Last week, I wrote a column arguing that liberals concerned about ongoing failures in the American experiment should consider socialist remedies. I knew there would be quite a bit of disagreement. And I knew that most — though, crucially, not all — of it would unfold in bad faith.
What is bad faith? It’s a term coined by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that means, in the helpful gloss of George Mason University anthropologist Roger Lancaster, when you tell a lie and you start to believe it, then forget it was a lie. In the argumentative context, engaging in bad faith means to engage without really trying to understand or address the opposing view, which usually manifests in profound mischaracterizations of the other side. At that point — especially when caught up in the thrilling energy of group condemnation — it’s easy to forget that you’re arguing against a position of your own invention.
In the case of my column, this meant many interlocutors taking socialism to mean something along the lines of Soviet communism or the Venezuelan system, genocides, calamities, disasters and all. I don’t think anybody actually believes I’m rooting for totalitarian forms of socialism, nor for its most devastatingly ill-managed variants: I said I wasn’t, after all. If one genuinely thought a person was campaigning for genocide, one surely wouldn’t engage with someone so unreasonable.
I also suspect my critics knew I wasn’t recommending the United States go Khmer Rouge based on a particular theme they kept returning to: Scandinavia. I hadn’t named the Nordic countries in my piece, but my opponents were quick to discard them from the conversation. After all, they’re inconvenient when arguing that socialism necessarily means mass murder and famine. “No, Sweden and Denmark aren’t socialist countries,” the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro noted, apropos of nothing, in his piece on my alleged Stalinism, “. . . they’re capitalist countries with redistributionist tendencies.” It’s the kind of preemptive rebuttal one supplies when one knows what their opponent means but would rather spend time attacking something else.
In that case, the good-faith argument here — the one in which we all attempt to understand what our opponents really mean, and to respond with arguments we really believe might persuade them — is over whether any good instances of socialism exist or have existed. Or, put another way: Are the Nordic countries socialist?
I think it makes sense to think of socialism on a spectrum, with countries and policies being more or less socialist, rather than either/or. It’s fair to say, for example, that single-payer health care is a more socialist policy than private, market-based health care. But that doesn’t mean that single-payer is the most socialist health-care policy one could dream up, nor that any country that uses such a system is de facto socialist. Certain policies will lean more in the direction of decommodification and social or cooperative ownership of certain goods, and others will incline toward commodifying certain goods and relying on market devices to decide their distribution. Along these axes, we can determine whether policies are more or less socialist.
The Nordic states are most famous for their generous welfare systems: free college, universal health care, long and well-funded parental leave, heavily subsidized child care and much more. But their socialistic tendencies aren’t limited to these policies of “redistribution.” As of 2015, Norway owned roughly 59 percent of the country’s wealth; by contrast, China, which is still considered at least a quasi-communist state by many, owned only 32 percent of its national wealth. In Norway, government also owns about a third of the country’s stock market, along with some 70 businesses valued at almost 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. As a result, about 1 in 3 workers in Norway (as well as Denmark) are employed by their respective governments. In Finland, meanwhile, 64 state-owned enterprises make up around 50 percent of national GDP; moreover, more than 90 percent of Finnish workers are covered by union contracts, compared with 89 percent of Swedish workers, 84 percent of Danish workers — and 11.9 percent of American workers.
Taken together, this means that the people of the Nordic states have come a long way toward democratizing ownership, dispersing wealth, lowering inequality and placing workers’ lives under their own control — in other words, the socialism of the Nordic states seems pretty close to the kind of socialism that I wrote would satisfy me. It would be strange to hear the same commentators now claim that isn’t socialism after all, seeing how strenuously they objected to my proposal.
Arguments over the putative specificity of the Nordic model; the time, effort and sacrifices involved in a potential American move in that direction; the moral hazards of its pursuit; and the ordering of particular American priorities all seem like worthwhile ones to me. And I think that the stakes are high enough here — whether you much agree with my prescription, it’s hard to dispute the diagnosis that American liberalism is groaning under its burdens — to address them in good faith. These kinds of debates are less dramatic and satisfying than their bad-faith counterparts but also more enlightening.