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How Libertarian Conservatives Ape the Communists

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Bernie Sanders has put new life into a concept long consigned to the past and to Europe--socialism. Many young Bernardites use the word liberally and even affectionately, though how well they understand it is questionable. All the more questionable because mature adults who should know better have also flunked the test. To wit, Chris Matthews recently repeatedly asked Debbie Wasserman-Schultz what is the difference between socialism and liberalism, and the poor benighted woman was unable to give an answer. This reaction from the chairwoman of the DNC, no less, to a question out of Political Science 101 is not only shocking but plays right into the hands of conservatives who say there is no difference between socialism and liberalism. Hillary Clinton likewise evaded the question, though probably out of political coyness rather than sheer ignorance.

Just to clear the record for anyone who forgot the answer, socialism means that the central government controls all the stages in the production of goods, as well as all property--at the behest of the voters, hence "democratic socialism"--whereas liberalism accepts capitalism but wants it to function a lot better than it does currently. That is quite a big difference. One can indeed argue that liberals are better stewards of capitalism than are conservatives because the latter, whatever their protestations, continually vote for political custodians of crony capitalism, monopolies, predatory banking, etc., while liberals say that, like Christianity, capitalism is a great idea that has not yet been tried.

If, at one end of the spectrum, ignorance about liberalism versus socialism is a problem, at the other end of the spectrum is ignorance about socialism versus communism. D. J. Trump every once in a while uses the words interchangeably about Bernie, while his bosom buddy, Bill O'Reilly, does something similar albeit pretending, wink wink, to be only joking. Some joke! Again for those who forgot their college courses, communism is socialism imposed through tyranny and not to be confused with the democratic variant, which is freely chosen socialism. If you think, like Trump and O'Reilly, that socialism and communism are too much alike, then you must also be having trouble separating the Sermon on the Mount from the Inquisition. It is a rule of thumb that the nobler a cause is, the more likely will it be kidnapped and perverted by vultures or crazies. Just as what passes for capitalism nowadays is deeply corrupt, so is socialism in the form of communism, which Susan Sontag aptly called Left Fascism.

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Yet the curious thing is that on one important point libertarian conservatism is actually indistinguishable from communism. The establishment of the Soviet Union was carried out from the top down, and the regime was maintained by oppression and terror. American communists, swathed in naivete by living far from the Soviet Union, rationalized events there, especially the purges of 1936-37, by asserting that the carnage was merely a necessary stage in the formation of a worker's paradise. In the words of a character in Karel Capek's play R. U. R., "Of course, terrible things may happen at first, but that simply can't be avoided." The consolation is that this is merely a phase to be gone through.

Now it so happens that the libertarian conservatives are guilty of the same moral irresponsibility. They want to do away with virtually all regulations. When asked how that will prevent misbehavior by manufacturers, their reply is that the sacrosanct marketplace will take care of all such matters. In other words, if I sell food with poison in it, and my customers fall ill or drop dead, my customers will stop showing up, and I will condignly be driven out of business. Or, as happened just the other day, a coal-mine manager, who was allowed to cut back on safety measures, was finally found guilty and sentenced to jail. See--the marketplace works beautifully!

Or does it? Before the market correction takes place, dozens, hundreds, even thousands (think Bhopal in India) of people die. They had to die in order to keep the market uncontaminated by any regulations (or regulations with teeth). So in other words, just as communists dismiss the victims of the regime as necessary sacrificial lambs in the cause of utopia, so do the libertarians accept our poisoned or killed victims as sacrifices necessary for the pure version of untrammelled capitalism. And the common slogan used by the communists in the 1930s, "You can't make omelets without breaking eggs," is echoed by our latter-day purists--just in order to fend off some common-sense regulations.

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Of course, the list of victims under communism was vastly larger than the one under the malfunctions of capitalism, but it ill behooves libertarians mouthing off about liberty, the sanctity of life, and individualism to be so dismissive of any avoidable deaths. And holding ourselves superior to communism in the number of corpses is keeping the bar very low.

 

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.

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