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Jan 25, 2016

Socialism and the Democratic Party

From the days of Wilson to Clinton today, the Democrats have been the party of the tyranny of the majority and limitless “planning” of others’ lives.

 

It might not be so surprising that Hillary Clinton is slow to differentiate modern Democrats from socialists. Woodrow Wilson, the man who was in many ways the founder of the modern Democratic Party, couldn’t find much of a difference either.

As Wilson noted – privately, long before he became president – socialism

proposes that all ideas of a limitation of public authority be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and public interests. The thesis of the state socialist is, that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.

As for democracy, here’s what he thought:

[T]he germinal conceptions of democracy are as free from all thought of limitation of the public authority as are the corresponding conceptions of socialism; the individual rights which the democracy of our own century has actually observed, were suggested to it by a political philosophy radically individualistic, but not necessarily democratic. Democracy is bound by no principle of its own nature to say itself nay as to the exercise of any power.

Democracy, in this sense at least, has no need for individual rights.

Now, democracy is a fine thing. For quite a few ends, it is the only means that will suffice. But the progressives’ concept of democracy is not one that classical liberals can accept: It does not follow from the adoption of democracy as a decisionmaking method in any particular instance that it must be the only proper method in all instances, or that democracy may rightfully trump any other method whenever a majority desires it, or that a majority vote can confer legitimacy an otherwise improper government action.

For Wilson, and perhaps for Clinton, individual rights are outdated and old-fashioned. As a result, democracy and socialism are uncomfortably alike – at least by this power-hungry and disreputable view of democracy. Wilson continued:

The difference between democracy and socialism is not an essential difference, but only a practical difference – a difference of organization and policy, not a difference of primary motive. [Emphasis in original.]1

What we classical liberals see clearly, and what modern progressives do not, is that all too often having a majority on their side only renders the progressive movement a tyranny of the majority. A democracy it may be, but it is not a proper government.

What we classical liberals also see all too clearly – perhaps from hanging onto those old-fashioned ideals – is that neither modern democracy nor modern socialism is really all that new. Both propose, as Wilson boasted, that a “radically individualistic political philosophy” be thrown away. In its place comes vigorous, unrestrained state action across every aspect of life. It is the ideal of the ancient state-apologists, not at all unlike that of Plato with his wise Statesman at the helm – except, in place of Plato’s divination by sacred numbers and the counsels of the few, we do our divination by poll numbers, and by the counsels of the lowest common denominator.

Where that will lead us is, frankly, anyone’s guess. The will of the majority has cooked up some awful ideas in the past, and it will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future. (And no, “wise” statesmen haven’t done any better. Grasping that we can expect competence from neither the one nor the other is, for many, the beginning of libertarianism.)


  1. Woodrow Wilson, “Essay on Socialism,” cited in John A. Marini, The Politics of Budget Control: Congress, the Presidency, and the Growth of the Administrative State. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992, pp 186-187.