The reason why democratic socialism is growing in popularity is a pretty reason.
Because it is not capitalism.
Capitalism is, more and more people are realizing, evil. And its greatest crime is that its proponents and sycophants have convinced themselves, and many others, that capitalism is a term that is fully interchangeable with the idea of a free market.
That is false, tragically false. Though it should surprise no one, as the devil of capitalism is not in its details, but in its very name.
As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Capital is another word for money. Capitalism, thus, is a world view that values money. And. Nothing. Else.
That is not the free market. The free market values -- or, at least, can value -- many things. Innovation. Cooperation. The law of supply and demand. Fair deals. Respect for partners, workers and customers. Human progress, at least in a material sense.
The free market excels at creating stuff. Not justice, not fairness, not decency. But stuff, lots and lots of stuff, more stuff than we can keep up with. Stuff we love to have. Stuff that creates longer lives lived in relative comfort. And stuff that, frankly, we’d be better off without.
A truly free market values both market mechanisms and government regulations to hold everyone to standards of fairness, honesty, respect for physical and intellectual property and the kind of robust competition that is always short-lived without active efforts to prevent collusion, price-fixing and monopoly power.
Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher labeled the “father of capitalism” warned repeatedly that it is the natural tendency of merchants to collude, fix prices and wages, drive out competition and create monopolies that are destructive of both a free market and society as a whole.
Never trust businessmen to write their own regulations, Smith urged, as, unchecked, the business class will always seek “to deceive and even to oppress the public.”
A truly free market depends on a commons, created privately or through government, that includes transportation, public safety, patent and copyright protection, banks and financial services that are sound and honest, protection of workers’ rights and the environment, universal education, a free press and, in truly First World nations, universal access to health care.
In recent weeks we have seen two of the brightest, if not the youngest, stars in the firmament of conservative punditry come to the very public conclusion that conservative thought, at least as it used to be honored and promoted by the Republican Party in the United States, is dead.
George F. Will of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, have pronounced Republican conservatism a thing of the past, destroyed by the distaste it has engendered in a happily multi-cultural, yet financially insecure, generation that now sees the Republicans as, in Will’s words, “the dumb party.”
Conservatism has been blown out of the water, not by the success of socialism, but by the widely detested rise of Trumpism. That is a bare-knuckles and hideously crude form of capitalism that sees wealth is a measure of a person’s worth and holds that all of life is a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game in which lifting all boats is both impossible and weak.
The rich have always sought to divert the righteous anger of the poor by pitting different segments of society against one another. This divide-and-conquer approach got our current president elected once, and could well get him elected again, as enough people in enough swing states, prodded by enough falsehoods posted by the Russian secret service on Facebook and promoted by Fox News, turn against the better angels of their nature to vote for the lummox who promises to protect them from the rising number of brown people.
The incumbent has done more than any capitalist in the last century to convince people that things like a free press, the rule of law, environmental protection and guards against corruption in both the public and private sectors are for sissies. That making America great again involves moving backward to a time when all political, social and economic power was held by white, nominally Christian males.
People who want a free society and a free market to really be intertwined are attracted to the arguments of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Osasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and like minds because they see that allocating society’s assets to build everyone up, to educate them, heal them, make them free of economic insecurity, is not theft from one class to aid another. It is an absolute necessity if even the well-off are to live in a culture that provides freedom of movement, expression and the opportunity for real human growth.
Some people, whether hopefully or derisively, will call it socialism. The proper term for it is civilization.
George Pyle is the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.