Republicans have been remarkably successful in labeling Democrats as socialists. But Democratic proposals that get tagged as “socialism” amount to little more than expanding the safety net, bringing the United States closer to Sweden, Canada, or Germany, all prosperous, democratic, capitalist countries. By contrast, Republicans are the ones that are gumming up the gears of American capitalism, promoting policies to prop up aging, anachronistic industries and, worst of all, enabling the imposition of environmental harms far in excess of what it would cost to avoid them. Republicans say they are in favor of capitalism, but they are actually in favor of crony capitalism, which tips the scales in favor of their favorite industries. Capitalism can be a tough master: The point of capitalism is that competition causes some industries to fail. But protecting industries from failure in exchange for political benefit is far worse: It is a dangerously short step to socialism. And traditional socialism necessarily implies authoritarianism—how else is a country to undertake central economic planning except by an authoritarian government? That is actually where the Republican Party is taking us.
Exhibit A: This past summer, as the COVID-19 crisis pummeled markets and industries of almost all types, 36 Republican senators and representatives singled out energy companies and wrote to President Donald Trump urging him to “prevent financial institutions from discriminating against America’s energy sector.” Discriminating? Investment firms such as BlackRock were considering divesting their holdings in fossil fuel energy stocks as gas, coal, and oil prices plummeted. Republicans, those rugged individualists, were seeking to forbid private investment firms from divesting their fossil fuel holdings. That is the essence of socialism: authoritarian government dictating private investments.
Exhibit B: The Trump administration has spent more than $1 billion of taxpayer money trying to figure out how to capture the global-warming carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, so as to be able to keep them running. That, despite the fact that not a single coal-fired power plant has been proposed for construction since 2017; even the plant that was proposed then was scrapped earlier this year. But that has not discouraged Republicans from trying to prop up coal. In 2020, speaking in support of a proposal to keep throwing good taxpayer money into bad investments, Louisiana Republican Rep. Garret Graves inveighed, “Those who identify fossil fuels as the enemy have misidentified what the enemy is. It’s the emissions.” At least Graves is one of the few congressional Republicans concerned about climate change, but he and his like-minded colleagues are mistaken: The enemy is the taxpayer cost of pulling out all stops to keep the coal industry afloat, in a sea of inexpensive natural gas and renewable energy sources.
The essence of the Republican strategy boils down to favoring their patron industries, maintaining 100-year-old tax subsidies for fossil fuels, and pushing hard for environmental deregulation that allows companies to pollute and dump and accelerate our frightening rush toward climate change. Environmental harms from pollution are real costs that polluting industries should bear, just like their other costs of production. But thanks to Republican interventions, these costs are instead borne by the American public in the form of millions of avoidable illnesses and hundreds of thousands of lives lost annually to pollution from coal-fired power plants, harmful pesticides sprayed over millions of acres of crops, and toxic chemicals that are everywhere, even in the fabric of your living room sofa. In the Republican worldview, “liberty” and “freedom” are the unfettered ability of their political cronies to rob Americans of their health, well-being, and lives.
Energy, agriculture, and chemicals are not bad things. They are essential to modern human life. But they are currently being produced with more environmental harm than is necessary because the government is failing in its duty to regulate the harmful things, while also falsely propping up industries that no longer make capitalistic sense. A healthy, functioning capitalist economy is one in which all companies compete on their ability to satisfy consumer demands, while paying the full costs of their production process. That includes the typical inputs such as materials, energy, and labor, but must also include environmental costs. When companies pay for their environmental costs, they face an incentive to find less polluting ways to produce their goods and services.
It is not really capitalism if companies produce goods and services while fobbing off costs on the public. Socializing the costs of pollution is socialism, and it is how some of worst environmental catastrophes have occurred. It’s how the old Soviet Union could build Chernobyl, how it could decide to shrink the Aral Sea to become self-sufficient in cotton production, of all things, and why it would build inefficient, polluting pulp and paper mills on the shores of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and the most beautiful in the country. It’s also how 6,000 dead pigs can wash up on the riverbanks upriver from Shanghai, how residents of Beijing must suffer daily with choking smog, and how China, a country with more than 300 billionaires, still does not have potable tap water. With the lax regulation and weak enforcement championed by Republicans in the U.S., polluting companies face no incentive to find cleaner ways to produce, passing up inexpensive alternatives that could save many lives and avoid many illnesses. This is the tragedy of the crony capitalism installed by the Republican Party: that so much public health and so many lives could be saved by modest changes but are not. That is also the tragedy of socialism that is not buffered by democratic principles: Industries and production decisions are made by political intervention that protects polluting industries at the expense of citizens.
Protecting the environment is essential to capitalism. For one thing, a healthy economy requires a healthy population, with people able to grow, learn, and produce. Moreover, a population sickened by pollution and climate change diverts resources toward health care, and away from other productive pursuits. For another thing, commerce requires that environmental conditions be stable and predictable. Beyond the morbid death toll, the economic cost and drag of repeated climate catastrophes—the endless parade of tropical storms battering the Gulf Coast, the horrifying destruction of Western wildfires, and the punishing, climate-induced flooding rainstorms—all make for stunted economies. Places suffering from the extreme disruptions of climate change rebuild, but that still represents lost opportunity for other productive ventures, and for economic growth.
The environment is also an excellent indicator of the true health of a capitalist economy. Consider what always seemed off-kilter about socialist economies in the Soviet Union, Soviet-era Eastern Europe, and China: People always had jobs, but they were miserable and always looming in the background was some environmental calamity. Under communist rule, Poland was an engine of production, producing steel and building automobiles and airplanes for the Soviet empire. But it was also plagued by pollution: Soil tests in the industrial region near Krakow showed levels of lead and cadmium that were higher than anywhere ever recorded, 200 times that considered safe by the Polish government. In the South Central Polish region of Silesia, a shocking two-thirds of all 10-year-old children suffered from a mental or physical disability caused by pollution. With the fall of the Soviet empire, Poland cleaned up its tragic environmental mess and cultivated one of Europe’s most dynamic technological sectors. (Alas, its energy sector remains heavily reliant on coal and that sector is state-owned.)
The United States is not yet in imminent danger of slipping into a Soviet-like miasma. But it is already losing some global industrial leadership and missing out on opportunities to grow clean tech industries. Other countries with strong environmental enforcement have already begun to seize leadership in this critical industrial subsector. The winners of a future global contest, which will inevitably be a capitalist one, will be those that emerge from dynamic, forward-looking economies, not those stuck in a polluting, unhealthy, fossil fuel–centered past, protected by their political patrons.
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