All-American Socialism?

12/08/2011 03:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

Is socialism's value as a meaningless scare-word played out yet? If so, maybe we can give it a second chance as a real idea. By treating the word as an all-purpose insult, we've lost touch with essential strands of American political thinking.

These ideas were vital to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, among others, and were friends, not enemies, to democracy and personal liberty. They aren't usually called "socialism" -- Americans have never been big on -isms, left or right -- but they add up to an eclipsed tradition that would do the old word proud. Today they might help us make sense of the discontent that has turned Occupy Wall Street into a national phenomenon -- and maybe even do something about it.

I'm an odd person to make this argument, which I hope is a good thing. I've written books and articles about the good that private property does, and some of my favorite thinkers are Adam Smith (the patron saint of capitalism), Edmund Burke (a touchstone conservative), and Henry David Thoreau (a conscientious would-be anarchist). Temperamentally I'm conservative, and I pretty much agree with Justice Robert Jackson that "the philosophy of the law and the culture of the democratic order come close to being the soul of the American people," and that this is a good thing. But I think there are essential insights that we lose track of when we let "socialism" be turned into a slur.

One big idea is that, in a good country, people should have good work. In the nineteenth century, there was nothing odd or left-wing about this thought. Abraham Lincoln insisted in 1858 that American democracy included a vision of economic citizenship: no one should do degrading work, everyone should have the chance to use both his hands and his mind (otherwise, Lincoln asked, why were we created with both?), and any American who wanted it should be able to earn economic independence. Franklin Roosevelt sounded the same theme in 1932, calling for an "economic bill of rights" that would include the power "to make a comfortable living" for anyone willing to work. Lyndon Johnson's vision of a Great Society, "where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor" was in Lincoln's spirit: the economy should serve the human needs for dignity, personal growth, and connection with other people. Degrading work can undermine all three as surely as no work at all.

Another big idea is that inequality matters. Vast social distance between the wealthy and ordinary people, let alone the poor, undermines the belief that we're all in this together. It's also bad to depend too abjectly on employers or patrons, because dependence undermines self-respect. Franklin Roosevelt made a dramatic gesture in this direction in 1942 when he called for a maximum income of $25,000, but the idea that no one should have to bow and scrape is as old as democracy itself. That's why Aristotle suggested that no citizen should be more than five times richer than another. For more recent evidence that equality and respect touch real human interests, consider public-health research showing that low-rung members of hierarchical organizations get sicker and die sooner than their superiors, regardless of other causes.

Sometimes markets are the problem and democratic government has to be the solution. During the Depression, no one had to remind Franklin Roosevelt that trusting markets to correct themselves is like assuming that hurricanes don't hit population centers -- true in many cases, but a terrible idea in general. Today's lost generations of young graduates and laid-off older workers know economic crises can ruin lives. But after decades of complacent deregulation, in which both parties assumed that sophisticated markets didn't malfunction, we've lost the habit of seeing markets as dangerous. Compare Woodrow Wilson's warning that "there can be no equality of opportunity" unless citizens were "shielded ... from the great industrial and social processes" that tossed about their lives like so much flotsam.

Even when they work, markets can be enemies to democracy and personal freedom. This is easy to overlook these days. Markets, personal liberty, and democracy together replaced authoritarian socialism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It seems natural to see them as permanent allies. But markets, left to their own devices, produce enormous concentrations of wealth. And wealth is power.

Unequal economic power is bad for democracy. Economic power feeds back into the political system, undermining the democratic premise that everyone's vote and voice count the same and tying government to the interests of the wealthy. This abuse of economic power was Theodore Roosevelt's target when he denounced "malefactors of great wealth," and why Louis Brandeis, the great Supreme Court justice, declared that a country could have democracy or great concentrations of wealth, but not both.

Economic inequality also means that personal freedom loses some of its value. More people, regardless of talent and effort, will end up with narrow economic options, all of them bad. Even if they are lightly taxed and regulated, they will be less free, in fact, to do good work and develop their gifts. For this reason, Franklin Roosevelt called concentrated economic power "the despot of the twentieth century." The libertarian economic Friedrich Hayek memorably warned that socialism was a "road to serfdom." Some of the greatest American leaders worried that corporations and the rich could produce serfs of their own. A "more permanently safe order of things," FDR continued, would not hamper individualism, but protect it.

Leaders in this tradition judged that some democratic control of the economy is essential to protect freedom, equality, and basic human interests. This has meant aggressive antitrust law to reduce concentrated economic power, strict limits on the role of money in politics, support for unions as an equalizing force in the workplace, safety nets to ensure the independence of even the unlucky or untalented, universally accessible education to make equality of opportunity real, and, yes, redistribution of wealth to level out economic power and keep the society from the fraying of deep inequality.

Many liberals would sign onto a clutch of these policies, but the difference is one of tone: for the Roosevelts and others, these measures were not deviations from the vaunted market, each one requiring elaborate justification and awkward apology. They were essential parts of the social compact. They were designed to achieve real opportunity, meaningful equality, a strong measure of security, and good work for every citizen willing to do her part. They were, in other words, aspects of a political vision that the mainstream of both parties today would denounce, or run from, as "socialism."

Notice that there's nothing here about nationalizing the means of production, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or anything else you may recall from a first-year political philosophy class. The policies associated with these ideas are familiar twentieth-century ones. What's most important now is not any program, but the insights about equality, freedom, work, and power. These ideas are why so much of the twentieth-century program exists in the first place -- either because political leaders accepted them, or because leaders were pushed from the left by strong unions and third parties.

You don't have to call yourself a socialist to accept that the country would be better off if we took these ideas seriously. It's always clarifying to have to answer inconvenient challenges. Liberals do better when they defend their work against conservative skeptics, conservatives when they have to argue with optimistic reformers. Similarly, liberals who care about equality, conservatives who care about community, and libertarians who care about personal freedom can also benefit from wrestling with socialist challenges from the American tradition. Everyone cares about these values: socialists have things to say about what they mean and how we can achieve them.

It's common to suppose that history has proved socialism can't work because people are selfish and governments abuse power. That is too simple. The twentieth century showed that government without democracy turns tyrannical and centralized economies run off the rails into disastrous inefficiency. These lessons are essential. They don't forbid democratic commitment to American values of equality and good work.

History is full of cause for pessimism, but it is also a pageant of possibility and surprise. From the rise of democracy to the abolition of slavery to the women's movement and gay rights, individual imagination and collective action have created new worlds. These changes have always defied sober and intelligent pessimists, who warned they would be catastrophic. We live in a world that was supposed to be impossible. The cost of success is that now it seems commonsensical.

Since our common sense is built out of the utopian dreams of the past, why not ask whether there is still work to do on Abraham Lincoln's terse definition of democracy: no slaves and no masters? Or on Franklin Roosevelt's call for a strong government that promoted individualism? Or Lyndon Johnson's hope for an America where "the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community"? The idea that markets guarantee freedom, efficiency, and fairness is looking pretty utopian itself right now: these other social visions amount to a dose of reality.

Maybe we Americans will never call ourselves socialists, any more than these presidents did, and that's fine. But, whatever name we give it, we are doing our history a disservice by exiling this tradition just when its concern with inequality, economic power, and the worst tendencies of markets are most relevant. We should revive these very American ideas. They can help us to articulate our discontent and ask more of our leaders, our economy, and ourselves.