David Bentley Hart on Socialism: “Sane and Compassionate Governance”

David Bentley Hart on Socialism: “Sane and Compassionate Governance” April 27, 2019

I’ve been saying this for a while: the policies advanced by leaders such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while broadly labeled “socialist” by both their proponents and opponents, are really simply the policies that work to make most developed nations happy, healthy, and functional. Happier, healthier, and more functional than the US.

Now David Bentley Hart has written an opinion piece in which he makes the same point far more eloquently than I could:

Well — only in America, as they say. Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.

In countries where, since World War II, the principles of democratic socialism have shaped public policy (basically, everywhere in the developed world except here), the lives of the vast majority of citizens, most especially in regard to affordable health care, have improved enormously. This is acknowledged by almost every political faction, whether “liberal” (like Social Democrats), “conservative” (like Christian Democrats) or “progressive” (like Greens). And the preposterous cost projections that American conservative propagandists routinely adduce to prove that “socialized medicine” or a decent public option would exhaust our Treasury are given the lie in each of those countries every day.


But, you may ask, what about Venezuela? My usual response to that is that it’s difficult to look to any nation with along and brutal heritage of colonialism (such as much of South and Central America) or radical and violent inequality (such as Russia) as blank slates on which any mode of rule could be studied objectively.

And, as Hart points out, just because a country calls itself socialist, this does not make it so. Moreover, one must distinguish among the diverse array of systems that tend to get lumped together under the broad and sloppily-applied label of socialism:

It may be amusing to hear Republicans assert that a military kleptocracy like Venezuela is a socialist country because its government uses that word when lying about itself (rather in the way that North Korea claims to be a people’s democratic republic). It may make one wince to see Senator Bernie Sanders obliged (as he was on Monday at a town hall hosted by CNN) to explain once more that the totalitarian statism of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the (far older) tradition of democratic socialist thought. But fair’s fair, it’s not much less bizarre to hear a “progressive” like Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, assert that “socialism” simply means state seizure of all the means of production.


I think the most important point Hart makes, however, regards “socialism” and tradition. Far from being something new and iconoclastic, the principles of democratic socialism have deep roots in our history:

Democratic socialism is, briefly put, a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness that was historically — to a far greater degree than either its champions or detractors today often care to acknowledge — grounded in deep Christian convictions. I, for instance, am a proud son of the European Christian socialist tradition, especially in its rich British variant, as exemplified by F.D. Maurice, John Ruskin, William Morris, R.H. Tawney and many other luminaries (including, in his judiciously remote way, C.S. Lewis), but also in its continental expressions (see, for example, Pope Pius IX’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, with its prescient warnings against the dangers of unfettered capitalism).

I occasionally enjoy taking the piss out of people by identifying as a “conservative socialist” (no, the republican party is NOT conservative, and its latest apotheosis in the Trump regime, less so), but the term is not really an oxymoron. The idea that politics exists to serve the common good is older than Christianity, and while Christianity added such elements as a preferential option for the poor, it was never a tenet of our religious tradition to assert that this option exists only in the private, or personal sphere. Similarly, the policies that we call socialist are aimed at conserving. Conserving resources, human health, our tradition or arts, and life itself.

It matters less what we call it, though, and more what we do.  Maybe we need to ditch the “socialist” term entirely, and categorize these principles differently, with greater reference to tradition and the common good. The name is less important than the praxis, anyway. What we need are policies that work to serve human beings, human communities, and our communion with the eco-systems in which we are immersed. These policies, such as universal healthcare, affordable education, and investment in clean energy are proven to work in other developed nations.

“But that won’t work here, people won’t stand for it,” is what I keep hearing. I’m not sure I believe this, but if it’s true, we’d better face up to the fact that our own latent stupidity and greed are the real problem, and we have very little to be proud of, nationally, until we are able to grow up and behave with some moral dignity.

image credit: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Senator_Elizabeth_Warren_speaking_at_the_Heartland_Forum_in_Storm_Lake,_Iowa_(33633612638).jpg

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