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It is revealing to read so many news reports about the collapse of Venezuela that go out of their way to avoid mentioning its primary cause -- the socialist model installed by the caudillo Hugo Chávez and perpetuated by his even more thuggish successor Nicolas Maduro.

The hyperinflation and starvation spreading in an oil-rich country that was once one of the most prosperous in the Western Hemisphere is instead blamed on "mismanagement" or "mistakes," and even that hardy perennial American imperialism.

Strange how so many mistakes were made and so much mismanagement occurred over time in disparate places like Moscow, Beijing, Phenom Pen, Hanoi, Havana, Bucharest, and Pyongyang.

Once again, it was never the idea of socialism that was problematic but merely its implementation, with the wrong people (Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Castro, et al.) put in charge of an otherwise noble project.

So how remarkable that, even as the latest socialist experiment was melting down, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig suggested that it was finally time to "give socialism a try," a proposal containing the assumption that the handiwork of Vladimir Lenin or Ho Chi Minh hadn't somehow been the real thing.

Of course, the "socialism" being recommended by Bruenig isn't actually the icky Marxist-Leninist stuff, but the cuddly, "social democratic" kind advocated by Bernie Sanders and supposedly found in places like Norway and Finland.

Alas, the only problem with wanting Nordic socialism is that what exists in Nordic countries isn't really socialism and can be considered such only if we abandon the long-standing definition of the concept, which includes public ownership of the means of production (in place of private ownership) and central economic planning (in place of market forces).

In rather stark contrast to Karl Marx's vision, the economies of Nordic countries continue to feature extensive private ownership of property, to depend upon corporate entrepreneurship and profits to drive economic growth (to the extent it has occurred in recent years), and have wages and prices determined by market supply and demand.

In short, they have capitalist, not socialist, economies, just as we have, and every other affluent country has. A larger welfare state and heavier tax burden than the United States doesn't necessarily socialism make.

In its continuing search for some kind of earthly alternative to the imperfections of market economies, the left thus mistakes the kind of mundane "welfare state capitalism" common to all First World countries for its socialist antithesis.

In leftist dreams, the socialist-capitalist distinction becomes subjective and purely binary, with socialism redefined to include all that is theoretically desirable and capitalism stuck holding the real-world bag for all that isn't.

The solution to the problem of how to continue recommending socialism after a century of bloody, spectacular failures is to redefine the concept so that it can be found in Sweden and Denmark.

But misidentifying capitalist Nordic countries as socialist ones is only part of the problem.

As Nima Sanandaji notes in his book Debunking Utopia, virtually all the things that the American left admires in such countries, including less inequality, lower poverty rates, and longer life expectancy, existed before the introduction of their expansive welfare states and are therefore more likely the consequence of cultural factors, including work ethic, personal responsibility, and social cohesion, than any embrace of socialism.

With respect to one key variable -- life expectancy, with its presumed relationship to quality of health care -- Sanandaji notes: "In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage."

That culture travels is also reflected in the considerably higher standards of living of Danish Americans compared to Danes, Swedish Americans compared to Swedes, and Finnish Americans compared to Finns (55 percent, 53 percent, and 59 percent, respectively).

Put differently, you can take Nordic folks out of their native countries and get even better results without the more expansive welfare states and higher taxes, including in notoriously chintzy, low-tax America. Because it's the people and their habits and attitudes that produced Nordic success, not any particular form of welfare state capitalism mistaken for socialism.

In the end, we are left to conclude that the American left, in its zeal to find any kind of system that works better than our cruel own, misunderstands both the nature of Nordic economies and the reasons for their prosperity.

Socialism hasn't worked anywhere because what works in Sweden and Finland and Denmark isn't remotely socialism.

Sorry, but there is no "good" socialism that can be chosen instead of that "bad" kind that produces killing fields and mass poverty, and no path to prosperity other than the capitalist one, for Scandinavia or anywhere else.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 03/19/2018

Print Headline: The myths of socialism

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