Self-described democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders is doing relatively well in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He recently polled at 34 percent (an increase from 30 percent in November) and, anecdotally, I passed several “Bernie” bumper-stickered cars on fairly empty roads this morning. Despite Sander’s and democratic socialism’s fashionableness these days, a Frenchman born in 1805 already warned against and explained the dangers of this kind of socialism. Writing for The Federalist, Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg points out how Alexis de Tocqueville “schooled” the senator. “Sanders appears to think all we need to be happy is more money,” Gregg writes. “Alexis de Tocqueville dismantled that idea two centuries ago.”
What exactly is the kind of socialism supported by Bernie Sanders and many other Americans? He’s said that it’s not Marxism and that he supports private business. It’s a “soft socialism” Gregg explains:
Freedom, Sanders maintained, requires government-provided economic security.
For Sanders, this translates into particular programs such as a Medicare-for-all single-payer health care system, massive public works to create jobs, significant minimum-wage increases, and any number of measures designed to reduce wealth and income inequalities. On a more philosophical level, these and other programs Sanders proposes are based on what he regards as a series of economic rights (which he asserts rather than demonstrates) that governments have the prime responsibility to realize.
Some might describe this as all rather mild: as essentially taking America towards the type of economic systems that exist in much of Western Europe. But it’s precisely such “moderate” versions of socialism that were the primary object of Tocqueville’s worries.
The majority of Tocqueville’s statements on socialism can be found in a speech he gave in February 1848 after the Second French Republic was established. At the time, an ongoing debate surrounded the idea of a citizen’s right to work and if it should be protected in the new constitution. To be clear, this isn’t the “right to work” that we may think of today. Rather than anything to do with union membership or organized labor, this “right to work” was literally, a right to work, the government guaranteeing jobs for anyone who wanted a job. Tocqueville opposed including this guarantee in the new constitution.
If a right to work was written into France’s constitution, he argued, it would open the door to the state assuming an unprecedented degree of control over economic life. Why? Because to fulfill such a constitutional duty, Tocqueville claimed, the state would either have to force businesses to hire people or create as many government jobs as it took to eliminate unemployment. Either way, it would shatter economic freedom or fiscal rectitude.
Tocqueville didn’t stop here. He proceeded to articulate a scathing appraisal of socialism, none of which, interestingly enough, concerns economics per se.
Tocqueville’s first reproach was that socialism—whatever its expression—has an inherently materialistic understanding of humans. “The first characteristic of all socialist ideologies is,” Tocqueville insisted, “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man.” Tocqueville may have wrestled with religious questions for much of his life. Nevertheless, he refused to accept that we’re just another species of animal whose fundamental needs are purely material.
Second, Tocqueville observed that all forms of socialism are inherently hostile to private property: an institution he considered indispensable for civilization. After explicitly referencing Proudhon’s outright anti-property stance, Tocqueville claimed that “all socialists, by more or less roundabout means, if they do not destroy the principle upon which it is based, transform it, diminish it, obstruct it, limit it, and mold it into something completely foreign to what we know and have been familiar with since the beginning of time as private property.”
That’s quite strong language. But Tocqueville’s insight is that you don’t have to engage in out-and-out collectivization to move towards socialistic arrangements.
Despite Tocqueville speaking in a completely different context than the 2016 presidential election, his words ring true against the democratic socialism of today.
[I]n the end, Tocqueville’s assessment of socialism is surely dead-on. Even its most sophisticated contemporary advocates believe that governments must assume perhaps indirect but undoubtedly more control of people’s lives in the name of essentially materialist conceptions of what matters in life.
Looking through Sanders’ speech, one can’t help but think he believes that the vast majority of America’s economic problems will disappear if more people have more stuff and are less economically unequal. There’s very little recognition, for example, in his remarks that poverty has in many cases extra-economic causes, most notably family breakdown, single-parent households, and mental illness. Addressing these issues requires much more than just giving people more material things, and often has little to do with economic inequality. They often require moral, even spiritual solutions.
Gregg adds a final warning to Sanders and others:
Herein lies what Tocqueville understood to be the greatest danger posed by socialism. It first ignores and then extinguishes the soul. Today’s enthusiasts of the type of socialism Sanders advocates apparently don’t grasp this. All of us, however, ignore that truth at our peril.
Let’s hope Americans grasp Tocqueville’s understanding of the realities of socialism sooner rather than later. Be sure to read “How Tocqueville schooled Bernie Sanders 200 years ago” in its entirety at the Federalist.