I was having a conversation with a conservative on Reddit a while ago. The conservative I was primarily engaged with shared many of my views (to an extent) when it came to the nature of reality, something I was not expecting. I had posted those views because I thought fundamental disagreements of the nature of reality might inform political differences and polarization.
At least, in this case, I was wrong. This guy appeared more informed on matters of science than me. And yet, we still disagreed strongly about politics. But we were having a good conversation where I could understand what he was saying and he seemed to understand me. Until this:
RedBaronsBrother: That is where incrementalism comes in. Socialists in the US have two paths to get to where they want to be:
1. Revolution – can’t work where the majority of the population is contented and prosperous.
2. Incremental change via government – Leftists in the US have been pushing this method, via elected officials, the judiciary, and the unelected government bureaucracy.[Source]
rnhaas: That just doesn’t pass the smell test for me, but I don’t live there. [Among other things.]
He responded with a link to the definition of “incrementalism”, I guess on the assumption that I had never heard of it. (I have. I have a Master’s degree in political science.)
At that point, I stopped responding to him because I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere with someone who actually believes in this.
He had already ignored my suggestion of a definition of socialism, so presumably we were working off of mine: “To me, socialism has always entailed the complete nationalization of the economy or the near-complete nationalization of the economy… “
(Socialism, like all ideologies, is a spectrum. But the spectre of Socialism in the US is, as far as I know, supposed to evoke a very specific kind of it, Russian Communism.)
So, let’s get this straight.
“The Left” cannot achieve Socialism in the United States through a revolution because Americans are too affluent.
So the way they achieve their goal – which we are assuming is the nationalization of the entire economy or most of it – is to pass very limited laws, to expand government overreach through bureaucratic institutional creep and to expand government power and regulation through the courts.
A monolithic but amorphous group of people want to achieve a vague goal through policies and actions that do not immediately advance that goal, and so the goal will be achievable when most or all of them are dead.
What does that sound like?
It sounds to me like a conspiracy theory.
We have a mysterious group of people, “The Left”.
They want to accomplish a vague goal, “Socialism”.
They want to achieve this goal through irrational means, incrementally changing laws, or expanding the definition of laws, so that, at some point, in the very distant future, when most of them are dead, the goal will be achieved but none of them will be around to actually reap the supposed rewards.
That is not a standard explanation of human behaviour.
What is “The Left”?
Rather: who is “The Left”?
I know vaguely who “The Left” is supposed to be in the US, but what I object to is that they are a monolith; that the tens of millions (perhaps even 100 million) people who constitute “The Left” in the eyes of conservatives agree on much of anything outside of “Republicans are wrong”, that they are a consistent group of people through time, and that they act together as one as a force in US politics.
All of this is patently absurd:
- We are talking about tens of millions (if not more than 100 million) people. This group is completely amorphous. Who is actually a member? And what do they agree on with the other members?
- What about people who leave and join “The Left”? People die. People come of age. People change their beliefs, both leaving and joining political sides.
- How do they make decisions? Do a small group of them meet and then tell everyone else that this is what they’re doing? Do they all vote in some secret election? Does everyone just hope those who get elected will work on the goal?
When I said incrementalism doesn’t pass the smell test, this is what I was thinking of. “The Left” doesn’t want anything because it can’t want anything. It’s not a person. It’s a lazy shorthand. (So is “The Right”. “The Right” is not a monolith, either.)
What is Socialism?
I have long maintained to anyone who would listen that the average American has no idea what socialism is, or looks like, beyond the form of socialism known as communism, which they could point to in the USSR, Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and so forth. But even listing those countries should be enough to indicate that communism isn’t monolithic. I was just in Vietnam and I can tell you that Vietnamese “socialism” does not look like the USSR. (Also: Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism are distinguished as separate ideas because they are different from each other.) It’s even more true of socialism, as broad an ideological tradition as liberalism or conservatism.
If we are going to talk about socialism, we need to about what kind of socialism. It doesn’t help when modern liberalism, which has incorporated many ideas from social democracy, the least extreme form of socialism, is conflated with socialism.
I would argue that there is zero evidence – zero – that the Democratic Party or any other major US political institution is attempting to implement anything that looks remotely like actual socialism, the nationalization of the economy. If you reject that absence of evidence and insist that they are still trying to do this, haven’t they (the Left) failed catastrophically?
Trying to raise taxes or the minimum wage or increase protections for workers, or whatever Democratic policy you want to point to as “socialist”, is not proof that “The Left” wants to nationalize the economy and have every decision or even a majority of decisions about the economy made by the state (or a single party running the state). There is no nuance in the take that a minimum wage increase is an incremental step towards socialism. It is as simplistic (and wrong) as it gets.
Moreover, the degree to which the Democrats are in bed with large corporations would also argue strongly that they are not attempting to nationalize the economy.
I’d like to know which US government policies are currently leading to Socialism or even past policies. And I’d like to know how they are leading to Socialism. Do all other Americans not have agency?
I’d like to know the same thing about US federal government departments, which regulations are leading incrementally to socialism.
And I’d like to know which US Supreme Court decisions are leading incrementally to socialism.
My admittedly limited knowledge of US politics suggests that there is very little evidence of “incremental” socialism in the US government. It’s something else entirely.
When I said incrementalism doesn’t pass the smell test, this is what I was referring to. Where’s the evidence? The US is probably the least socialistic “Welfare State” in the entire world. (This is a very bad effort on the part of The Left.)
Who Wants to Achieve a Goal After They Die?
The idea that the members of “The Left” want to see socialism achieved in the distant future reminds me of the conspiracy theory about the “globalists” who want everyone to look the same in some distant century. They ostensibly promote intermarriage to that eventually everyone will be brown.
To what end?
But equally absurd is the idea that human beings want to work towards something that will be achieved decades or centuries after they are dead.
We don’t work like that.
We’re more selfish than that.
Throughout history, there have been numerous people who wanted to create something before they died.
There have also been numerous people who wanted to leave something for their children or grandchildren.
But the list of people who wanted to contribute to something for future generations is a lot shorter.
Moreover, look into that person’s life and you’re going to find a personal reason for this.
The scientist who wants to contribute to a cure to cancer but knows she won’t cure cancer presumably has some reason to want to contribute, whether it’s scientific interest or a history of cancer in her family. Moreover, she must believe that a future scientist will use her research to help find a cure for cancer.
But we’re supposed to believe that a large group – perhaps even 1/3 of the US population or more – is committed to supporting politicians who are making tiny little adjustments to the US government which will only benefit all of their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren?
I think every aspect of this argument is absurd, but this part strikes me as the most absurd. People support policies because they think they will help them now, or because someone on their side supports those policies and they want to fit in.
They don’t support policies because they think it will be a small step to a future goal they will never see achieved. And that’s especially true of policies which are not incremental steps towards some poorly defined future Utopia/boogeymantopia.
What Would Incremental Socialism Look Like?
If incremental socialism existed, we would see proof of it in the world.
We would expect to see incremental changes every time “The Left” (i.e. the Democratic Party) was in power, with a gradual increase in the power of the state. We wouldn’t expect to see these changes in the regulatory power of the state, but rather we should expect to see the state finding its way into parts of the economy it has never been involved in previously – not as a regulator but as an actor (an owner, manager, etc). This has not happened with any consistency to the best of my knowledge.
Moreover, if we were looking for proof of intentional incremental socialism, there would be evidence of plans for this. People talk. And a plot by 100 million people would be documented somewhere.
If you want to convincingly argue that “The Left” is incrementally changing the US government to bring about a socialist state you need to
- Name names, of actual people in the US. (Hello, Hillary Clinton.)
- Point to specific policies and regulations and government actions that are evidence of incremental socialism. (Government regulation of the economy in and of itself is not evidence of socialism. All economies are regulated by the government to one degree or other. The degree of regulation is also, in and of itself, not evidence of socialism.)
- Explain how the US will resemble an actual socialist country in the future. (As opposed to a liberal democracy with a welfare state. That is not socialism. Virtually all countries have some degree of a welfare state.)
- Explain how these changes will lead to the socialist government and society above if they are not opposed by Free Americans.
Can anyone who believes in incremental socialism do this? I really doubt it.
Let me offer you an alternative explanation for why the size of the national government has increased in the United States. (And basically everywhere else!) And it doesn’t rely on conspiratorial thinking.
Have you ever heard the idea in business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying?
The idea is that if the business isn’t growing in revenue or valuation, it is actually shrinking, even if the growth is neutral. Owners and investors view neutral growth as bad.
Well, the same thing applies to human institutions.
Institutions fight over money and territory.
With each budget, if the institution’s share of the budget is less than what it was before, that institution is dying.
If that institution has less responsibility under a new administration, that institution is dying.
It is entirely natural for institutions and their members to want the institution to increase in size, budget and scope.
This happens all the time in countries all over the world.
And it’s non-partisan.
Institutions favoured by both “The Left” and “The Right” in a given country grow incrementally unless they are shrunk or ended by actual government policy.
Conservatives want us all to believe that “The Left” is trying to incrementally increase the size and scope of the US government to bring about Socialism.
Meanwhile, no institution in the US government has increased in size and scope like the US military and intelligence apparatus. And it has increased in size and scope completely independently of actual threats to the United States. Whether there’s a war or not, the US military and intelligence industries keep getting bigger.
If there is an incrementalist project happening in the US government, isn’t that of the Security State? (Which, by the way, is fairly non-partisan.)
Which is more likely, there is a vast plot by “The Left” to bring about socialism in some distant future OR institutions naturally want to grow and will grown unless prevented from growing?
Why is the theory of Incremental Socialism appealing?
National governments have been drastically increasing in size for about 150 years. But particularly since World War II, the size of governments in more affluent countries has mostly ballooned to a degree that could never have been imagined when the nation state came into existence.
The reasons for the grown of the welfare state are incredibly complicated and I don’t want to go over them here. But “The Left wants socialism” is not the best way of understanding this government expansion.
Moreover, if you were to list the main contributing causes, it’s very likely that “The Left wants socialism” would not be one of the most important. (Depending upon the country, obviously.)
But it’s an appealing message because of how simple and relatable it is. We all know about the Russian and Chinese revolutions and we know about the Communist Cubans and Vietnamese. (The Vietnamese prefer “socialist” thank you very much.)
But, far more importantly, if you believe the past was better than the present, you need an explanation to account for why you could live in one of the most affluent countries in the world but your conditions haven’t improved.
We human beings don’t particularly like complicated explanations nor do we like explanations that focus on systemic causes.
We like explanations with a clear bad guy and a clear, simple cause and effect.
“People who aren’t like me want something I don’t and are making my country worse. That’s why I don’t have as much relative purchasing power as my parents.”
That strikes me as a pretty appealing message, no matter how obviously wrongheaded it is.
But the burden of proof is on those who claim incremental socialism is a real thing. The term shouldn’t just be thrown around as an explanation as to why people must vote for a party that actively tries to ruin the lives of American citizens and residents.
“I must vote Republican because of incremental socialism” is a very bad reason for voting Republican.