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Opinion

Editorial: Relax: Bernie Sanders and the Democrats aren’t trying to turn the U.S. into Venezuela

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks in October in San Diego to members of the Unite Here Local 30 hotel and hospitality workers union who were picketing a hotel. Sanders has declared his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Judging from the dire warnings emanating from Republicans, the Cold War didn’t end when the Berlin Wall fell. Boy, will historians be surprised.

For example, witness President Trump declaring during his State of the Union address, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country” — a vow that echoed the Red scares of the 1950s and ’60s. Or take the reaction from Trump’s campaign committee after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist, announced Tuesday that he would run again for the White House: “Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism.”

The rhetoric is strategic. Trump wants the public to see his opponents in Congress as well as the 2020 election not as mainstream politicians, but as un-American extremists who support a system defined by “government coercion, domination and control.” But it ignores history and devalues what socialism actually entails, and it discourages people from engaging in a debate we ought to have about the right role for government in American society.

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A true socialist government takes over the means of production in a country, owning all the factories, employing all the workers and dictating prices and wages. There are few purely socialist societies around the world today — Venezuela and Cuba may come closest — just as there are few purely capitalist ones. But far more governments favor free markets and free people because over time they’ve been far more effective at generating wealth and prosperity than centrally planned economies.

Which doesn’t mean that free markets invariably produce the desired results. Here in the United States, the government has taken an outsize role in a smattering of services because private businesses wouldn’t do them (say, providing health insurance to the poorest or oldest Americans), shouldn’t do them (mobilize a military force to defend U.S. interests) or can’t do them on the scale required (provide a free education to every child).

In each of those cases, though, private businesses still play a crucial role in providing or enhancing those services. Doctors and hospitals in the private sector treat Medicare and Medicaid patients and even provide some of the insurance — and would continue to do so under a Medicare-for-all system. Private businesses build weapons for the Defense Department.

The Democratic Party’s liberal wing, which has become more assertive since Sanders’ 2016 campaign, often argues that the government ought to do more to solve such problems as climate change, rising healthcare costs and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Some problems, they argue, simply aren’t addressed by the market. Republicans are free to retort that pushing the federal government more deeply into those arenas wouldn’t be helpful or cost-effective. But exploring these ideas is hardly a step down a slippery slope that leads to ruin — or Venezuela. The free market still rules in this country, at least when it works.

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