Persons of a reflective bent all too often underestimate the enormous strength that truly abysmal ignorance can bring. Knowledge is power, of course, but—measured by a purely Darwinian calculus—too much knowledge can be a dangerous weakness. At the level of the social phenotype (so to speak), the qualities often most conducive to survival are prejudice, simplemindedness, blind loyalty, and a militant want of curiosity. These are the virtues that fortify us against doubt or fatal hesitation in moments of crisis. Subtlety and imagination, by contrast, often enfeeble the will; ambiguities dull the instincts. So while it is true that American political thought in the main encompasses a ludicrously minuscule range of live options and consists principally in slogans rather than ideas, this is not necessarily a defect. In a nation’s struggle to endure and thrive, unthinking obduracy can be a precious advantage.
Even so, I think we occasionally take it all a little too far.
Not long ago, in an op-ed column for the New York Times, I observed that it is foolish to equate (as certain American political commentators frequently do) the sort of “democratic socialism” currently becoming fashionable in some quarters of this country with the totalitarian state ideologies of the twentieth century, whose chief accomplishments were ruined societies and mountains of corpses. For one thing, “socialism” is far from a univocal term, and much further from a uniform philosophy. I, for instance, have a deep affection for the tradition of British Christian socialism, which was shaped by such figures as F. D. Maurice (1805–1872), John Ruskin (1819–1900), Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), Thomas Hughes (1822–1896), F. J. Furnivall (1825–1910), William Morris (1834–1896), and R. H. Tawney (1880–1962), though I have also been influenced by such non-British social thinkers as Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), Dorothy Day (1897–1980), and E. F. Schumacher (1911–1977). None of these espoused any kind of statist, technocratic, secular, authoritarian version of socialist economics, and none of them was what we today think of as “liberal.” And yet their “socialist” leanings were unmistakable.
Moreover, just because a totalitarian regime happens to call itself socialist—or, for that matter, a republic, or a union of republics, or a people’s republic, or a people’s democratic republic—we are under no obligation to take it at its word. What we call “democratic socialism” in the United States is difficult to distinguish from the social-democratic traditions of post-war Western Europe, and there we find little evidence that a democracy becomes a dictatorship simply by providing such staples of basic social welfare as universal health care. At least, it is hard not to notice that the social-democratic governments of Europe have always gained power only by being voted into office, and have always relinquished it peacefully when voted out again. None of them has ever made war on free markets, even in attempting (often all too hesitantly) to impose prudent and ethically salutary regulations on business. Rather than gulags, death camps, secret police, arrests without warrant, summary executions, enormous propaganda machines, killing fields, and the like, their political achievements have been more in the line of the milk-allowances given to British children in the post-war years, various national health services, free eyeglasses and orthodonture for children, school lunches, public pensions for the elderly and the disabled, humane public housing, adequate unemployment insurance, sane labor protections, and so forth, all of which have been accomplished without irreparable harm to economies or treasuries.
I suppose a social-democratic state could begin to gravitate toward true authoritarianism, in the way that any political arrangement can lead to just about any other. The Third Reich, after all, was born out of a functioning parliamentary democracy. The 2016 U.S. election proved that, even in a long-established democratic republic, just about anyone or anything, no matter how preposterously foul, can achieve political power if enough citizens are sufficiently credulous, cowardly, and vicious. In just the past few years, we have seen bland American neoconservatism rapidly evolving into populist, racist, openly fascist, mystical nationalism. Anything is possible. But to this point, it seems fair to say, the Western European democracies—as well as the Oceanian states and Canada—have all acquitted themselves fairly well on the civil liberties and “rule of law” fronts. And surely no one would deny that, approve of them or not, eyeglasses and milk are not gulags and summary executions.
Or so you would think. Judging from some of the negative reactions to my Times column, there are a good many persons to whom this is not at all obvious. The most lunatic response I read came from some fellow whom some jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church has injudiciously consecrated as a priest. His attack on my column was published in a forum associated with the Acton Institute (a sort of toxic-waste site for the disposal of emotionally arrested and intellectually abridged reactionaries). For this fellow, there are no differences here worth noting: children’s milk subsidies, concentration camps, modern Denmark and Canada, the USSR, the New Deal, the Cultural Revolution, public subsidies for healthcare or railroads, the execution of dissidents, Victorian Christian socialism, twentieth-century Soviet communism, present-day Venezuela, present-day Britain, industry partly governed by labor, industry wholly seized by the state—somehow, in his mind, it is all one and the same thing, a single historical phenomenon inexorably leading to the same mass graves. Any day now in Sweden, it seems, free dentistry will mutate into a secret state-police apparatus and a sprawling archipelago of reeducation camps.
Just as absurd in its way, though perhaps more morally distasteful, was a column by Tom Rogan in the Washington Examiner repeating certain fashionable neoliberal lies about European, Canadian, and Oceanian health care—long delays in triage, shortages, lack of choice among physicians, and so forth. I have received medical attention in any number of countries over the years and, while no nation’s system is perfect, I can assure anyone curious on the matter that, if you are in real need of medical attention, in almost all cases you would be far better off in France, Canada, Germany, or Italy than you are here. Certainly we Americans—routinely running the gantlet of finding an “in-network” primary-care physician, securing an “establish-care” appointment (usually months away), waiting upon referrals and insurance approvals, choosing among expensive tests, and so on—endure “triage” processes of an especially byzantine complexity. Choice of health-care provision is far freer in most other countries, in fact, simply because insurance companies cannot limit one’s decisions, while costs are either minimal or nonexistent, even though the care is as good or better. As it happens, the only economically advanced nation in the world today where someone is likely to be denied access to necessary care or affordable pharmaceuticals is the United States. Only here, for instance, can a poor person die for want of the money needed to buy insulin or undergo dialysis.