On Monday, May 18th, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar entitled “Are we Becoming more Radical? The Rise of Democratic Socialism in America,” led by Dr. Anne Rathbone Bradley.
Dr. Bradley is the George and Sally Mayer Fellow for Economic Education and the academic director at The Fund for American Studies. In addition to her work with TFAS, she is a professor of economics at The Institute for World Politics and Grove City College. She is a visiting professor at George Mason University and has previously taught at Georgetown University and Charles University in Prague. She is currently an Acton Affiliate scholar and a visiting scholar at the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy. She is a lecturer for the Institute for Humane Studies and the Foundation for Economic Education. Dr. Bradley received her Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University in 2006, during which time she was a James M. Buchanan Scholar. She formerly served as an economic analyst for the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis.
Dr. Bradley began the webinar by describing her belief that free markets lead to maximized prosperity, contrasted with systems like socialism, where the community, usually the government at large, controls the means of production. Recently, the phenomenon of “democratic socialism” has become widely popular among the American public, particularly among young people, and promulgated by well-known politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Dr. Bradley views democratic socialism as threatening to the American way of life and to the prosperity and opportunity enjoyed in the West. She expressed the need for U.S. citizens to return to a study of history to better understand socialism and how it surfaced in the United States.
In “remembering the past,” Dr. Bradley mentioned that people either view the past with rose-tinted glasses or become ignorant of the past due to not having lived there themselves. While visiting the former Soviet Union as a student, Dr. Bradley’s understanding of socialism was shaped first-hand. She warned against the dangers of returning to socialism in the modern era under the guise that it will be “gentler and kinder” compared with the past and present. She described the Soviet Union as the largest communist experiment with socialist constructs, due to its centrally planned economy. According to Dr. Bradley, the simple existence of the Berlin Wall, designed to keep people in rather than allow them to leave, highlights the failure of this system.
Due to the millennial generation not having lived through the Cold War, Dr. Bradley views this fact as explanatory of their disproportionate preference for socialism compared with that of other American generations. Dr. Bradley argued against the notion that Senator Sanders aims to make the United States more like Nordic countries (Demark specifically), due to the strong presence of free markets in those countries. Indeed, Nordic model countries are social democracies with thriving markets; however, there exist abundant social safety nets paid for by high levels of taxation, which is propped up by widespread popular support. She likewise questioned the validity of Senator Sanders’ view that economics function as a zero-sum game with scarce resources. In Dr. Bradley’s opinion, the zero-sum nature of economics, wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, only truly exists in failed states like Afghanistan or in collapsed socialist countries like Venezuela. In these countries, Dr. Bradley argued, the elite are protected and cared for while everyone else is forced to fend for themselves.
So, what is the path to prosperity, based on economic realities? Firstly, Dr. Bradley was clear in arguing that we must respect the fact that resources are scarce, and that decisions always come with costs. Therefore, because we always pay in some sort of cost, nothing is truly “free.” Under proper institutional arrangements, the natural ambition of mankind can be used to fuel the common good, wherein the desire for prosperity fuels growth and cooperation. In the United States, contrary to popular belief, while the middle class is indeed shrinking, the percentage of American households moving into the $100k-plus income range is likewise increasing, and the percentage of those with incomes below $35k is shrinking. When scaled for changes in the pricing of goods to understand the impact of various incomes, the purchasing power of labor has also significantly increased.
Therefore, the strongest argument against democratic socialism, according to Dr. Bradley, is that free markets lead ultimately to “egalitarian consumption possibilities,” and that we should adopt principles of “economic freedom,” which is to say capitalism or a decentralized system of profit and loss wherein entrepreneurship can thrive. To ensure the fairness of the system against the threats of cronyism, we need to maintain the strength and legitimacy of our oversight institutions, which is one domain wherein the critiques of American democratic socialists are entirely valid.
At IWP, Dr. Bradley teaches Economics for Foreign Policy Makers.