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).

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