Religion & Liberty Online

Is Elizabeth Bruenig even a socialist?

Elizabeth Bruenig, columnist for the Washington Post, yesterday published an opinion piece entitled, ‘Let’s have a good-faith argument about socialism’ responding to some critics of her earlier piece, ‘It’s time to give socialism a try’. She accuses a number of them of responding in bad faith,

In the case of my column, this meant many interlocutors taking socialism to mean something along the lines of Soviet communism or the Venezuelan system, genocides, calamities, disasters and all. I don’t think anybody actually believes I’m rooting for totalitarian forms of socialism, nor for its most devastatingly ill-managed variants: I said I wasn’t, after all.

As one of her critics (See my earlier pieces ‘Gives socialism a try? Let’s not.’ and ‘Misreading capitalism’) I find the idea that she was advocating Soviet communism strange as she was perfectly clear that she was advocating for a democratic form of socialism. It is not clear why what she calls the “Venezuelan system” would necessarily be off the table. I am pleased to hear that it is but cannot help but feel a bit misled.

In the comedy classic The Jerk Navin R. Johnson, the titular Jerk, is briefly employed at a carnival as a weight guesser. If he fails to guess the carnival goer’s weight he gives them their choice of prizes from a large shelving unit behind him,

Ah, anything… in this general area, right in here. Anything, below the stereo, and on this side of the Bicentennial glasses. Anything between the ashtray, and the thimbles. Anything in this three inches. Right in here, this area, that includes the Chiclets, but not the erasers.

So in the vast array of actually existing socialism what, for Bruenig, is ‘between the ashtray and the thimbles’? Her answer is the Nordic states. She cites their generous welfare states, sovereign wealth funds, large public sectors, and large scale trade unionism,

Taken together, this means that the people of the Nordic states have come a long way toward democratizing ownership, dispersing wealth, lowering inequality and placing workers’ lives under their own control — in other words, the socialism of the Nordic states seems pretty close to the kind of socialism that I wrote would satisfy me.

These social democratic policies, while different from those of some other free societies, do not constitute socialism. The Human Freedom Index, put together by the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute among others, lists Finland (6), Norway (7), Denmark (8), and Sweden (13) as among the freest societies in the world. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom tells a similar tale describing all the Nordic nations as “mostly free”.

When the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation praise your leading examples of socialism as “free” or “mostly free” economies, something has gone terribly wrong. If Bruening and leading proponents and theorists of free markets are praising the same nations is it fair to say that she is even a socialist? While I would not say that Bruenig is arguing in bad faith I do believe she is profoundly mistaken about what capitalism and free markets actually are (Again see my earlier pieces ‘Gives socialism a try? Let’s not.’ and ‘Misreading capitalism’).

This now seems to me not a debate between capitalism and socialism but rather an intramural debate over prudential questions of policy between advocates of a free society. There is much to criticize in the policies of European social democracies (As Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg has in his book Becoming Europe) and that is a debate worth having, but it is not a debate between capitalism and socialism.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.