Speakers at the Republican National Convention repeatedly warned viewers that electing Democrat Joe Biden would bring a scary bogeyman — a “socialist utopia,” in the words of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, which would bring “pain and misery” for hardworking people.
This charge, directed at Democrats from all corners of the Republican Party, isn’t a new one. Christian evangelist Franklin Graham has described the Democratic economic agenda as “godless socialism.” Fox News contributor and Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress, has asserted that “socialism is antithetical to Christianity.”
Let us look at the bogeyman and the charges that Republicans have made against the Democratic economic agenda.
In Acts 4:32-35, Luke describes what we traditionally think of socialism within the early Christian community: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. ... Those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales, and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
The 20th-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis wrote that Christian economists and statesmen, not clergymen, should be in politics and should put into practice the golden rule: “Do as you would be done by,” as he put it.
That said, Democratic economic policies are not socialism. The Democratic agenda does not confiscate private property, nationalize major industries or eliminate markets. Democrats affirm that hard work, entrepreneurial spirit and talent should be rewarded, consistent with ensuring fairness and protecting the most vulnerable.
Economics engages in a balance and tension between production and fairness. In “The Wealth of Nations,” 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith laid out a model that he argued would result in the “invisible hand,” which would channel self-interest toward socially desirable outcomes.
Smith’s “invisible hand” has not always worked to produce socially desirable outcomes in the American experience. The late 1800s, for instance, witnessed a working class that worked long hours for low wages. Life spans declined and child labor was exploited. The progressive movement arose in response to the abuses of that era. And on this Labor Day weekend, it seems appropriate to note that trade unions were formed to protect the rights of workers.
Government has a vital role in ensuring both prosperity and fairness. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal invested in the building of dams and electrification of rural areas. These programs provided jobs to the unemployed, provided access to electricity to Americans in rural areas, and increased the industrial and agricultural capacity of the United States before World War II. It was the stimulus that an economy mired in depression needed.
FDR made the audacious claim that “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” His New Deal included minimum wage legislation and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Social Security and Medicare have provided a safety net for workers in their senior years.
Since the 1980s, however, there has been a retreat from policies that helped middle-class and working-class Americans. Income and wealth inequality have increased, while the tax code has been amended to reduce taxes on the highest income-earners and holders of wealth.
Future solvency of Social Security and Medicare was already in jeopardy when President Donald Trump proposed recently to defer and suspend payroll taxes. Trump’s proposal would accelerate the insolvency of these programs. These cutbacks align with the goal of Republicans who have advocated raising the retirement age and reducing benefits. Trump’s policy would effectively “starve the beast,” as a Reagan White House aide put it.
The most vulnerable workers in our economy have faced the greatest risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Trump administration has attempted to end provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which would reduce the accessibility of health care to vulnerable Americans.
Mainstream economists assert that mixed economies work most effectively to satisfy the material wants and social justice needs of their people. Programs like rental assistance, food subsidies and medical care are necessary for the general welfare when markets have been severely disrupted or fail. These programs, as well as public education, also can contribute to more dynamic consumer economies.
The “invisible hand” of capitalism needs government assistance and oversight, especially in times of crisis. This pandemic presents unique challenges. A productive and just economy will not just happen by passing tax cuts. It will require policies that address the health of our citizens, economic productivity and fairness. The cliche, “the devil is in the details,” applies to the recovery ahead. We need policymakers who listen to economic advice from economists rather than from biblically challenged clergymen and politicians scaring their base with dire and baseless warnings about socialism.
Gregory Hand, a Manheim Township resident, is a retired U.S. Army civilian attorney (1989 to 2017). He served as an Army judge advocate in Germany and as a local prosecutor in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1980 to 1989.