Written by Jason Elliot
“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline […] But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” — Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays
This was written in 1974 by an American economist at Columbia University, though you might think he was writing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. And Miss Ocasio-Cortez has been busy lately. At 28 years old, she has defeated Joseph Crowley, the Democratic Party’s nominee for his New York district. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a visible minority woman, Ocasio-Cortez is the latest darling of the progressive left. Bernie Sanders has claimed her as a victory of the progressive grassroots over the Democratic establishment. But what does Miss Ocasio-Cortez have to offer beyond the typical far-left solutions which tend be about as deep as the answers you’d get from a magic eight ball?
Recently, conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr.’s long-form debate show, Firing Line, was revived by Margaret Hoover. Unfortunately however, Mrs. Hoover has been having a little trouble capturing much attention due to a series of bland guests; all of them just generic Republicans at this point. Far from capturing the spirit of the original show, in which the latest left-wing intellectual titan would square off against Buckley’s Ivy League debate finesse, Margaret Hoover’s revival can only be described as being about as interesting as a history lesson on Canada. But maybe Hoover knows this because she recently invited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez onto the show, echoing the plot of the very first episode in which Buckley spars with the very founder of Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington. Although Margaret Hoover, who is a Republican, presents as much resistance to her opposition as wet tissue, it would seem that’s all it takes to expose Miss Ocasio-Cortez, who time and time again, struggles to answer simple questions with any semblance of coherence.
Right from the start, Ocasio-Cortez provides an unusual definition of the term democratic socialism. And that’s an unusual definition precisely because it makes democratic socialism appear so ‘usual’; after all, who exactly is rising to exclaim “some people in America should be too poor to live”? Alexandria’s ‘definition’ of democratic socialism is not a definition at all. It’s a goal, a goal that all Americans share. So why would she use it? For one thing, it makes democratic socialism appear to be a far larger tent than it is. If you didn’t know what democratic socialism was and you heard it defined as ‘no one being too poor to live’ then you could be excused for describing yourself as a democratic socialist. By that definition this is a democratic socialist channel, and we look forward to all the support we can get from the democratic socialists of the world now that we’ve embraced this really useful and well defined cause. The reason Ocasio-Cortez cites this definition of democratic socialism is plainly because it requires no effort to think through and defend. She understands that the less concrete proposals she makes, the easier it is to escape criticism and face the flaws.
The DSA website doesn’t directly state a specific definition of democratic socialism either, but it does provide more hints as to what it actually means. According to them “At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people. ( https://www.dsausa.org/about_dsa)."
This carries a few implications, but most relevant is the statement about the end of capitalism. While we are told that capitalism won’t end tomorrow, if their democratic socialism isn’t anti-capitalist as they assure us, why are they waiting on its “end”? This fact makes the statement’s implication pretty clear, perhaps the only piece of clarity we’ve seen yet. Then we get some vague ideas about increasing the power of working people. Still the unanswered question is how. Examining their “What is Democratic Socialism? Q & A” provides a few more hints. “Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically-to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives. Democracy and socialism go hand in hand. All over the world, wherever the idea of democracy has taken root, the vision of socialism has taken root as well-everywhere but in the United States.
The DSA believes that the economy should be run democratically to meet public need rather than the needs of a few profit seekers. Which throws into question the claim Democratic Socialists often make: that they just want to replicate the success of Scandinavia, for example. Like much of their superficial worldview, this ignores that not only does Scandinavia have a market-based economy, its markets are frequently more capitalist and economically deregulated than in the US. Secondarily, those Scandinavian countries which once had exceptionally free markets, suddenly find their welfare states straining amid stagnating economic growth.
Having a bloated welfare state coupled with a free market isn’t socialism, by definition. What these theorizers also miss is that not only is it rare for profit-seeking to come at the expense of public needs, but more often than not it serves them. Profits are the smoke signals markets use to tell entrepreneurs where they can do the most good. Unlike socialist economies where resources must be allocated either by unelected administrators, or by the whims of amorphous bodies of workers who will often have competing desires and interests, market economies assign resources to their most productive ends through price signals, or profit. Putting aside the fact that profit seeking and meeting public needs need not be mutually exclusive and in fact often go hand-in-hand. But what would it mean to democratize the economy? To find this answer you have to dig deeper into the DSA’s website to their “Where We Stand” page.
Buried beneath many clicks, Where We Stand is a document posted in 1998 detailing, in plain terms, the DSA’s actual agenda. “The unbridled power of transnational corporations, underwritten by the major capitalist nations, has created a world economy where the wealth and power of a few is coupled with insecurity and downward mobility for the vast majority of working people. In the time it took the Democratic Socialists to discuss and write this statement and then post it on the internet, “the unbridled power of transnational corporations, underwritten by the major capitalist nations” had reduced the number of people living on $1.90 a day by 19%. And since 1999, the amount of people living on less than $1.90 a day has declined by a further 62%, meaning that the amount of people below the global poverty line has fallen by more than 2 thirds since 1990 (My calculations based on data from https://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty). In real terms, that’s over a billion human beings saved from abject poverty in the span of 2 decades, and probably the biggest human miracle of our lifetimes if not world history. Without a concrete solution, it should be clear the Democratic Socialists would like to halt this global capitalist achievement in the service of moral masturbation.
The DSA continues explaining, “Economic democracy means, in the most general terms, the direct ownership and/or control of much of the economic resources of society by the great majority of wage and income earners. Such a transformation of worklife directly embodies and presages the practices and principles of a socialist society.” All of this sounds awfully familiar. In other words, the DSA and Ocasio-Cortez want what all socialists have always wanted, direct control of the means of production by the workers. Why couldn’t Miss Ocasio-Cortez just say that? It likely has to do with the fact that there are no historical examples of a system like this that ends in anything other than even more poverty and utter ruination. And even the less ideologically gripped within their ranks explain as much.
Since the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, many socialist intellectuals including many figures who influenced the DSA have recognized the absurdity of using the government to plan a modern economy. The late socialist theorist Gerry Cohen stated in “Why Not Socialism?” “the pioneers’ successors were encouraged by what they interpreted as victories of planning, such as the industrialization of the Soviet Union and the early institution of educational and medical provision in the People’s Republic of China. But central planning, at least as practiced in the past, is, we now know, a poor recipe for economic success…” Even Noam Chomsky, who Democratic Socialists mostly admire, does not describe himself as a communist because he recognizes the horrors of the communist system which Russia forced on Eastern Europe and many other parts of the world for much of the 20th century. But while the DSA website assures Americans that they don’t believe in communism (Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods. ( https://www.dsausa.org/what_is_democratic_socialism) just in the past month DSA chapter chairs and leaders proudly proclaim their devotion to it.
When we think about a mass shooting, we are shocked that 7 or 10 or even 50 individual lives could be erased in such a short span of time. There comes a point where the loss of human life becomes hard to wrap our minds around when the 0s begin to blur together, like a video game or an algorithm. And even the most conservative estimates places the communist death toll in the tens of millions at minimum. These, after all, are the populations of entire nations, wiped out in the span of decades at the hands of those “fighting” for the “working class.” The sheer brutality of this can’t be understated, but it’s ignored in a manner identical, if not even more abhorrently, to holocaust deniers. This is because of the belief in their theories’ moral superiority to capitalism. Without that, they no longer have a case. This is what makes it so easy for young Democratic Socialists to make the leap to full-fledged communism. For them, problems like that of economic calculation are mere obstacles to realizing the great utopia. Their ideas’ systemic failures and communism’s unrivaled death toll, for this reason, are conveniently dismissed with the rationale that it hasn’t truly been attempted, for no reason other than leaders as virtuous as they weren’t in charge. They blame individual dictators like Stalin rather than sacrifice the entire doctrine.
All of this is to say that the great market economists of the 20th century, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others roundly won the economic debate. They were correct in their prediction that government planning a modern economy only leads to failure, and they forced the socialist intellectuals to admit it. But that was just the intellectuals. The DSA is still riddled with economic illiterates who loudly proclaim their ignorance as they march thousands down the road to serfdom.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on Firing Line does nothing to reassure us that she or the bulk of the Democratic Socialists of America has avoided the trap of economic and historical ignorance. Her response to Hoover about the replacement of capitalism is that we shouldn’t feel good about historically low unemployment rates because “everyone has two jobs (5:47 of the Firing Line interview)”. But even recognizing that statement for the gross exaggeration that it is, it’s still a lie at best and, at worst, an unforgivable ignorance for someone who brags about their economics degree. Policy analyst James Pethokoukis (name may be unpronouncable but I don’t want to plagiarize, if need be say, One policy analyst, using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, demonstrates that the percentage of people working 2 jobs is at its lowest point of the past 3 decades, sitting at just under 5%. And that’s just the beginning of Ocasio-Cortez’s troubles.
Her most embarrassing stumble occurs when asked about her position on Israel. After a series of answers that come across more like a high schooler who hasn’t done their homework than a Boston University graduate with a degree in economics and international relations, Ocasio-Cortez admits she may not be an expert on this.. All of this ties back to the original warning about economic ignorance — a warning that can be generalized far beyond its original focus on economics. It is irresponsible for anyone seeking state power, the power to use violence to affect society, to remain happily ignorant of the issues they will address. The problem with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America is that they seek to design grand social and economic changes while under the influence of the worst drug of them all, hubris. In such a state of arrogance, they brush aside the past failures of socialism like there’s nothing to be learned from the mistakes of their ideological ancestors, or even worse, like they’re smarter than them or impervious to the same kinds of corruption and incompetence that slowly converted the ideal of a workers utopia into an Orwellian hellscape.