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George Will

George Will: What might a socialist American government do?

| Saturday, July 7, 2018, 5:14 p.m.

WASHINGTON

This, one of the pleasures of being a conservative, is not for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28. She recently won the Democratic nomination — effectively, election — in a Bronx and Queens congressional district, running as a “democratic socialist.” In response to her, progressives and conservatives are experiencing different excitements.

The left relishes the socialist label as a rejection of squishy centrism — a naughty, daring rejection of timidity: Aux barricades, citoyens! The right enjoys a tingle of delicious fear: We told you that the alternative to us is the dark night of socialism.

At the risk of spoiling the fun, consider two questions: What is socialism? And what might a socialist American government do?

In its 19th-century infancy, socialist theory was at least admirable in its clarity: It meant state ownership of the means of production (including arable land), distribution and exchange. Until, of course, the state “withers away” (Friedrich Engels' phrase), when a classless, and hence harmonious, society can dispense with government.

After World War II, Britain's Labour Party diluted socialist doctrine to mean state ownership of the economy's “commanding heights” (Lenin's phrase from 1922) — heavy industry (e.g., steel), mining, railroads, etc. Since then, in Britain and elsewhere, further dilution has produced socialism as comprehensive economic regulation by the administrative state and government energetically redistributing wealth.

So, if America had a socialist government today, what would it be like?

Socialism favors the thorough permeation of economic life by “social” (aka political) considerations, so it embraces protectionism — government telling consumers what they can buy, in what quantities and at what prices. Socialism favors maximizing government's role supplementing, even largely supplanting, the market — voluntary private transactions — in the allocation of wealth by implementing redistributionist programs.

Socialism favors vigorous government interventions in the allocation of capital, directing it to uses that far-sighted government knows, and the slow-witted market does not realize, constitute the wave of the future. So, an American socialist government might tell, say, Carrier Corp. and Harley-Davidson that the government knows better than they do where they should invest shareholders' assets.

Socialism requires — actually, socialism is — industrial policy, whereby government picks winners and losers in conformity with the government's vision of how the future ought to be rationally planned. What could go wrong? (Imagine, weirdly, a president practicing compassionate socialism by ordering his energy secretary to prop up yesterday's coal industry against the market menace of fracking — cheap oil and natural gas.)

Today's American socialists say that our government has become the handmaiden of rapacious factions and entrenched elites, and that there should be much more government. They are half-right. To be fair, they also say that after America gets “on the right side of history,” government will be truly disinterested, manipulated by no rent-seeking factions, serving only justice. That is, government will be altogether different than it is, or ever has been. Seriously.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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