Those who have seen the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie Poltergeist may remember the scene when the little girl touches the snowy screen of her family’s television and says, “They’re here,” meaning the evil ghostly forces bringing death and destruction. Well, they are here: socialism, nationalism, protectionism, and political paternalism. The ghosts of collectivisms past have returned, and their harmful effects will be the same as any experienced in the past.
We seem to be in the midst of what may be a dangerous return to the worst political ideas and policies of the 20th century. We must first understand that philosophically they all originate from a common root. The group, the tribe, the nation, the race, the social class are declared to be superior to and all-controlling over the individual members of society.
The words “freedom” and “liberation” are widely used by all the proponents of these variations on the collectivist theme, but their use, in fact, has nothing to do with either freedom or liberation. They reflect instances of George Orwell’s “newspeak” in his famous anti-totalitarian novel 1984. The meanings of words are turned on their heads and are used in ways opposite to their original meanings. Hence, political control and manipulation means to have real personal freedom from tyranny; and complete intolerance and censorship of views and actions inconsistent with the “progressive” and democratic socialist views of the world means to have real intellectual and social liberation from oppression.
“Social” Means Personal Liberty and Freedom of Association
Let’s take the word “socialism.” It sounds, well, so nicely “social.” But it is not. Social has meant and should mean the free, voluntary, and mutually agreed-upon associations and interactions among the members of a community or a wider society, which may cover a portion or region of the world or encompass the entire globe and therefore humanity as a whole.
This is the meaning and connotation of the word “social” in the free market or classical liberal tradition. It recognizes people as individuals who have certain inviolable and universal rights as human beings. They are the right to life, liberty, and the possession and peaceful use of honestly acquired property. What does honestly acquired property mean? Property is acquired by the individual’s own productive efforts from previously unsettled and unowned land and resources, or through free exchange at mutually agreed-upon terms with other rightful owners of tradable goods and services.
“Social” in the classical liberal tradition has included the idea of voluntary and community or societal associations that people may enter into to advance common interests and concerns that may require the efforts and resources of more than one person — activities and endeavors, in other words, that include but may extend outside of and beyond the more narrowly defined interactions of market supply and demand.
Historically, these have encapsulated the combined actions concerning competitive market interactions, as well as charitable and philanthropic activities, religious communion and peaceful proselytizing, local educational, health, or ethical concerns of the members of a community. They are usually referred to as the institutions of civil society. (See my article “Individual Liberty and Civil Society.”)
The Liberty and Pluralism of Civil Society
University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils (1910-95) explained “The Virtue of Civil Society” (Government and Opposition, January 1991) in the following way:
The idea of civil society is the idea of a part of society which has a life of its own, which is distinctly different from the state, and which is largely in autonomy from it.… The term civil society [has historically] retained certain central features. First, it was a part of society distinct from and independent of the state. Where it had not yet reached the point of independence from the state, it was argued that it should become so. Secondly, it provided for the rights of individuals and particularly for the right to property. Thirdly, civil society was a constellation of many autonomous economic units or business firms, acting independently of the state and competing with each other.…
A market economy is the appropriate pattern of the economic life of a civil society.… There is, however, much more to civil society than the market. The hallmark of a civil society is the autonomy of private associations and institutions, as well as that of private business firms.…
The pluralism of civil society also comprises, within each sphere, a multiplicity of many partially autonomous corporations and institutions; the economic sphere comprises many industries and many business firms; the religious sphere comprises many churches and sects; the intellectual sphere comprises many universities, independent newspapers, periodicals and broadcasting corporations; the political sphere includes independent political parties. There are many independent and voluntary philanthropic and civil associations, etc.…
The civil society … must possess the institutions that protect it from encroachment of the state and keep it as a civil society.… Essential to the functioning [of civil society are]: voluntary associations and their exercise of the freedoms of association, assembly and representation or petition. Individuals must enjoy the corresponding freedom to associate, assemble and petition. Naturally, freedom of religious belief and worship, association and education are part of civil society. Freedom of academic teaching and study, of investigation and publication are also part of the complex pattern of civil society.
These are the institutions by which the state is kept within substantive and procedural confinement. The confinement, which might be thought to be negative, is sustained on belief of a positive ideal, the ideal of individual and collective freedom.
Civil Society Offers Freedom and Securities for Liberty
A little reflection on Edward Shils’ description and understanding of the nature of civil society makes it fairly clear that such a community of free individuals who are associating voluntarily for commonly shared values, purposes, and ends is fundamentally inconsistent with all forms of political collectivism. The ideological and policy agendas of socialism, nationalism, protectionism, and political paternalism inescapably involve and require the compulsory and coerced imposition of one or a group of governmental plans, regulations, and redistributive purposes on all the members of the society.
The personal freedom of civil society implies the liberty of the individual to set his own goals, purposes, and ideals, to have the personal discretion and recognized political right to pursue them in any way that he considers best, most advantageous, and likely to bring about the desired and hoped-for outcomes. The individual is also at liberty to form any and all types of peaceful and voluntary associations and agreements with others that he considers useful for the achievement of some of those wanted ends.
The institutions of civil society, as Edward Shils highlights, are meant to offer wide latitude of pluralistic opportunity for individuals to find the best means to their desired goals. As Shils emphasized, the market economy is essential to and at the core of a vibrant and functioning civil society. It is within the arena of free market production and exchange that each individual has the liberty to find or create what he considers the best way to earn a living. He is then at liberty, based on the value others have placed on the services he has offered to them and for which they have paid him for some job done, to freely spend what he has earned as he desires on the things that have importance and value to him, in his role as a consumer.
Democratic Socialism and Its Antisocial Agenda
The socialist regimes of the 20th century that succeeded in comprehensively imposing their designs and central plans on the societies over which they ruled attempted to abolish any and all of the preceding institutions of civil society. Shils noted this, too, with the effort under such regimes to replace civil society with the omnipotence of the state in all things. Indeed, as Shils said, “Marxist-Leninists declared themselves to be enemies of civil society.”
Today’s democratic socialists insist that they have nothing to do with those others in the 20th century who also called themselves “socialists.” Those others were not real, or true, or the right kind of socialists. Therefore, the “new” democratic socialism should not have to carry any of the baggage of guilt by association through connection with those “bad” or mislabeled socialists of the recent past. (See my articles “Socialism, Like Dracula, Rises Again from the Grave,” “The Dangers of Totalitarian Planning, Past and Present,” and “‘Democratic Socialism’ Means the Loss of Liberty.”)
But listen to what our new democratic socialists want and propose. Ask yourself, If successful in bringing their plans to fruition, what would remain of the existing institutions of civil society in America? Government already monopolizes most of education from kindergarten through to the Ph.D. level. By calling for “free” schooling for all levels up to the doctoral degree, this means, in fact, that the federal government would pay for everyone’s education, at taxpayer’s expense, of course.
The money would now fully and completely pass through the conduit of political and bureaucratic hands. Curriculum, hiring and firing of faculty and administration, entrance requirements, standards for student retention and graduation would be even more effectively and comprehensively overseen, influenced, and finally controlled by those possessing government budgetary power than is the case today.
If higher education is already heavily politicized in our current climate of political correctness, identity politics, and ideological bias and manipulation, this trend would be merely accelerated if there is nothing outside of the orbit and oversight of the government since everyone would have their “right” to “free” government-paid higher education.
How would this be any different in matters of medical treatment and health care? The federal and state governments already have an intrusive and highly heavy hand in the health care industry and how and what it provides. “Single payer” means a single provider that determines what medical treatment and health care services for whom, of what type, and to what extent, since the socialist state must focus on what is claimed to be the good of all the members of society as a whole.
Your health care quality and duration of life, and that of your family, will be in the hands of the government bureaucratic managers of the medical profession, hospital facilities, and other caregiving facilities. If you sometimes feel yourself nothing but an ignored or depersonalized number for health care treatment under the current politicized system, just wait for full government-socialized medicine under the “single payer” euphemism, and when you then become an even-smaller decimal with four zeros after the dot. (See my article “For Healthcare, the Best Government Plan Is No Plan.”)
Centrally planned social and “identity” political justice? Forget about how you want to live, how and what you’d like to say, with whom you’d like to peacefully and voluntarily associate for mutually desired purposes, or the way you would like to honestly and non-violently go about earning a living and spending the money you’ve received through free exchange. Overcoming the injustices of the past — real and imagined — will require the progressives and democratic socialists to plan the redesigning of everyone’s place, status, opportunities, and outcomes throughout society. Every claimed unearned income, unjust social status, unfair employment, undeserved “privilege” will have to be reshaped according to the notions of the good society as seen inside the heads of those in charge of the political machinery of government.
Think of all the other corners and aspects of society, whether it is the physical environment, or culture, arts, and sciences, or investment patterns, or job locations, or the quantities and varieties of goods produced and supplied; each will have to be politically decided upon and imposed to make it compatible with “climate planning,” racial and gender fairness, and social egalitarianism. What corner of your part of society would not be under the determination and control of the state? (See my articles “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism” and “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality.”)
Democracy, Liberty, Socialism, and Civil Society
Analysts and advocates of the institutions of civil society have long emphasized what Edward Shils pointed out, that they also serve as intermediaries, as buffers, between the state and the citizen. They are the societal associations, organizations, and arrangements outside and independent of the government so that the individual does not have to become a slave to the plans and purposes of those in political power. The individual person can live free of the state — a status that shrinks to nothing when that individual is dependent upon and receives virtually all the things needed and wanted for life from the government.
But it’s “democratic” socialism! It’s what the people want as shown by those they elect to political office with the campaign agenda that the citizen-voters have expressed their desire for. It is the “will of the people.” Who can be against that, other than enemies of freedom, and oppressors who do not want the victimized to be liberated from their lives of injustice and unfairness?
But democracy is not liberty. Democracy is a political institutional means to determine who holds political office and for what period of time through a peaceful voting procedure that makes violent means unnecessary to remove or substitute those in positions of political authority and decision-making. And it is usually based on some form of majority-determining procedure.
Democracy carries with it the high respect and deference that it normally holds in most people’s minds because in modern times it gained political prominence along with and more or less at the same time in the 18th and 19th centuries as the emergent classical liberal ideas and ideals of individual liberty, impartial rule of and equality before the law, economic freedom, and constitutionally limited government. Democracy, therefore, came to be considered as inseparable from and confused in many people’s minds with freedom. But it need not.
Democratic (classical) liberalism linked the two together because in the eyes of many of the liberals in those earlier centuries the role of democratic reform was to make those in political power more directly accountable to the people over whom they ruled. But simultaneously the liberal agenda was to restrain the responsibilities and prerogatives of the government because political control, planning, regulation, and redistribution were considered abridgements of the personal freedom of the individual to control, plan, and regulate his own life, partly through those voluntary associations and interconnecting relationships of the institutions of civil society.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, remains socialism, a concept that insists and demands that the “political” is to replace the “social” as understood as meaning individual self-governing in conjunction with the voluntarism of the peaceful community of free human beings. In this understanding, socialism is inherently antisocial.
Democratic socialism coercively confines and constrains all those living within what a majority or a coalition of minorities making up a voting majority wish to have imposed on the entire society. Notice that come the political triumph of progressive, democratic socialism everyone will have to accept and be limited to a higher education funded by and therefore fully under the oversight of the federal government. No one will be able to break out of the government plan as the single payer or provider of medical and health care throughout the country. Each person’s income, wealth, position and status, and opportunities for personal betterment will be forcefully straitjacketed within what those in governmental power deem to be the politically correct, the identity politics right, and the socially just.
The pluralism and peaceful competitions of the institutions of civil society with the underlying individual freedom that it represents and helps to secure is replaced by political monopoly and coercion through the powers of government to insist upon one size fitting all for anything and everything that such a democratic socialist regime considers to be properly within its orbit and responsibility. (See my articles “The Market Democracy vs. Democratic Socialism” and “Society Is Not a Family, and Government Is Not a Parent.”)
Democratic Despotism Comes in Many Varieties
Some authors in the past have referred to democratic despotism or totalitarian democracy. Once the antisocial agenda of socialism is in power and implemented, it can, at the end of the day, be nothing but despotic and totalitarian because it is either individuals making their own plans and coordinating their plans with those of others through the voluntary agreements of the market and those institutions of civil society, or it is the plans of some imposed on others through the use or threat of political compulsion. It comes down to freedom or tyranny, whether or not that tyranny has come to power through the use of bullets or votes dropped into a ballot box.
While I have focused on democratic socialism, the others that I referred to, nationalism, protectionism, and political paternalism, are all variations on the same theme. The Swiss classical liberal economist and political scientist William E. Rappard (1883-1958) long ago explained in an insightful essay, “Economic Nationalism,” (1938) that “nationalism, then, is the doctrine which places the nation at the top of the scale of political values, that is above the three rival values of the individual, of regional units and of the international community.… The individual subordinate to the state” is the hallmark of political and economic nationalism. (See my article “‘Great National Purposes’ Mean Less Freedom.”)
All that socialists argue about against nationalists and other forms of collectivism is for what purposes shall the coercive powers of the state be used in making all in society conform to some single or network of governmental plans that all are expected to obey and follow, if negative consequences are not to befall any individuals who attempt to act outside of the socialist scheme for that politically engineered bright and beautiful future.
Free market liberalism is the social system of a civil society based on and protective of personal liberty and human betterment. Socialism is the antisocial system of politics over people, governmental power instead of peaceful and free association, and a handful of imposed political plans instead of a pluralism of as many plans as there are people in the world.
Where is the freedom when one political plan replaces our many personal plans? What is liberating when the state becomes the political master and we are expected to be the obedient citizen-servants? Which one of these worlds — democratic market liberalism or democratic-planning socialism — do you want to live in?
This article was originally posted at The American Institute for Economic Research.