Elizabeth Bruenig is back.
The Washington Post columnist memorably wrote last week that she wished for an upsurge in support for socialism. I critiqued that column. Now she’s written a response to that critique, claiming that I (among others) interpreted her in bad faith for mentioning several countries that have tried socialism and failed, from Venezuela to the Soviet Union, and for pointing out that many of the supposedly socialist countries that socialists so often proclaim as their examples aren’t actually socialist (see, for example, Denmark and Sweden).
First off, it’s worth noting that Bruenig mentioned no country in her original article. She talked about the concept of socialism in rather classical Marxist terms — terms which better describe Cuba and Venezuela than mixed economies like Denmark and Sweden, as I pointed out.
Nonetheless, Bruenig thinks I somehow misinterpreted her purposefully.
So, let’s consider her latest argument.
Last week, I wrote a column arguing that liberals concerned about ongoing failures in the American experiment should consider socialist remedies. I knew there would be quite a bit of disagreement. And I knew that most — though, crucially, not all — of it would unfold in bad faith…In the case of my column, this meant many interlocutors taking socialism to mean something along the lines of Soviet communism or the Venezuelan system, genocides, calamities, disasters and all. I don’t think anybody actually believes I’m rooting for totalitarian forms of socialism, nor for its most devastatingly ill-managed variants: I said I wasn’t, after all. If one genuinely thought a person was campaigning for genocide, one surely wouldn’t engage with someone so unreasonable.
Now this is a strawman. Nobody claimed that Bruenig wants the outcomes we’ve seen in Venezuela or under the Soviets. But it would be ridiculous to ignore the results of those socialist experiments in responding to an argument calling for the advent of socialism. I seriously doubt whether the original instigators of socialism in Venezuela wanted people eating dogs in the streets. But that’s not stopping the starving citizens of Venezuela from eating dogs in the streets as a result of that socialist philosophy in action.
According to Bruenig, I wronged her by mentioning those countries — but then I also wronged her by mentioning Nordic states socialists frequently claim as their own.
I also suspect my critics knew I wasn’t recommending the United States go Khmer Rouge based on a particular theme they kept returning to: Scandinavia. I hadn’t named the Nordic countries in my piece, but my opponents were quick to discard them from the conversation. After all, they’re inconvenient when arguing that socialism necessarily means mass murder and famine. “No, Sweden and Denmark aren’t socialist countries,” the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro noted, apropos of nothing, in his piece on my alleged Stalinism, “. . . they’re capitalist countries with redistributionist tendencies.” It’s the kind of preemptive rebuttal one supplies when one knows what their opponent means but would rather spend time attacking something else.
Now you would expect Bruenig to rebut the presumption that Sweden and Denmark are capitalist countries with redistributionist tendencies, and claim that they are actually socialist. But she doesn’t bother. Instead, she sets up a new metric: she doesn’t want full-scale socialism, she just wants some redistributionism here or there:
I think it makes sense to think of socialism on a spectrum, with countries and policies being more or less socialist, rather than either/or. It’s fair to say, for example, that single-payer health care is a more socialist policy than private, market-based health care. But that doesn’t mean that single-payer is the most socialist health-care policy one could dream up, nor that any country that uses such a system is de facto socialist. Certain policies will lean more in the direction of decommodification and social or cooperative ownership of certain goods, and others will incline toward commodifying certain goods and relying on market devices to decide their distribution. Along these axes, we can determine whether policies are more or less socialist.
This is, of course, a fair argument. At least, it’s a much better argument. It’s also not the argument she made in her original column. Her original column suggested that capitalism itself was soul-sucking, and she stated clearly, “capitalism seems to be at odds with the harmonious, peaceful, stable liberalism of midcentury dreams.” Not “certain capitalist institutions.” Not “the privatized health care system.” Capitalism itself.
So this is a rather major concession on her part, which she pretends never happened, of course.
Finally, she decides on her favorite new socialist paradise: Norway.
Now, this is useful. We can argue over whether the United States ought to embrace policies more like those of Norway. Again, that wasn’t her original argument. But let’s talk about her case for Norway:
As of 2015, Norway owned roughly 59 percent of the country’s wealth; by contrast, China, which is still considered at least a quasi-communist state by many, owned only 32 percent of its national wealth. In Norway, government also owns about a third of the country’s stock market, along with some 70 businesses valued at almost 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product……Taken together, this means that the people of the Nordic states have come a long way toward democratizing ownership, dispersing wealth, lowering inequality and placing workers’ lives under their own control — in other words, the socialism of the Nordic states seems pretty close to the kind of socialism that I wrote would satisfy me.
First off, a huge portion of Norway’s wealth ownership is thanks to their nationalization of their oil industry; like the United Arab Emirates or Venezuela, this gives them an enormous amount of cash to play with (their social wealth fund, worth $1 trillion, was seeded with oil money). The oil industry represents approximately 22% of Norway’s GDP two-thirds of their exports. (It also pays for 36% of the national government’s revenue.) That’s not the extent of their government holdings — Norway also nationalized all German-owned stocks after World War II, which partially explains the state’s high level of ownership of the stock market. Stockholding in companies does not mean the state runs the companies — in fact, the board runs the companies separately, not for the benefit of the state specifically or for the benefit of the workers, as Marx would prefer; Norwegian law requires that all shareholders be treated equally, with no preference for state shareholders. In fact, companies in which the state owns majority stock have even gone into bankruptcy before. The state essentially operates along the lines of so-called “state capitalism.”
Furthermore, Norway is a relatively friendly business climate; Heritage Foundation ranks it 23rd in the world, with the United States ranking 18th.
More than that, it’s important to recognize that the total population of Norway is 5.6 million; the total population of the United States is 323 million. It’s also rather important to recognize the cultural homogeneity of Norway: just 15.6% of the population are immigrants or children of immigrants, and 32% of the population has a higher education degree. Why does that matter? Because if we’re to compare Norway and the United States, we should probably compare Norwegian Americans with Norwegians in Norway. Here’s National Review’s Nima Sanandaji:
It was mainly the impoverished people in the Nordic countries who sailed across the Atlantic to found new lives. And yet, as I write in my book, Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas.
So, how’s state capitalism working out? Norway has a significantly higher per capita GDP than that of the United States — about $70,600 per year, as opposed to $59,500 in the United States. But a large portion of that per capita GDP is due to oil wealth. And the top personal income tax rate is 47.8%, and the corporate tax rate is 25%; overall, the tax burden represents 38.1% of total domestic income (compared to 26.4% in the United States). Government spending amounts to 48.6% of GDP (compared to 38.1% in the United States). Norway is an incredibly expensive country to live: it’s the second-most expensive country to buy food in Europe, and the most expensive to buy alcohol and tobacco. A haircut can cost $50. Vehicles can cost nearly twice as much as in the United States, and food costs vastly more than in the United States. There’s a reason that in 2013, Norway elected a far more conservative government — and they re-elected that government in 2017.
So, is Norway actually a socialist country? Not quite. It’s far more socialistic than the United States — but that’s not really a good thing, which is why immigration to Norway has been historically low, while immigration to the United States has remained remarkably high. And making apples to orange comparisons between Norway and the U.S. isn’t statistically or intellectually honest.