The correct way to understand Bernie Sanders’ socialism



Joseph Betz

This article was first published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 23.

The correct way to understand Bernie Sanders’ socialism is to relate it to the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A human right is the justified claim of all people to what they need, not only to live, but to flourish and develop their unique potential. The first 21 articles of the declaration list civil and political rights, including rights to life, property, and equality under law. Such rights are basic to democracy, requiring some governmental protection but also governmental non-interference in our lives.

However, to flourish, a person also needs rights in which the government goes beyond not interfering to helping. These social and economic human rights — Articles 22 to 27 — include food, clothing, housing, a job, medical care, a living wage, the ability join a union, and free but compulsory basic education.

Politically speaking, a government that guarantees civil and political rights is democratic; the opposite sort is autocratic.

Economically speaking, a government that guarantees social and economic rights is socialistic; its opposite is capitalistic. The latter counts on the free market to provide the opportunity to compete for a job and medical care to those who buy it. Thus capitalism does not violate social and economic human rights, but it doesn’t guarantee them.

In this context, socialism does not mean Karl Marx’s government ownership of the means of production. It simply means that, even in a capitalistic economy, if the free market cannot provide jobs, housing, education, and medical care for all, the government will. It can do all this democratically, for example by taxing free-market transactions.

We have, then, four types of government, based on the rights that each guarantees:

Democratic socialism — the best kind because it safeguards both civil and political rights, as well as social and economic ones. Scandinavian governments are an example.

Democratic capitalism, which guarantees civil and political rights and allows the taxation of the free market to provide a safety net to ensure a certain level of social and economic rights for all. This is the United States.

Autocratic socialism, also known as communism, where an authoritarian government denies the civil and political rights, but claims, often insincerely because it can’t be democratically examined, to guarantee social and economic rights. This is the Soviet Union.

Autocratic capitalism violates civil and political rights, and doesn’t guarantee social and economic rights, but tends to have only crony capitalism. This was pre-Castro Cuba.

Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, because it is the best guarantor of both political and economic rights. This form of government is widely realized in Europe, especially in countries like Sweden and Denmark.

Social democratic parties, which are usually the governments instituting democratic socialism, tend to co-exist with socialistic and communist parties to the left of them. However, the socialism of these parties is not the Marxist version in which the government owns all the factors of production. This socialism is simply achieved through legislation that democratically regulates and taxes capitalistic free markets.

European democratic socialism is really only capitalism in a welfare-state. This would look like, first, capitalism for everyone, with socialism only for those failing in the free market. Social democratic parties are not communist because they are democratic and open in their socialistic controls.

Michael Moore’s new movie, Where to Invade Next, is a tour of capitalist countries where democratic socialism has done wonderful things — France, Italy, Germany, Finland, Portugal, and Tunisia.

Sanders’ socialism is just an extension of what his favorite president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did to preserve capitalism after it caused the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal was aimed at relief, recovery, and reform. He began the march to the full guarantee of social and economic rights by strengthening unions, creating jobs, providing pensions through Social Security, and ensuring a minimum wage, welfare, rural electrification, and assistance to farmers.

Left unrealized in the New Deal are proposals now advocated by Sanders: free public college education, free universal health care, free child care for working parents, making the minimum wage a living wage, increased taxes on the rich, and financial bailouts to those who lost homes in the 2008 mortgage crisis, rather than to the Wall Street firms that caused the catastrophe (which, incidentally, is an example of socialism for the rich).

So, Sanders is not a communist or a Marxist socialist. He is not undemocratic, nor a threat to a capitalism regulated to achieve the common good.                     

Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, once called the Declaration of Human Rights a mere “letter to Santa Claus.” But during the same Reagan presidency, the U.S. Catholic bishops of the United States offered a contradictory opinion in Economic Justice for All, and it is roughly the opinion of the present Pope Francis. After praising our founding fathers for their successful “experiment in the protection of civil and political rights,” the bishops continued: “We believe the time has come for a similar experiment in securing economic rights…for every person.” Bernie

Sanders now offers to lead us in designing this experiment.

Joseph Betz is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Villanova University.