Ocasio-Cortez could learn a thing or two about socialism from Trump

WASHINGTON — For three months in 1917, Leon Trotsky lived in the Bronx, just south of the congressional district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently defeated a 10-term incumbent in a Democratic primary. Because she calls herself a democratic socialist, the word “socialism” is thrilling progressives who hanker to storm the Bastille, if only America had one. And the word has conservatives darkly anticipating the domestic equivalent of the Bolsheviks storming St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace 101 years ago, if there is an equivalent building in the eastern Bronx and northern Queens. Never mind that only about 16,000 voted for Ocasio-Cortez’s version of “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!”

A more apt connection of current events to actual socialism was made by Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican, when Donald Trump decided to validate the conservative axiom that government often is the disease for which it pretends to be the cure. When the president decided to give farmers a $12 billion bandage for the wound he inflicted on them with his splendid little (so far) trade war, and when other injured interests joined the clamor for comparable compensations, Johnson said, “This is becoming more and more like a Soviet type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits.”

Concerning Johnson’s observation, the Hoover Institution’s John H. Cochrane, who blogs as The Grumpy Economist, says actually, it’s worse than that: “It’s a darker system, which leads to crony capitalism.” Cochrane is just slightly wrong: Protectionism, and the promiscuous and capricious government interventions that inevitably accompany it, is, always and everywhere, crony capitalism. But he is spot on about the incompatibility of America’s new darker system and the rule of law:

“Everyone depends on the whim of the administration. Who gets tariff protection? On whim. But then you can apply for a waiver. Who gets those, on what basis? Now you can get subsidies. Who gets the subsidies? There is no law, no rule, no basis for any of this. If you think you deserve a waiver, on what basis do you sue to get one? Well, it sure can’t hurt not to be an outspoken critic of the administration when the tariffs, waivers and subsidies are being handed out on whim. This is a bipartisan danger. I was critical of the ACA (Obamacare) since so many businesses were asking for and getting waivers. I was critical of the Dodd-Frank Act since so much regulation and enforcement is discretionary. Keep your mouth shut and support the administration is good advice in both cases.”

Now do you see what Friedrich Hayek meant when he said that socialism puts a society on the road to serfdom? Protectionism — government coercion supplanting the voluntary transactions of markets in the allocation of wealth and opportunity — is socialism for the well connected. But, then, all socialism favors those adept at manipulating the state. As government expands its lawless power to reward and punish, the sphere of freedom contracts. People become wary and reticent lest they annoy those who wield the administrative state as a blunt instrument.

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George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.