Acton Institute Powerblog

The New Socialists and the Social Ownership of Money

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socialism-0916After getting home from work you get a statement in the mail from the local government saying you owe $20,000 for college tuition. You’re surprised to receive the bill since (a) you never went to college yourself and (b) your own children are still in preschool. Upon reading the fine print you discover the expected payment is not to cover any costs you’ve incurred but to pay for the tuition of college students in your neighborhood.

Outraged, you turn to your neighbors to complain about the injustice. They assure you, though, that this is nothing to be concerned about. Americans aren’t paying more for college tuition, one explains, “The only change is how we now pay for college.” Before, individuals were expected to cover their costs of attending college. Now, everyone is expected to pay. “So you see,” another says cheerfully, “there’s no real change.”

After hearing this you would probably want to move to a new neighborhood since you are surrounded by people who can’t distinguish between your money and a collective pool of cash that can be distributed at the whim of the government.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a completely hypothetical scenario. This is the actual rationale some people are making to justify presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders proposal for $18 trillion in spending. In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman says,

[W]hile Sanders does want to spend significant amounts of money, almost all of it is on things we’re already paying for; he just wants to change how we pay for them. In some ways it’s by spreading out a cost currently borne by a limited number of people to all taxpayers. His plan for free public college would do this: right now, it’s paid for by students and their families, while under Sanders’ plan we’d all pay for it in the same way we all pay for parks or the military or food safety.

But the bulk of what Sanders wants to do is in the first category: to have us pay through taxes for things we’re already paying for in other ways. Depending on your perspective on government, you may think that’s a bad idea. But we shouldn’t treat his proposals as though they’re going to cost us $18 trillion on top of what we’re already paying.

We can quibble (as Waldman does) about how much additional spending Sanders is truly proposing. But what is clear is that Waldman cannot distinguish between the cash in your checking account and the pool of money that the government is authorized to spend. He seems to believe that there is no distinction in spending if a dollar is taken from an individual and given to the government to spend. Since someone would have spent the dollar anyway, there is no “increase” in government spending.

Both Waldman and Sanders appear to be advocating a form of “social ownership” of money. They don’t want to take all of everyone’s money (after all, they aren’t communists) but they do think that a large proportion of income and wealth belongs to everyone collectively and should therefore be distributed in a more “equitable” manner (i.e., in a manner that suits their political preferences). This is the New Socialism.

For the most part, the New Socialists aren’t calling for the nationalization of industries (except maybe health care). They are content with allowing the capitalists to create the wealth as long as they get to decide how it is redistributed.

What is disturbing is not merely the presence of the New Socialists—they always have and always will be with us—but with the growing number of people who assume this way of thinking is obviously correct. For example, Peter Weber of the normally respectable The Week approvingly cites Waldman’s article under a section called “Fact Check.”

Sadly, we conservatives are partially to blame. For decades we labeled any government financial action that we didn’t approve of as “socialism.” After years of crying “Socialist!” at the mere mention of tax increases we have caused the American people to ignore our complaints. Now, Sanders and other New Socialists are posing a real threat, and we’re struggling to get anyone to pay attention.

Sure, Sanders won’t win—at least not the presidency. But he is winning a victory for his cause by increasing the number of people who accept the legitimacy of the social ownership of money. Soon the only point of contention won’t be over how much of our income we should give the government but how much of our wealth the New Socialists allow us to keep for ourselves.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Josh

    College education that Sanders proposed will be paid for by Wall Street speculation tax, so the first paragraph of this article is incorrect. Right now, if your a millionaire or billionaire, you get paid in taxes by the American people for being a job creator. This is wrong, must end, and big money must start paying into the system. A tax cap of $118,000 set back in the 1800s must be raised. Don’t let the Oligarchy fool you, vote Bernie Sanders for President!

    • Chris Brooks

      Rich people don’t pay taxes. They only find more and more ways to make you pay their taxes. Many of these rich people are in Congress and continue to make new ways for you to pay for them.

  • Ethan

    I agree with some of what you are saying here. In particular, conservatives have indeed overused the term “socialism” as a pejorative against federal spending, to the point that many people do not know the actual definition of socialism. However, the public enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’ proposals has not arisen in a vacuum. Specifically, regarding public education, there are two changes happening simultaneously that I believe is making Americans receptive to the idea of “free” college tuition. In the current job market, decent careers are increasingly requiring a college degree, if not a master’s degree. At the same time, college tuition is rising at a much faster rate than other common expenditures (housing, food, etc.) This has the potential to seriously exacerbate the already significant problem of income inequality in America, as many people are forced to take on crippling debt, or else be priced out of competition for valuable jobs.

    • Chris Brooks

      The problem is that it’s the ever-increasing government aid for college tuition that has fed this crazy tuition rise. It’s just like health care spending — the end user doesn’t really care how much it costs, so the cost goes up. And just like health care (look at the nations with single-payer health care systems), making college “free” for everyone will only cause it to get more expensive requiring more infusions of cash or restrictions on who can go.

  • Claire

    If supporters of a free market/capitalist economy are unable to winsomely communicate their differences with socialism, they will continue to lose this battle. They need to clean up the corruption from within. “Keeping your own money” does not resonate with this generation, but “helping others achieve” might.

  • Roger Ball

    All my life I have heard of rich people who claim to not even want all of their wealth. Some say they wished the government would go ahead and take it, but they won’t. Since there are so many people allegedly on-board with today’s “happiness economics,” why don’t they create a voluntary donations-based system for those who do not want their excess? This would at least be better than the stealing-based model? This would even be biblical. Since the droning liberal mantra is that mankind is basically good, let’s find out how good.

    • That exists already. Any wealthy person can give whatever they want to the government. Those who claim they don’t want their money are simply lying because it would be easy to give it away to the state or to charity.

  • The US is not a capitalist society. Bernie Sanders proves it. Look at the pitifully small things he wants to do – free college tuition and family leave. That’s all he can think of because the US has adopted all of the socialist agenda over the past century.

    To understand why people think the US is capitalist when in reality it is socialist one needs to read Mises’ book “Omnipotent Government.” It’s a history of how the German monarchy implemented every socialist principle in the late 19th century and allowed the socialists to dominate parliament, but socialists insisted that Germany was still capitalist because it had a monarchy. Socialism destroyed the German economy but the socialist press and parliament blamed the failures on capitalism even though no capitalism existed.

    The monarchy dissolved and the socialist parliament took over after WWII. The German economy was a disaster, but the socialist parliament could think of now way to revive it. They had fully implemented every socialist policy they could think of and could come up with nothing new to offer while refusing to consider freer markets. The economy continued to deteriorate until the people were so desperate they gave Hitler dictatorial powers to save them, but they would never under any circumstances consider abandoning socialist principles while at the same time denying they were socialist.

    Socialists have followed the same game plan in the US.

  • Findo

    Socialism seems to work pretty well in Germany. Besides, surely a Christian perspective would be to desire social good, and giving g so that everyone has the chance for better education is in that spirit? After all, no one cries “socialist” when primary and secondary education is footed by the taxpayer, and given that a tertiary education is quickly becoming a necessity for many many jobs (indeed, in many cases a Bachelor degree is no longer enough) what practical difference is there?

    • Germany is much less socialist today than it was pre-WWII. In fact, the German “miracle” after WWII that caused rapid economic growth was anti-socialist. The intellectual power behind it was the great free market economist Roepke, which this web site has frequently promoted. It drifted left over the decades after WWII but then had to roll back much of its socialism after unification with Eastern Germany and the economy went into a tailspin.

      The US has done fairly well with increasing socialism. We’re one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. But we had to roll back some socialism in the 1970s when the economy ground to a halt because of it. Recently, we have experienced growing inequality and eroded standards of living as a result of greater socialism in the 1990s and 2000s.

      But what we miss by embracing greater socialism has been what we can’t see: what might have been. Based on history, we might have enjoyed less poverty and greater equality with freer markets.

  • bostonkid

    New Socialism? Don’t you mean Fascism?

    In the article it states:
    “For the most part, the New Socialists aren’t calling for the nationalization of industries (except maybe health care). They are content with allowing the capitalists to create the wealth as long as they get to decide how it is redistributed.”

    Government under fascism becomes the cartelization device for both the workers and the private owners of capital. The free market economy where competition between workers and between businesses is regarded as too dangerous and exploitative; the political elites decide that the members of these groups need to get together and cooperate under government supervision to build a mighty nation. The fascists have always been obsessed with the idea of national greatness. To them, this does not consist in a nation of people who are growing more prosperous, living ever better under a free market economy. No, national greatness occurs when the state provides things like free college tuition or free health coverage.

    In other words, national greatness is not the same thing as your greatness or your family’s greatness or your company’s or profession’s greatness. On the contrary. You have to be taxed, your money’s value has to be depreciated, your privacy invaded, and your well-being diminished in order to achieve it. In this view, the government has to make us great.

    Tragically, “New Socialism” or as I call it Fascism has a far greater chance of political success than old-fashioned socialism. Fascism doesn’t nationalize private property as socialism does. Under fascism, society as we know it is left intact, though everything is lorded over by a mighty state apparatus.

    As for the capitalists, fascism doesn’t seek their expropriation. Instead, the middle class gets what it wants in the form of social insurance, medical benefits, free college, and heavy doses of national pride.
    It is for all these reasons that fascism takes on the “New Socialism” label. It doesn’t attack fundamental capitalist values. It draws on them to garner support for a democratically backed all-around national regimentation of economic control, censorship, cartelization, political intolerance, geographic expansion, executive control, the police state, and militarism.