires, as well as of insurance companies that can rob them of the care for which they have paid.
All this being true, the classical social democrat or democratic socialist might be forgiven for thinking that Americans are curiously deluded regarding their own supposed inalienable liberties. He or she might contend, at any rate, that a state that uses its power chiefly to dilute consumer and environmental protections in the interests of large corporations and private investors, while withholding even the most basic civil goods that taxpayers have a right to expect (such as a well-maintained infrastructure or decent public transport), is no smaller—and certainly no less invasive and dictatorial—than one that is actually obliged by the popular will and the social contract to deliver services in exchange for the taxes it collects. He or she might think that a government whose engorged military budget is squandered on wasteful (because profitable) redundancy, but whose public services are minimal at best, presides over a far more controlled economy—and a far more coercive redistribution of wealth—than does a government forced to return public funds to its citizens in the forms of substantial civic benefits. He or she might even have the temerity to see social democracy, properly practiced, not as an enlargement of the state’s prerogatives, but quite the opposite: a democratic seizure of power from both state and corporate entities, as well as a greater democratic control over public policy, taxation, production, and trade.
After all, though we often speak as if the centralized state and corporate “free” enterprise were antagonists, they are in fact mutually sustaining. Global capital depends upon the state’s power, its diplomatic access to other nations and markets, the trade treaties it negotiates, and (if needed) its judicious deployments of terror. States depend upon capital for revenues, material goods, and political patronage. Without the support of an omnicompetent, vastly prosperous, orderly, and violent state, global corporate capitalism could not thrive. Without corporations, the modern state would lack the resources necessary to perpetuate its supremacy over every sphere of life. Over against the twin colossi of state and capital, a truly functioning form of social democracy might well be viewed as an incomplete but still benign devolution of sovereignty, away from capital to labor, away from the state to the public. It might even be seen as a feeble gesture toward a society based on some kind of real subsidiarity. At least, this scarcely seems an implausible view of the matter.
It should be obvious that certain moral ends can be accomplished only by a society as a whole, employing instruments of governance, distribution, and support that private citizens alone cannot command.
Whether that is achievable, however—or as achievable as it should be—I am not prepared to opine. In America, even democratic socialists often have only a very hazy notion of what the full spectrum of socialist thought has been in the past, and what it might be in the future. There is always the likelihood that much of the mainstream of American democratic socialism will ultimately turn into just another form of classically liberal social philosophy. I have, in an inconstant and largely flirtatious way, been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America over the years. I admit, however, that certain recent tendencies of the DSA make me suspect that, as time passes, it will look less and less like the kind of pro-labor, anti-capitalist organization it purports to be, and more and more like simply another incarnation of sanctimonious, ethically voluntarist, pro-choice American liberalism (with all its bourgeois narcissisms, morbid psychological fragilities, and lovingly cultivated neuroses), which I like no better than sanctimonious, ethically voluntarist, libertarian American conservatism (with all its bourgeois narcissisms, morbid psychological fragilities, and lovingly cultivated resentments).
Just as we Americans have succeeded in turning “Christianity” into another name for a system of values almost totally antithetical to those of the Gospel, I have every confidence that we will find a way to turn “socialism” into just another name for late-modern liberal individualism. I still support most of the genuinely communitarian aims of the democratic-socialist movement. But, in the end, it is that tradition of Christian socialism mentioned above to which I remain loyal. And I do not know if it could now flourish here.
As I have already noted, that tradition was never, especially in the Anglophone world, a centralizing philosophy. It was friendly neither to the absolute state nor to ungoverned business. Neither was it even a form of political “leftism” (however one might define that term). It emanates from a time when the political leanings we think of as right or left, conservative or progressive, had not yet coalesced into anything like the present arrangement of ideological or class allegiances. At times, its tacit social vision could be positively quaint. Thomas Hughes seemed convinced that social amelioration could be achieved only by new generations of Christian gentlemen devoted to the common good out of, in part, a sense of noblesse oblige. The single most influential figure in the British tradition of Christian socialism (though he himself never settled on a single official term for his political and economic philosophy) was John Ruskin, who was a convinced Tory monarchist. As far as he was concerned, a principled Christian “communism”—by which he meant not state ownership of property, but a prior communal claim upon the goods of the earth and upon excess resources by those in need—was the only possible civilized and truly charitable alternative to modern liberalism, whether fiscal or social. He opposed classical liberalism for the simple reason that he thought it created social injustices of a kind clearly contrary to the explicit dictates of Christian conscience.
Inasmuch as the two major political parties in America are both “liberal” in the classical sense—the one devoted a bit more to something like John Stuart Mill’s economic philosophy, the other a bit more to something like his social philosophy, and neither of them to the communal ethics of Christian tradition—it is hard for most Americans to make sense of such views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Christianity has never really taken deep root in America or had any success in forming American consciousness; in its place, we have invented a kind of Orphic mystery religion of personal liberation, fecundated and sustained by a cult of Mammon.
Even so, anyone familiar with the oldest and richest stream of real socialism in the Anglophone world understands that it was in large part a Romantic rebellion against modernity, a longing for a truly Christian understanding of community, an essentially nostalgic belief in the hierarchy of those subsidiary estates and institutions that naturally evolve out of religious, communal, and social life. At times, it proved susceptible to a mistily idealized view of the past—the Middle Ages especially—but it was essentially a Christian-humanist protest against the inhuman scale of both government and industry in the late modern age. It was not a rejection of free enterprise, but rather a critique of a system of enterprise that had destroyed the free guilds of late medieval Europe, disenfranchised individual craftsmen, produced a system of wage slavery, allowed the large-scale division of labor to disenfranchise workers, turned labor into a commodity to be traded or a natural resource to be exploited, accepted the gross superstition of the “iron law of wages,” eliminated the common lands and goods once recognized as the universal patrimony of free citizens so as to make state and capital the sole proprietors of civic wealth, radically reduced legally recognized community usufructs, removed both the means and the profits of production from the possession of laborers and yielded them over to an investment class of owners, enlarged the central state and its power of taxation, displaced the center of society from the realm of the sacred to that of commercial consumption, and created a rapacious debt-and-credit system that is little more than the chronic legal spoilation of the poor by private lenders.
This kind of socialism proposed a use of civic wealth for common human ends precisely in order to restore the Christian order of values—the Christian law of love of neighbor and faith in God’s charity—that modernity has displaced by its reliance instead on the forces of self-interest. In fact, it presumed the radical notion that charity is a more original and fertile impulse of the human soul than greed is. It was an attempt to preserve the best of the moral inheritance of Christian ethical beliefs in an age when Christian civilization had been—so the proponents of the movement believed—eclipsed by an ethos that prizes personal acquisition over communal love. It was, in short, a deeply Christian revolt against those tendencies of post-Christian modern liberal economics and social philosophy that tend toward the destruction of landscapes and cityscapes and inscapes, by reducing or subordinating everything to the impersonal mechanisms of production and consumption.
What remains of that tradition now I cannot say with any certainty. To some extent, it was always a dream of an impossible future sustained by fantasies of a nonexistent past. And some of its aspects, however well-intended—those overly rosy views of class distinction, for instance, or that gauzily gleaming pre-Raphaelite medievalism—are not worth preserving or reviving, except perhaps in radically qualified form. But I honestly cannot imagine how anyone who takes the teachings of Christ seriously, and who is willing to listen to those teachings with a good will and an open mind, can fail to see that in the late modern world something like such socialism is the only possible way of embodying Christian love in concrete political practices. I have heard American Christians claim (based on a distinction unknown in the New Testament) that Christ calls his followers only to acts of private largesse, not to support for public policies that provide for the common welfare. What they imagine Christ was doing in publicly denouncing the unjust economic and social practice of his day I cannot guess. But it should be obvious that certain moral ends can be accomplished only by a society as a whole, employing instruments of governance, distribution, and support that private citizens alone cannot command. We, as individuals, can often aid our brothers and sisters only by acting through collective social and political structures. I admit that the New Testament makes still more radical demands upon Christians (Matthew 5:42; 6:3; 6:19–20; Luke 6:24–25; 12:33; 14:33; 16:25; Acts 2:43–46; 4:32; 4:35), and I would certainly agree that it is just as bad to relinquish all one’s moral responsibilities to the state as it is to promote policies that do not oblige human government to obey the laws of divine charity. I know that Christ in the Gospels calls his followers to a different kind of “politics” altogether—for want of a better term, the politics of the Kingdom. Of this, even the wisest, most compassionate, and most provident form of democratic socialism could never be anything more than a faint premonitory shadow.
Even so, a shadow is not nothing.
David Bentley Hart is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His most recent book is That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale University Press)