In 1947, at the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the free-market conference in Switzerland, august Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises harrumphed that young Milton Friedman and many other budding anti-socialists of those dark days of mid-century Western culture were, in reality, “all a bunch of socialists.”
Mises stormed out of the room.
I thought of this when I heard that Jon Stewart had defended himself from Roger Ailes’s “socialism” charge. Ailes said that the Daily Show host had once confessed, in a bar, to being a “socialist.” On Stewart’s Tuesday show, after an elaborate (and neither fair nor balanced) riff on the evilness of Roger Ailes and his alleged dark designs against journalism, the comic clarified:
I don’t believe in state control of industry or collectivizing farms. But I do believe there is value in some policies that derive from a more socialist ethos, like, uh, um — “I think that Social Security is an essential program” [Mitt Romney in a debate] — right, like Social Security, right. That . . . thank you, courageous comrade. I believe in that, a centrally planned program to ease poverty amongst the elderly that we all contribute to.
And he went on to defend Medicare as another such program, using Sarah Palin as the Republican talking head in support of just the sort of socialism Stewart likes. And then he razzed Republicans for calling Obamacare socialism, after supporting obviously socialist enterprises like Medicare and Social Security:
Apparently socialism is like cholesterol. Social Security and Medicare are the good kind; Obamacare is the bad kind.
We could quibble. One could argue that Social Security, at least, was not an example of socialism so much as a conservative program to forestall socialism. Bismarck invented it, along with a really tasty pastry.
We could go further. Perhaps socialism is not like cholesterol but like a drug: The more you take, the more poisonous it becomes. The reason to oppose another socialistic program is the reason to oppose quadrupling your intake of morphine. You could more easily die.
Socialism is total government. A little bit of socialism is . . . better than the deadly full dose.
And seeking to add Obamacare onto the already over-prescribed doses of Social Security and Medicare — as Jon Stewart obviously and cavalierly assumes is the right prescription — could be disastrous, especially when our politicians cannot currently bring themselves to balance budgets.
Socialism has always rested on fantasy. There’s no more persistent folly than the fantasy that you can borrow and borrow forever and forever, living off of others’ savings and “the future,” world without end. And that this is, of all things, progress. You know, “progressive.”
By drawing a line against “socialist Obamacare,” Republicans are only being responsible. Republican leaders may not be wholly honest with the American people — probably on the mistaken belief that Americans “can’t handle the truth” — but at least Republicans have a hunch that now is the time to stop. And “socialist” Stewart doesn’t. No joke.
But, on the other hand, Mises may have been right. Accepting the premises and the programs of redistribution and central control is socialistic. It’s not merely dangerous in the dose, it’s dangerous at bottom. It can only lead to bad consequences that politicians and demagogues then (almost inevitably) identify as problems for government to solve, thus making the march towards total government all the more certain. Once you accept the premise of socialism in one sphere, you are bound to see it increase elsewhere.
And that makes the major Republican politicians — save, perhaps, for Ron Paul — what Mises would have said they were, just a bunch of socialists. Witless ones, at that. Easy prey for a wittier communard, like Stewart.
By mocking Republican hypocrisy, Stewart avoids the big question, the one that makes this issue more than just another argument about labels. And what is that? The insolvency of these half-socialist programs. Their fraudulent nature; their pitting of one group of people against another: that is, their part in making politics as ugly — and as laughable — as Jon Stewart sees it.