Market liberalism is under attack in America, while democratic socialism is ascendant. This is understandable; just 10 years ago, this country experienced the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The popular (though flawed) conception of the recession is that it represented the worst excesses of capitalistic greed. So I fully respect the conscientious students who are attempting to advocate for democratic socialism on this campus, whether in the form of their new student organization — the Kenyon Democratic Socialists of America (KYDSA) — or through the pages of the Collegian. What complicates their mission, however, is a very simple truth: Democracy and socialism are, at their core, incompatible.
In an 1848 speech to the French Chamber of Deputies, Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that “Democracy and Socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” Inspired by these words, the economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom in 1944, where he laid out a clear and cogent argument against the erroneous notion that democracy and socialism might successfully coexist.
Hayek’s argument does not hinge on intent. One might assume that socialists have inherently good intentions. Even so, a familiar pattern emerges when a government implements central planning. Hayek writes that “the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans.”
Essentially, central planners organize their economic schemes. The plan will necessarily fail since human actors pursue their own individual plans, which will naturally conflict to some extent with plans made at the center. Central planners will have to implement new rules and restrict certain freedoms in order to push actors toward what planners see as the socially desired outcome. Plans continue to fail and freedoms continue to be restricted. Ultimately, we end up with totalitarianism.
Privileging the central plan necessarily undermines the plans of individuals when the two naturally conflict. Remember that this is all operating under the assumption that the totalitarians originally meant well. Of course, that may not actually be the case.
Hayek contends it is far more likely that those with ill intentions will be the ones who rise to the top in a socialist system. Some may find the prospect of restricting individual liberties less distasteful than others. They’ll be more likely to succeed at the task of planning, which calls for a certain comfort with the notion of imposing central plans on people with a multitude of varying preferences. Hence, the political leaders that a socialist system tends to select for are likely not the benevolent socialists we might imagine. When given the choice “between disregard of ordinary morals and [the] failure” of their plans, Hayek notes, history shows central planners generally choose the former.
Democratic socialism, then, regardless of how one means it in the modern American political climate, is an entirely meaningless term. Bernie Sanders and his devotees can push for socialism within the United States all they want, but if they mean to place the commanding heights of the economy in central hands, they risk our democratic way of life.
I am a liberal member of the Democratic party. I recognize that there is a role for government in advocating for prosperity. But there is no place for socialism in a democratic society. The two ideals are fundamentally at odds.
Regardless, I have no doubt that KYDSA will provide and inspire thought-provoking political discussions on this campus, and for that I am grateful.
Pranav Mulpur ’19 is a political science major from Westford, Mass. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.