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A response to OU Professor David Deming

The Oklahoman: OU professor— Youths’ attraction to Sanders shows education failure

After writing a comment to this story on The Oklahoman’s website, I decided that I really need to flesh this out more and write a paragraph-by-paragraph response to professor Deming. What follows is my response (with Professor Demings remarks in blockquotes and marked with Deming in bold-face at the paragraph’s beginning)

Deming: It’s disheartening that an avowed socialist is a viable candidate for president of the United States. Socialism is a dead end. For hundreds of years, it has failed everywhere it’s been adopted. The enthusiasm of our youth for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is a symptom of our failure to educate them, not only in history, government and economics, but also basic morality.

Professor Deming… you gotta define your terms before you make sweeping statements like this. Red-baiting is easy and cheap but arguing the issues requires defining one’s terms.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the term: “Socialism is a variety of social and economic systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production; as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment. Social ownership may refer to forms of public, cooperative, or collective ownership; to citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these. Although there are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms.”

So, with this definition in mind (and if you don’t like this one, please Professor Deming, I challenge you to provide a better one) let’s consider your claim that “socialism is a dead end” that has “failed everywhere it’s been adopted.”

Consider the case of Cooperative businesses including such things as farm coops, the Oklahoma Food Coop, cooperative grocery stores (which are common in many parts of the country), credit unions as well as even the major company, REI, which is owned by its customer-members. By definition these businesses are socialist, in that they have “social ownership” (see above) and a “democratic control of the means of production.” Certainly one might argue that cooperative businesses have not “succeeded” in the ways that major corporations have, but one can’t argue that these businesses have failed.

Also let’s consider the many places around the world where certain industries or businesses are publicly owned… such as the electrical system of the city of Edmond… yes, Edmond has a socialist electrical utility because it is owned and controlled by the city of Edmond. (And let’s not forget OEC, the electrical coop owned by its member-customers, that provides power to Norman residents… also a socialist enterprise, as defined under the definition of above). But of course there are much bigger publicly-owned businesses, such as the national oil company of Mexico. Again one can argue that these businesses may or may not be as successful as non-government owned businesses but one can’t argue that these businesses are failures, since the power stays on pretty consistently in Edmond.

Deming: You don’t have to be a student of ancient history to know socialism doesn’t work. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was an unequivocal demonstration of the moral and economic superiority of capitalism. The misery caused by socialism is unfolding today in Venezuela. Since Venezuela embraced socialism in 1999, poverty, crime and corruption have all increased. Grocery shelves are empty and the annual inflation rate is estimated to be as high as 200 percent.

Again we must go back to definitions. To quote Inigo Montoya in the movie Princess Bride “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Socialism can encompass Soviet-style state communism but the term is much broader than that. I really wonder what you believe is the definition of socialism. Even at the level of a nation-state, the definitions have varied widely. For instance, many of the nations of Europe have elements of both socialism and capitalism in their societal structures, with some (such as the nations of Scandinavia) having a very pronounced socialist flavor. Of course this looks very different than Soviet communism, but there was also a broad difference between the approaches taken by various communist states, such as the differences between the communist states of the USSR, China and Yugoslavia. These differences were real.

Moreover, you have simply stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was an “unequivocal demonstration of the moral and economic superiority of capitalism,” but you have not made your case. I think there is fair argument to be made as the morality of our current capitalist system, which has created a massive gap between the wretchedly poor and the fabulously wealthy, not only in this country but around the world. And of course an argument that both systems of imperialism (those of both the USA and the USSR) failed miserably, in that they created massive stockpiles of dangerous weapons of mass destruction while ignoring a great deal of human misery around the world.

Deming: The United States is a constitutional republic founded on political equality, not equality of income or circumstances. Our system of government was designed to secure the natural rights of its citizens. These rights include not only “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but the right to acquire and maintain private property. The Founding Fathers considered property rights to be sacred and paramount.

Correction — the US was not founded on political equality, but rather on a kind of stratified class system in which certain people (white men who owned land) were politically equal but everyone else was not.

But I do commend you for something you got right, namely that the “Founding Fathers considered property rights to be sacred and paramount.” You are correct. The founding fathers so worshiped at the altar of private property, that they created a constitution that protected the right of human beings to “own” other human beings… and of course there is the good ol’ 3/5 compromise, which said that some people were only 3/5 of a person. So, let’s get real. The constitution today may preserve some degree of equality (thanks to a good number of constitutional amendments and SCOTUS rulings) but that was not the founding fathers intent.

Deming: Under capitalism, goods and services are distributed through private, voluntary exchanges. When people engage in volitional transactions, everyone benefits. If we believe a transaction is in our best interest, we have an incentive to maintain good relations with those with whom we’re trading. Thus a society based on freedom and trading promotes good will and civility. Our free-market system has produced the greatest prosperity in human history.

Nope… again you are oversimplifying things and leaving out some key definitions. Let’s begin with “voluntary transactions.” A transaction that is conducted due to financial desperation is not voluntary, yet capitalism often creates this scenario. Just visit any pawn shop in the OKC metro area and you’ll see what I mean.

And is it fair to say that the free-market system has produced the greatest property in human history? That is open for debate.

Deming: There are no property rights under socialism. Goods and services are distributed by force through political means. Everything you possess is subject to confiscation and redistribution. Industrious and productive people are punished; parasites are rewarded. When people come to believe they have a right to goods and services produced by other people, society disintegrates into squabbling factions. If socialism is allowed to progress to its logical extreme, it culminates in a military dictatorship like North Korea.

Nope… I assume that you are ignorant of the history of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma, or else you would know that the SP in this state had a platform of supporting the right of individual farmers/ranchers to own their own land, the right of small business owners to own their own busineses, etc. And of course they backed workers collectively owning busineses.
What they opposed was large corporations owning farms, ranches and businesses, as well as an economic system that estranged workers from the means of their own production.
I recommend to all interested folks the book “Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside,” by Jim Bissett, published by OU Press. The history of socialism is far more complicated than Professor Deming is willing to acknowledge. It has many strains of understanding (ranging from those who lean anarchist, communitarian, or statist), but the history of socialism in Oklahoma has definitely been in the communitarian/distributionist side of things, not the Soviet model of state-driven Communism.

Also let’s consider your last argument… you claimed that “If socialism is allowed to progress to its logical extreme, it culminates in a military dictatorship like North Korea.” Is that actually true? What has happened in North Korea has much more to do with concept of “Juchee” and the cult worship of the Kim family, than it does with socialism.

I would instead argue that a true socialist community would likely look like Jesus’ “Kingdom of God,” as described in Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV):

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Jesus spoke of an upside-down Kingdom, one in which the poor would be fed and the rich would go hungry, which sounds an awful lot like a transfer of power to socialism to me.

Deming: What about so-called “crony capitalism”? This is nothing more than socialism that benefits the wealthy and influential. It’s just as wrong as any other form of socialism. The cure is to limit government power. Human nature is corruptible. If government has the power to redistribute wealth, it will always act in the interests of the powerful segments of society. What made America great is not progressive government, but the genius and industry of a people freed from arbitrary power by the chains placed upon government by our Constitution.

Again… definitions, I realize you are limited by space constraints in an Oklahoman op-ed piece, but you can’t leave this one out. Can you please define “great.” This is really important. Without this definition we can’t move forward in this conversation. If you really mean “rich” or “powerful,” then please use those words. But if you are meaning “great” in the moral sense, I strongly disagree. I do not believe that a country that has left so many people in hopeless poverty, both in this country and around the world, can truly be seen as great. I don’t believe that a nation that spends incredible sums of money on armaments is great. I don’t believe that a country that has not yet paid reparations to Native Americans and African Americans for the crimes done to them, can truly be said to be great. America is not a great nation. To use the symbolism employed by Dr. King in his “I have a dream” speech, our nation is still bouncing checks on the bank of justice.

Deming: Socialism isn’t so much a legitimate economic system as it is a moral failing. It will always exist because ignorant people will always want something for nothing. If we want to retain our freedom and prosperity, then we must educate our children that the purpose of government is to secure liberty, not provide free lunches.

Deming (ddenimg@ou.edu) is a professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma.

Socialism, warts and all, is not a moral failing, but rather an attempt to think of economics and societal power in a kind and humane way. Arguably it is rooted not in Marx but rather in much older traditions, including those of Jesus and many other spiritual leaders who taught that we human beings are connected to each other, and we all thrive or suffer together. And it is not about getting a “free lunch” but rather about insisting that everyone who works to make the lunch, should get their fair share.

No attempt at human government or self-organization will be perfect because being a human is messy and being in human community is really, really messy. I have friends and family who strongly believe that a free market system is the best and most just way to organize an economic society. I know these are good folks who share many of my concerns, and I assume (hopefully) that you do too, since you mentioned morality several times in your piece. These are good questions, but I think it is much easier to deal with them if we can be fair to each other. Lumping Bernie Sanders’ style of “democratic socialism” (which to be frank is pretty moderate by range of understanding of most who call themselves socialists) in the same category of authoritarian regimes of the past and present isn’t fair and it isn’t accurate.

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