INTERVIEW: Danish Economist Otto Brøns-Petersen On The Myths And Failures Of Socialism
Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at Brooklyn College on March 02, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Primary season will soon be underway, and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is only just warming up. While former Vice President Joe Biden still leads in several states, as well as nationally, other candidates have climbed to the top of the heap in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is considered the most progressive candidate on the bench, each of the other top-tier contenders have offered up policy ideas that would grow the size of the federal government by leaps and bounds.

With socialism and the more friendly-sounding “democratic socialism” seemingly becoming the brand of the Democratic Party, as well as the polls suggesting that more and more voters view the ideology favorably (or at least what they understand to be the ideology), it’s important to properly frame the debate.

The following is an interview I conducted with economist Otto Brøns-Petersen, who is the director for analysis at the Copenhagen-based Center for Political Studies (CEPOS).

DW: When you see people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and other Democrats touting the virtues of “democratic socialism,” what do they mean? Following that, what does it really mean?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: I fear that some of them really mean socialism. Hopefully, most of them do not. Whether democratic or not, socialism is defined by central government control, planning, and ownership of large parts of the economy.

DW: What’s your opinion of socialism as a philosophical concept and as a form of government?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, you cannot have a free society without economic freedom, so socialism would mean the end of a free society. Economic freedom is the freedom for people to interact on a voluntary basis to pursue their individual goals. Socialism replaces the diversity of goals by the goals set by the planners. That does not only spell the end of individual freedom, but also of economic wellbeing, because socialism is incapable of handling a complex modern economy.

DW: Many progressives point to the “Nordic Model” as an example of “working” socialism. What would you say to that?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: The Nordic countries are far from socialist. It is true that some of us have large public sectors and high taxes, but in most other respects, the Nordic countries are more free-market than even the United States. The government doesn’t own or plan the economy in the Nordic countries, and in some respects, doesn’t even regulate as much as other Western countries. There are, for instance, no minimum wage laws in Denmark.

DW: One argument put forward by many advocates of socialism is that it simply hasn’t been done “correctly.” All the failures aren’t related to “real” socialism, but how it was improperly implemented, and the bad actors who co-opted the movement (example: Venezuela). What would you say to the people who make such an argument?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: No country which has become socialist has escaped dire economic consequences nor the loss of human freedom. This is no strange coincidence, but inherent to the nature of socialism. You can’t have freedom, prosperity, and socialism at the same time because of the nature of socialism, not because all socialists so far turned out to be bad people.

DW: Another argument I hear is that capitalism in the United States is failing, or has failed. Now, the free market in the United States is heavily controlled, meaning it’s not as free as people believe. What would you say to those who see the United States as the prime example of allegedly “failed” capitalism?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: The U.S. has largely been a capitalist success story since its founding. It still is in many respects, being, for example, the world leader in digital technology. But it is also true that it has become quite regulated, and that some of these regulations represent a kind of “crony capitalism.” There is evidence that the increasing regulatory burden has slowed economic growth. You don’t deal with disappointing growth by regulating even more; it would rather produce a vicious circle.

DW: Why are young people in the United States so drawn to socialism?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: I think there are more than one reason. Some are what James Buchanan, the Nobel Laureate in economics, called “libertarian socialists.” They value freedom and individuality, but mistakenly think socialism will make them more free. Buchanan himself used to be a socialist for exactly that reason, but realized that capitalism is a cornerstone of a free society. To some extent, we on the Right who favor capitalism have neglected to communicate the vision of a free society. At the same time, both the Left and the Right have come to embrace the old Marxist ideas that “everything is political” and that all human interaction is basically zero sum, pitting one group against another. But while politics is zero sum most of the time, the free market is positive sum.

Furthermore, I think identity politics and post-modernism is to blame for some of the reemergence of socialism as an ideal. The idea that you should force people to behave in accordance with your own sensibilities has been deeply damaging to morality and the respect for other people. Socialism has become a grand name for anti-social behavior. 

Finally, too many young people don’t know the historic price Europe has payed for socialist ideas when communists ruled behind the Iron Curtain.

DW: What is the best (and worst) case scenario for the United States if more people like Sen. Bernie Sanders are elected and hold power in the government?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: Luckily, the Founding Fathers of the U.S. have put very strong institutions in place to secure that the election of one man, even to the office of president, cannot change American society overnight. But if socialism were to gain a stronghold in the United States, there is no doubt that the U.S. in the longer run would be less free and well-off, and would cease being a beacon to the rest of world.

You are not guarantied to be one of the leading countries and economies forever, no matter what the politicians do. Just compare the fate of North America to that of Latin America, which were more inspired by socialists and populists. If you had followed their policies, you would have had their standard of living, too.

DW: What is the allure of “socialism”?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: Many of us have a strong socialist instinct to “provide according to ability and live according to need.” That is, in fact, the way most families work. But a whole society cannot do that. In fact, the only way a family can be free to organize itself as a “communist commune” is when society at large is free and market-based. So, we need to learn that our collectivist instincts are appropriate only in small group settings, but a recipe for disaster on a national scale.

DW: Do you think we can reverse the tide of the increasing popularity of “socialist” policies? And if so, how?

BRØNS-PETERSEN: You need to spell out a clear vision of a free society, a broadly appealing ideal. You have to show that deregulation means more economic growth, while regulating more will achieve the opposite of what the socialists promise. And I think we have to rid ourselves of zero sum politics, even when it emerges from the right side of the political spectrum. Individual freedom should once more be the highest political goal, and political intervention an exception to the rule of freedom. And then we shouldn’t forget the lessons of history, for instance, that the Nordic countries are not a socialist success story. We are not socialist today, and our high taxes didn’t make us rich. In fact, Denmark used to rank higher among the richest countries in the world when we were a low tax country.

I’d like to thank Otto Brøns-Petersen for taking the time to speak with me about the ideology of socialism. For more information, check out his article for CATO on the “Danish model” here, and watch his informational video for PragerU below: