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David Bentley Hart’s sophomoric defense of socialism

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“Whatever you think of the socialism discussion,” says economist Tyler Cowen, “should a Christian have and indeed display so much contempt for other human beings?”

Cowen is referring, of course, to the latest sneering diatribe in the New York Times by theologian David Bentley Hart. Cowen isn’t himself a Christian, but even many non-believers are shocked by Hart’s tone. I suspect that’s merely because they are unfamiliar with his broader body of work.

If you know Hart’s name it’s likely because he wrote a good book on atheism and a bad translation of the New Testament. Or you may know him, as I do, from his writings at First Things.

Hart began writing an online column about the time I was hired as the online editor at the magazine. This was in 2009, soon after the death of the founding editor Richard John Neuhaus, when First Things was still a broadly ecumenical and conservative publication. This was also before Hart admitted his disdain for all things conservative. As Hart said last September, “I have, moreover, no interest in or sympathy for—in fact, am temperamentally averse and morally hostile to—any forms of political conservatism: neo-conservatism, palaeo-conservatism, ‘lost-cause’ conservatism, monarcho-conservatism, theo-conservatism, or any other.” (For someone “morally hostile” to conservatism to still be a contributing writer at First Things speaks volumes about where the magazine is today).

At the time I didn’t know Hart was a self-professed socialist; I only knew he was obnoxious. Hart is one of the most intellectually arrogant men I’ve ever encountered. And like many smart and arrogant men, he’s often blinded to his own ignorance about subjects outside his area of expertise.

In his op-ed, Hart comes across as if he were a sophomore writing for the school newspaper at an exclusive liberal arts college, rather than a theologian writing for the nation’s most important opinion page. He begins by mocking the looks and voices of Fox News broadcasters (“suety faces, bouffant coiffures and nerve-racking mezzo-castrato voices”) and commentator Ben Stein (“. . . exuding all the effervescent charm of a despondent tree sloth, glumly wobbling his jowls . . .”). He then shifts to fan-boy praise of the socialist congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

[I] am painfully aware that the male Fox commentariat nurtures its sickly obsession with Ms.         partly because they resent her cleverness, charisma and moral vitality, but mostly because they suspect that in high school she was one of those girls they had no hope of getting a date with (though, really, she comes across as someone who could look past a face of even the purest suet if she thought she glimpsed a healthy soul behind it).

The most stunning thing about this paragraph is that it was written by a grown man (Hart is in his mid-fifties) in the New York Times, and not as mash note by a teenager on the message board of an AOC fan club. Unfortunately, like many people on the left and right, Hart seems to confuse the real politician with the idealized version he holds in his head. In the real world, AOC is a freshman congresswoman who began violating House ethics rules even before she was sworn in, and who is frequently mocked even by her own party for being blithely ill-informed. Perhaps she is charismatic, but those of us who don’t have a crush on her don’t consider her to be exuding cleverness or moral vitality.

All of that is mere throat-clearing and virtue signaling before he gets to his peculiar defense of socialism. Hart is partially correct in his assessment that “in this country we employ terms like ‘socialism’ with wanton indifference to historical details and conceptual distinctions.” Indeed, this is all too true. And Hart is Exhibit A in proving the point.

For at least the past fifty years, conservatives have slapped the label “socialist” on almost every Democrat candidate, most of whom were garden-variety center-left liberal supporters of capitalism. We railed that if we elected another Blue Dog Democrat then we were on the slippery slope to becoming the U.S.S.R. The result of our hyperbole is that when the real socialist menace finally came along, no one trusted us enough to listen.

Compounding the problem is that conservatives, like all Americans, have never really agreed on what we mean by the term socialism. The Oxford Dictionary of Economics has a definition that seems to come closest to the colloquial usage: the idea that the economy’s resources should be used in the interests of all its citizens, rather than allowing private owners of land and capital to use them as they see fit.

This should be a rather uncontroversial definition. Anyone who has ever engaged with a defender of socialism, though, will recognize Hart’s socialist two-step: If they like the country where socialism is practiced, it’s socialism; if they do not, then it wasn’t really socialism anyway.

For example, Hart says it’s “amusing to hear Republicans assert that a military kleptocracy like Venezuela is a socialist country because its government uses that word when lying about itself . . .” What is amusing is how socialists lie to themselves about Venezuela being the natural outcome of socialist policies.

As the Venezuelan expatriate Daniel Di Martino has explained, the three main policies implemented by Chavez since 1999 that produced the current crisis are widespread nationalization of private industry, currency and price controls, and the fiscally irresponsible expansion of welfare programs. Which of those policies is “not really socialism”? Aside from nationalization of private industry (a tenet of old-school socialism) those are policies supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, the political party to which Hart says he is a member.

That is step one in the socialist two-step. Step two is to redefine the term in a way that fits your political preferences:

Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.

Perhaps America does have a unique national genius for stupidity. That would certainly explain why he could make such a stupid assertion that when other countries use the term “socialism” all they really mean is a more equal distribution of wealth in a market economy run by free citizens. Hart isn’t describing socialism; he’s describing welfare statism or redistributionism.

Socialism and welfare statism are similar in many ways, but differ substantially on the issue of whether individual or the government should have primary control of the economy’s resources.

In theory, an economy could be both free-market based and a welfare state, if the people were allowed to voluntarily redistribute their wealth through the government. But in a socialist system people do not have such a choice. The state decides what will be done with the nation’s wealth.

Since the fall of the Soviet empire, most self-proclaimed socialists aren’t focused solely on the state controlling the means of production—as long as the wealth that is produced by capital can be redistributed by the government. These neo-socialists are generally comfortable with individuals and businesses owning the means of production and (sometimes) privatizing the risks and losses that come with production as long as they can socialize the profits that are created by capital.

A prime example is Bernie Sanders. He is willing to allow businesses to be privately owned as long as he can use government regulation and mandatory wealth redistribution to achieve economic equity in society.  I suspect that is what Hart wants also. Perhaps that is a type of socialism. But to claim that is what all socialists and all socialist nations mean by the term is either dishonest or benighted.

Hart’s op-ed is a mess, but I don’t think he’s unique in being ignorant about economics. Many people are. I also don’t think his misunderstanding of the term socialism is unique. Many leaders of the political party he supports do the same. I don’t even think his pedantic and contemptuous writing style is distinctively worthy of criticism. Many college students write the same way.

But what is inexcusable is for a theologian like Hart to use his opportunity to write such untutored drivel.

The fact is that we need more theologians writing about topics like economics in forums like the New York Times. Theologians can help us to see the broader tapestry of human flourishing by providing a richer moral perspective on discussions about money, finance, and economic policy. Compared to theology, economics is also a rather easy topic in which to develop a rudimentary competence and understanding of the fundamentals. It shouldn’t be hard to find economically informed and theologically astute writers.

We need theologians who have something valuable to add from a Christian perspective. What we don’t need, though, is a theologian who approaches the topic like a college sophomore who has not done the required reading for their Econ 101 class. What we don’t need, in other words, is a theologian who is as banal and ignorant as a socialist sophomore in college (or a socialist freshman in Congress).

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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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