When Bernie Sanders was the lone socialist voice on the political landscape, both he and socialism were pretty easy to ignore. As mayor of Burlington, Vt., he was a curiosity. But having won a seat in the U.S. Senate, and then having been a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders has come to be much more than a simple curiosity. Today, he inspires acolytes, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are themselves experiencing some electoral success.
But, socialism has put Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves on the planet, into an economic death spiral. In socialist North Korea, even soldiers live in near-starvation. In socialist China and the Soviet Union, tens of millions were killed outright or starved by economic collapse. At our doorstep, the people of socialist Cuba have endured a half-century of misery. Despite this overwhelming evidence, socialist politicians in the United States are, nonetheless, ascending. To get around their obvious PR nightmare, they claim not to embrace socialism, but democratic socialism. With socialism, the state confiscates the means of production. Democratic socialism is the kinder, gentler version. With democratic socialism, a majority of voters confiscate the property of a minority of voters after things have been produced. With democratic socialism, the state doesn't control production, it simply redistributes profits.
The rise of socialist politicians in the U.S. has fueled the debate of the merits of socialism versus capitalism. But the socialism-capitalism debate is not particularly productive because neither actually exists, at least not in a pure form. What exists is a spectrum. On the side most comfortable to Sanders and his followers, the government controls all things. On the other side, the government controls nothing. Using labels loosely, we can call the two extremes "pure socialism" and "pure capitalism," though this does injustice to both. Seeing the matter as a spectrum captures what almost all Americans intuitively understand: Each of us is both an individual and a member of a broader community. As such, each of us has both rights for ourselves, and responsibilities to others. Across countries and throughout history, people have engaged in an ongoing balancing act between rights and responsibilities, sliding one way or the other on this spectrum between the extremes of pure socialism and pure capitalism.
If we look at where countries have fallen on the spectrum, we can draw some conclusions about how well these systems work. Cross-referencing data sets on economic freedom and economic outcomes from disparate sources such as the Fraser Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the United Nations, and other governmental bodies reveals a compelling story. Across countries, states, cities, and time, the closer governments have wandered toward pure socialism, the worse off their people have tended to be. Countries at this end of the spectrum tend to experience lower average incomes, higher poverty rates, more environmental degradation, more income and gender inequality, and higher child labor rates. It turns out that no country has ever tried pure socialism because no people would tolerate the unbearable misery that accompanies complete government control over an economy. Conversely, no country has ever tried pure capitalism either because no people would tolerate the absence of the rule of law that results when there is no government. How do we know? Because in every place where people have found themselves without a government, they inevitably created one.
There is no economic theory that tells us where lies the best spot on this spectrum between extremes. Even people who have made studying economics and the economy their life's work don't know exactly where the sweet spot is. If they don't, then Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and everyone clamoring to support them have no idea either.
But there are a few things that we do know that these ascendant socialist politicians seem determined to overlook. The closer any country has gotten to pure socialism, the more miserable it has become. Yes, pure socialism has never been tried. But everywhere it has been approximated, people have suffered. Meanwhile, the closer to pure capitalism countries have moved, the happier, wealthier, and healthier their citizens have tended to become. If outcomes matter more than intentions, then the better, if not the absolutely correct, answer should be pretty clear to everyone.
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, Words & Numbers.