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It is revealing to read so many news reports about the collapse of Venezuela that go out of their way to avoid mentioning its primary cause--the socialist model installed by the caudillo Hugo Chavez and perpetuated by his even more thuggish successor Nicolas Maduro.

The hyperinflation and starvation spreading in an oil-rich country that was once one of the most prosperous in the Western Hemisphere is instead blamed on "mismanagement" or "mistakes," and even that hardy perennial of American imperialism.

Strange how so many mistakes were made and so much mismanagement occurred over time in disparate places like Moscow, Beijing, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Havana, Bucharest, and Pyongyang.

Once again, it was never the idea of socialism that was problematic but merely its implementation, with the wrong people (Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Castro, et al.) put in charge of an otherwise noble project.

So how remarkable that, even as the latest socialist experiment was melting down, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig suggested that it was finally time to "give socialism a try," a proposal containing the assumption that the handiwork of Vladimir Lenin or Ho Chi Minh hadn't somehow been the real thing.

Of course, the "socialism" being recommended by Bruenig isn't actually the icky Marxist-Leninist stuff, but the cuddly, "social democratic" kind advocated by Bernie Sanders and supposedly found in places like Norway and Finland.

Alas, the only problem with wanting Nordic socialism is that what exists in Nordic countries isn't really socialism and can be considered such only if we abandon the long-standing definition of the concept, which includes public ownership of the means of production (in place of private ownership) and central economic planning (in place of market forces).

In rather stark contrast to Karl Marx's vision, the economies of Nordic countries continue to feature extensive private ownership of property, to depend upon corporate entrepreneurship and profits to drive economic growth (to the extent it has occurred in recent years), and have wages and prices determined by market supply and demand.

In short, they have capitalist, not socialist, economies, just as we have, and every other affluent country has. A larger welfare state and heavier tax burden than the United States doesn't necessarily socialism make.

In its continuing search for some kind of earthly alternative to the imperfections of market economies, the left thus mistakes the kind of mundane "welfare state capitalism" common to all First World countries for its socialist antithesis.

In leftist dreams, the socialist-capitalist distinction becomes subjective and purely binary, with socialism redefined to include all that is theoretically desirable and capitalism stuck holding the real-world bag for all that isn't.

The solution to the problem of how to continue recommending socialism after a century of bloody, spectacular failures is to redefine the concept so that it can be found in Sweden and Denmark.

But misidentifying capitalist Nordic countries as socialist ones is only part of the problem.

As Nima Sanandaji notes in his book Debunking Utopia, virtually all the things that the American left admires in such countries, including less inequality, lower poverty rates, and longer life expectancy, existed before the introduction of their expansive welfare states and are therefore more likely the consequence of cultural factors, including work ethic, personal responsibility, and social cohesion, than any embrace of socialism.

With respect to one key variable--life expectancy, with its presumed relationship to quality of health care--Sanandaji notes: "In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage."

That culture travels is also reflected in the considerably higher standards of living of Danish Americans compared to Danes, Swedish Americans compared to Swedes, and Finnish Americans compared to Finns (55 percent, 53 percent, and 59 percent, respectively).

Put differently, you can take Nordic folks out of their native countries and get even better results without the more expansive welfare states and higher taxes, including in notoriously chintzy, low-tax America. Because it's the people and their habits and attitudes that produced Nordic success, not any particular form of welfare state capitalism mistaken for socialism.

In the end, we are left to conclude that the American left, in its zeal to find any kind of system that works better than our cruel own, misunderstands both the nature of Nordic economies and the reasons for their prosperity.

Socialism hasn't worked anywhere because what works in Sweden and Finland and Denmark isn't remotely socialism.

Sorry, but there is no "good" socialism that can be chosen instead of that "bad" kind that produces killing fields and mass poverty, and no path to prosperity other than the capitalist one, for Scandinavia or anywhere else.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 03/19/2018

Print Headline: The myths of socialism

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  • RBear
    March 19, 2018 at 6:47 a.m.

    What is with this guy's obsession with socialism? He seems to be like most right wing nut cases who try to brand progressive politics as "socialism" and then goes to extreme lengths to prove some fringe examples of why it doesn't work.
    "In leftist dreams, the socialist-capitalist distinction becomes subjective and purely binary, with socialism redefined to include all that is theoretically desirable and capitalism stuck holding the real-world bag for all that isn't." Sorry Gitz, but this seems to be some twisted mental model you want to label progressives with as if it's actually true, when in fact it is not.
    I'll just chalk this obsession you have up to spending too much time sheltered in the confines of Lyon College who protects your existence with an academic post. Looking over your record it doesn't seem as if you've actually ever engaged in actual capitalism throughout your career so maybe we should write off your opinions as lacking in real world experience.

  • TimberTopper
    March 19, 2018 at 7:58 a.m.

    Glitz is a bad joke being played on the ARDEMGAZ.

  • hah406
    March 19, 2018 at 8:21 a.m.

    Gitz, you almost got to the difference between socialism, communism, and what many progressives in the U.S. want, which is a capitalist model with socialist features, such as much of Scandinavia and Western Europe have. We want universal healthcare, a successful model that produces better outcomes at lower overall costs. However, republicans repeatedly call that socialism, which it clearly is not. We want a stronger social safety net, which republicans think just makes people not want to work. We want to make sure kids don't go to bed hungry, but republicans only focus on cutting SNAP. See what I am getting at. The GOP wants poor people to hurry up and die.
    Communism and pure socialism is bad. Social democracies with capitalist features apparently are ideal, based on every measure available for economic output, education, life expectancy, and happiness of the population in Scandinavia and many Western European countries.

  • WhododueDiligence
    March 19, 2018 at 8:33 a.m.

    First, Gitz states that there is no socialism in places like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Then Gitz takes an opposite viewpoint--that life expectancy went down in those countries after their "embrace of socialism." Then in conclusion Gitz once again denies that what those countries have is socialism.
    As a reminder not to do this--not to try to have it both ways--ever again, Gitz should have to sing along with Donovan "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is" 100 times while writing it on the blackboard. But such cruel and unusual punishment is frowned upon in this country. And since Gitz has shown good taste in music, he should be allowed to be treated lightly by listening to the Allman Brothers takeoff on that song in their "Mountain Jam" instrumental which is over 33 minutes long but the last 8 minutes are particularly earthshaking.
    Besides, unlike the contortions and flip-flops typically found in political arguments, in the grand scheme of geologic space and time, "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is" actually does make sense.

  • WhododueDiligence
    March 19, 2018 at 8:48 a.m.

    The 55, 53, and 59 percent higher standard of living statistics for Danish, Swedish, and Finnish Americans appear suspect considering that Denmark, Sweden, and Finland all have high standards of living. That looks like something which might support the old saying about statistics and which might be found in the satire-rich Journal of Irreproduceable Results.

  • GeneralMac
    March 19, 2018 at 9:39 a.m.

    Gitz sure got the socialist posters riled up this morning !

    When liberals favor a guaranteed living income for EVERYONE, they should re-read Gitz's last paragraph.

    One poster says......" we want to make sure kids don't go to bed hungry" stamps, free school lunches, food shelves.

    WHY are kids going to bed hungry ?

  • GeneralMac
    March 19, 2018 at 9:51 a.m.

    The liberals in the US loved Hugo Chavez.

    The only reason I can think of is because Hugo Chavez disliked George W Bush.

  • Foghorn
    March 19, 2018 at 10:12 a.m.

    Gitz is referring to findings in a July 2016 joint research paper by Rockwool Foundation in Copenhagen and Univ of Chicago called “The Scandinavian Fantasy.”

  • hah406
    March 19, 2018 at 10:20 a.m.

    Mac, kids are going to bed hungry because a lot of people in this state are the working poor, and you all keep cutting SNAP. Some get one good meal a day while in school, then eat ok the first of the month and starve the last of the month. Why don't you take a stroll down to Arkansas Children's Hospital, where they give out hundreds of free lunches every day during the summer to keep kids from going hungry and tell those kids it is their fault they are hungry, you no good SOB.

  • GeneralMac
    March 19, 2018 at 10:36 a.m.

    haha406...........who said it is the "kids' fault" if they are going hungry?

    With the PARENTS earning a wage ( YOU asserted they are the " working poor " )......generous food stamps etc............why should kids be going hungry.

    The two RESPONSIBILITIES of being a parent is providing for a roof over their kids' heads and food.

    Any luxuries,,,,,,,,electronic gadgets, nice cars,,,,,,,,should only be purchased after the first two are met.