by IHE Fellow Dr. Frederic Sautet
It was 1906 when German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart published Why is There No Socialism in the United States? Considering that European intellectuals had already been debating the merits of socialism for several decades by then, it was an intriguing question.
Both Europe and the United States confronted similar challenges in coping with the social and economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. All over Europe, Marxist ideas such as the proletariat revolution leading to the nationalization of entire industries, were seriously entertained. The Fabian Society, a socialist group founded in Britain in 1884, held great sway over workers and politicians.
By contrast, in the United States, though certainly there were some worker strikes during the Robber Barons era, no general socialist movement ever took hold. Owenite utopian communities did not last. In spite of its rapid industrialization, the United States never experienced the same sorts of demands for social services from the state that had such purchase in Europe. Even progressive reformers such as Herbert Croly cared more about taxing income and allowing women to vote than about a socialist revolution.
Why should this be? Alexis de Tocqueville once described America as “exceptional.” It was unlike any other nation because of its unique origins and geography, its lack of a feudal past, and its commercial habits of mind, and even some Marxists came to think this might be true: America was different. America, in some sense, was too busy building: new cities and new industries, yes, but also new fraternal associations, and mutual aid societies. Late 19th-century city life was very communal, as Jane Jacobs argues in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. America was an example of subsidiarity and solidarity in action.
The United States also had strong jurisdictional competition under the federal system, with vast expanses of land available where one could build one’s own life. And there was a political tradition rooted in individual liberty, religion, and associations. America in its essence could not be socialist, it was a commercial Republic, and its citizens looked to each other rather than the state to solve most problems.
Are we now witnessing the end of America as an exception to the rule of other nations? The popularity of some presidential candidates certainly suggests it. Let me offer a quick dual response to this question.
In so far as the mediating institutions Tocqueville admired have weakened (as they have since the New Deal and with the growth of federal transfers and public spending since WWII), and with them the practice of subsidiarity and solidarity, the ground for socialism is becoming more and more fertile. Many intellectuals, such as Allan Bloom, Robert Nisbet, and Michael Novak, have sounded this warning for decades.
I would argue, however, that the American political and economic tradition that rests on a mix of benevolent communitarianism, a healthy respect for the individual, and the spirit of enterprise is not dead — not yet. I witness these ideals still alive and thriving every day in my students and the businesses they interact with in the community. My students see the human person, not the state, as the solution to social and economic problems. And with the collapse of socialist countries such as Venezuela, they are aware that replacing God, the family, and business with government brings the greatest dangers.
If America is to maintain what made her “exceptional,” it is our responsibility to make sure the coming generation recognizes itself in a modern Tocquevillian view of the world: one in which individuals and communities solve social and economic problems through free enterprise and Christian love rather than the state.