The Neosocialist Delusion

Wealth Is Not the Problem

The heirs of Rousseau: Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders in New York City, October 2019 Andrew Kelly / Reuters

We are living, so we are told, in a neosocialist moment. From politicians such as the Briton Jeremy Corbyn and the Americans Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders leading the charge, to celebrated academics inveighing against the sins of capitalism, to the hipster chic of the Jacobin crowd, a growing movement on the far left is trying to revive and rehabilitate a long-dormant ideological tradition.

The movement’s obsession is the pursuit of greater equality, expressed primarily through punitive leveling. Things that contribute to inequality, such as income or profit or wealth, are considered public harms that need to be controlled—by taxes, regulation, and other government policies. The consequences for other priorities, such as sustainable revenue, economic growth, technological innovation, and individual freedoms? Not part of the equation.

Capitalism has strengths and weaknesses, and critiques of it are familiar—they’ve circulated widely ever since market-based economic systems started gaining ground in the eighteenth century. The force of those critiques, in fact, has helped fuel repeated reform movements over the ages, which have collectively transformed nineteenth-century laissez faire into the mixed welfare state economies of contemporary advanced industrial democracies.

Many on the left today are fighting for more of the same—continuing to pursue what used to be called “social democracy,” using politics to control the private sector’s excesses and harness its power for public benefit. That struggle is politically significant but theoretically uninteresting. The arguments for and against social democracy were worked out generations ago and still apply; take your pick.

The neosocialist movement is something different, however. Its roots lie not in social democracy but in democratic socialism, which seeks less to reform capitalism than to end it. And if its policies were ever put into practice, they would lead to disaster.

Rousseau Would have Loved a Wealth Tax

Concerns about the unequal consequences of free markets have a long history. In the mid-eighteenth century, thinkers such as Voltaire and David Hume regarded the spread of commerce as a boon to humanity. In place of

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