• Dawson Vosburg

Is Christian Socialism Practical?

There’s a popular canard that socialism sounds nice on paper, but works terribly in practice. Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, argues that “socialism has always been a faith mainly for intellectuals who prefer the metaphysical over the practical.” I find this a rather odd way to put it, since socialism hopes to ground politics in the material conditions of human beings and is frequently criticized as “materialistic” by people who don’t understand it. Nevertheless, Tooley’s remark and the logic he uses to support it seem to crop up fairly regularly in Christian discussions of socialism, so I think it is useful to respond to his essay in order to address some persistent bad habits of thought.

Tooley’s quote came from a critique he offered of theologian David Bentley Hart’s defense of Christian democratic socialism. Tooley is miffed that Hart distinguishes between totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and the sort of democratic socialism embodied in European social democratic parties. But this kind of differentiation is completely reasonable. I suspect Tooley would want to distinguish between the democratic capitalism in countries like the US and the totalitarian capitalism of Pinochet’s Chile (though knowing Tooley’s commitment to US military intervention, hey may surprise us). It is senseless to deny the existence of parties who call their position democratic socialism, even if you think they don't represent “real socialism.” The argument for the ideas that go under that banner must be discussed on their own terms.

Tooley’s primary accusation, however, is that Hart is too abstract:

Instead of describing any actual places where his preferred version of socialism actually works well, Hart lists British thinkers and other socialists he admires, most of them from the 19th century. His preference, as a writer/intellectual, for theoreticians and writers over any actual observable implementation points toward the stereotype that socialism works only in the abstract. He offers no data from any countries about tax rates government or government spending for social services.

From this paragraph we might expect Tooley to start giving us said data. Unfortunately, he comes short. He instead opts to quote Fareed Zakaria, noted for his history of borrowing ideas without attribution, who wrote a Washington Post column about the “myth” of Nordic socialism. Policy expert and Nordic-model specialist Matt Bruenig has offered a withering rebuttal of Zakaria’s entire article, which is worth reading in its entirety. Tooley in particular quotes Zakaria’s claim that Sweden added no net new jobs in the private sector between 1970 and 1995, a window of time that proves all too convenient, as Bruenig notes:

Employment (public and private) actually steadily rose 5 percentage points between 1970 and 1990 (the dreaded socialist period) and then collapsed after the right-wing got into power in 1991.

The employment crash that undid the prior 20 years of job growth turned out to be due to deregulation, not the size of the government.

Tooley nevertheless goes on to make the argument that the Nordic countries are not dramatically different economically from the United States. In order to do this, he draws on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom:

On the Heritage list, the wealthiest countries are graded more economically free, with more limited government spending and lower taxes, with protections for industry and property. The poorer nations are ranked not free, with more expansive government. But such data likely doesn’t very much interest Hart, the writer/intellectual, who seems to prefer abstract theory and ideas over real life results.

This gloss is so deceptive as to be unbecoming of Christian writing. Even on the index, it’s clear that there are huge differences between the Nordics and the United States on things like taxation and government spending—the very factors Tooley highlights. The problem is, in fact, by design: the Heritage index lumps together an aggregate of all kinds of variables that are not alike into a single number. The fact that the Nordics are very good, stable countries to live in makes them rank high, even if by taxation, spending, and labor protection, the same index might call them “repressive.” This is because the Heritage Foundation thinks that high taxes, social spending, and labor protection are repressive—not because of empirical evidence, but because of Heritage's ideological commitment to small government. This is not even to delve into the many methodological problems for each of the factors in the index, recognized by left- and right-wing economic thinkers alike.

If we in fact look at how much the Nordics tax and spend, they are far ahead of the United States.

Nowhere in Tooley’s analysis or the Heritage index do we find any statistics about the Nordic level of state wealth and enterprise ownership, either—even though both of these are incredibly high, and seem to me fairly central for determining the degree to which they align with democratic socialism. But it is undeniable that there are and have been democratic socialists in power in these countries that have accomplished things that American democratic socialists have long wanted: universal healthcare, a generous welfare state, more social control over the means of production, and high unionization. These countries are not the end-state of democratic socialism, but they are certainly the furthest along the road democratic socialists wish to travel, and they seem to be in excellent shape regardless.

Tooley gripes that Hart spends most of his essay frustrated at American ignorance about socialism, but frankly, it comes off as nothing but ironic after Tooley himself demonstrates this exact ignorance. Tooley claims to be on the side of facts, practicality, and statistics while running directly counter to all of those things. Contrary to Tooley’s assertion, Christians who see democratic socialism as a more just and viable alternative are not simply fooled by fancy ideas to the detriment of practicality, nor have we traded in our hope in Christ for an over-realized eschatology. The facts and statistics do not stand on the side of a system that creates staggering poverty amid gluttonous plenty.