Socialism is enjoying a strange renaissance in America, and as Matthew Continetti writes at National Review, this surge in popularity is largely due to a kind of vagueness in what the word means.
Socialism is in vogue because no one is sure what it is. The classic definition of abolishing private property, a planned economy, and collective ownership of the means of production no longer applies. More people today believe that socialism means “equality” than “government control.” Six percent told Gallup that socialism is “talking to people” or “being social.” The same Gallup poll that found 40 percent of the public has a positive view of socialism, however you define it, also discovered large majorities in favor of the free market leading the way on innovation, the distribution of wealth, the economy overall, and wages, and smaller majorities for free-market approaches to higher education and health care. Americans are very bad socialists. And socialists know it. That’s why their most prominent spokesmen frame their domestic agendas in the language of the welfare state and social democracy, even as they celebrate, excuse, or defend socialist authoritarians abroad.
While this socialism-lite approach may help ignite the Democratic base, most proponents remain ignorant of any actual principles — with the exception of an increasingly vocal band of very online Catholics who have embraced the new socialism, and who claim to do so on the basis of Catholic principles.
Thus in a piece I wrote yesterday shining a light on the tragic dimensions of life on a Native American reservation, with a planned economy, and collective rather than private ownership, the Catholic socialists called foul.
I suggested that if private ownership is a natural law — as thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo XIII affirm — then it would follow that breaking such a law could very easily lead to the cultural malaise one sees on reservations. Such a suggestion was considered “profoundly ignorant” by one critic. Another young Catholic defending socialism asked how I could praise the common life of religious friars ministering on the reservation yet disparage the collective ownership that the reservation practiced? Still yet another bellowed that I must be a Hayekian libertarian, or that I must heartlessly oppose the state regulation of vice, or care for the poor. None of these claims were made, nor do I believe such things.
My critics were largely uninterested in my recounting of the cultural devastation which I saw on the reservation. What they were interested in was my suggestion that the devastation was due to socialist policies that violate a natural law concerning private ownership. In this sense, I had not just called into question socialism — every conservative does that — but I had called into question any specifically Catholic attempt to reconcile socialist principles with (specifically Thomist) natural law principles.
It was Pope Leo XIII who first began using the term “social justice,” and there has been a long teasing out in the encyclical tradition of something like a “Christian Democracy,” with serious social welfare commitments. As well, more recently Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have made Leonine excoriations of the unbridled market. But these excellent, magisterial teachings have never made the “primacy of the common good” to mean the denial of private ownership. Indeed, the distributivism of Leo XIII and Pius XI explicitly criticizes both capitalism and socialism for the ways in which they can grind down the person into dust.
The common good of the family requires private ownership, and it pertains to the common good of the state to regulate an economy that ensures a just wage to families. Socialism denies the first, and perverts the second by way of the collective welfare-state. Capitalism may affirm the first, and deny the second altogether. Perhaps it would have eased my critics minds to hear me blame capitalism for the plight of the Native Americans. But in fact it is not capitalism which is responsible for collective housing, or a monthly dividend check that deprives people from the incentives to dignified work for a just wage. Those were policies largely imposed by welfare-state policies of the federal government, as well as tribal acquiescence to them.
The point is that socialism has come to mean many things, and that despite its current fashionability among Brooklyn Millennials, it simply does not have an admirable track record. The common life of the Friars, however, does. And I know where I am sending my money.