Do you hate small bureaucracy? Become a socialist.
During my recent debate with Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk, I asked him how he could call himself a populist when he didn’t even support pro-worker policies like Medicare for All. He replied that while a social safety net is fine, when that net becomes too generous a “hammock”, it empowers government bureaucrats rather than ordinary people.
As I explained in the debate, this is completely wrong. Bureaucrats are empowered not by broad and generous social programs, but by means testing. It is the democratic socialists, not the defenders of capitalism, who want to give less influence to the bureaucrats.
The idea that more socialism means more bureaucracy seems obvious to many people. But why?
It is true that Democratic Socialists want to strengthen the regulatory state with environmental protections and laws against union breakdown and racial discrimination. It is also true that these types of policies involve empowering officials who work in offices and spend a lot of time filling out documents – i.e. bureaucrats – to enforce them. Popular culture often portrays these people as petty tyrants who make life difficult for struggling businessmen. Think about the unofficial health inspector on Bob’s burgers (played by Sam Seder) or the villain in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency in the original ghost hunters.
But less than 10 percent of the American population are business owners. Granted, this is a category that includes many more small entrepreneurs than actual members of the economic elite, but the idea that regulations empower bureaucrats at the expense of the vast mass of ordinary people doesn’t make much sense. in terms of pure arithmetic. Someone in the United States is much more likely to be a worker protected by labor regulations than a boss dealing with annoying regulators.
The link might make more sense if we shift our focus from regulatory policies adopted under capitalism to socialism as a post-capitalist economic system. Under capitalism, economic enterprises are owned by individuals or by shareholders. Anyone who has ever dealt with a human resources department knows that businesses can be as bureaucratic as anything in the public sector, but it is true that the socialism that existed in countries like the USSR was different. The economy was run by a state bureaucracy that was not accountable to any other part of society.
This is not the only possible form of a post-capitalist economy, however. For example, companies producing consumer goods could be collectively owned and democratically managed by the workers themselves. (It is the “complete democratic socialism” advocated in the book with which I am co-writing Jacobin‘s Bhaskar Sunkara and Mike Beggs.)
Even if we are talking about the Soviet system, the power of the bureaucrats did not come from the fact that Soviet citizens had more extensive social services than Americans. Likewise, if we are talking about “partial democratic socialism” – policies like Medicare for All advocated by socialists as reforms within capitalism – nothing in these measures would strengthen the power of the bureaucrats. The exact opposite is true.
Consider the K-12 public schools in the United States. In the current configuration, these are free at the point of service, but one could imagine a means-tested version of the public school system. Only families below a certain threshold could send their children to school for free. Everyone above the threshold would pay tuition.
Which do you think would involve more aggravating interactions with bureaucrats: enrolling your children in the local public high school in this world or in this one? In both scenarios, you will have to fill in information either in an office or on a website, which will eventually reach someone with an office job. But the main difference is that in our world, the people in these offices don’t have much influence on the outcome. If you live in the neighborhood, they have a legal obligation to educate your child for free. In the world with a means-tested K-12 education, you will need to prove to these gatekeepers that you are qualified. They were scrutinizing your sources of income while you were sweating.
Fortunately, we don’t live in this world (at least for pre-university public education). But we really do live in this world when it comes to health care. Are You a Low Income Person Applying for Medicaid? Public sector bureaucrats will carefully consider whether you are poor enough to qualify. Are you a middle income person with employer-sponsored health insurance? If you need to use it in an emergency, private sector bureaucrats applying Byzantine rules will decide whether the company will take over some or all of the bill. Based on your own reading of these policies, do you think they should have taken more? Prepare to spend many fun hours pleading with them over the phone.
Tell someone in a country with universal health insurance about these experiences, and they’ll look at you with a mixture of horror, fun, and pity. More than one American who has moved to such a country has noted the liberating experience of realizing that they never have to talk about the health care they are receiving with someone who is not a doctor or male nurse.
Withdrawing sectors of the economy like health care and higher education entirely from the marketplace, without strings attached or means testing, is a very good idea for a number of reasons. People stay in horrible jobs and even in abusive marriages for fear of losing their health insurance. Gay children of fundamentalist parents have good reason to fear that their parents will stop writing tuition checks if they come out of the closet. A worrying number of people die each year because they did not go to the doctor to check for something that might be nothing because they did not want to face the copayment. Along with these more dramatic considerations, an excellent reason to support socialist policies in these areas is that it weakens the bureaucrats.
When people on the right try to scare people by talking vaguely about bureaucracy, they appeal to an understandable human need to avoid having to jump through hoops and justify themselves to little guardians. But their argument makes no sense. If you don’t want to give government officials control of your life, you shouldn’t want them to have the power to decide whether you are entitled to basic goods like education, health care, and housing. . You should want to live in a society where receiving such benefits is seen as a right that everyone has as a result of being a human being.
In other words, if you worry about overzealous bureaucrats, you should be a socialist.