The debate we're having about velvet socialism—governmental conformity trumping religious liberty in the name of providing equality—is coming 100 years after overt socialism's greatest political success in the United States.
In 1912 more than 1,000 locally elected officials in 33 states and 160 cities were Socialists. The Socialist Party candidate for president, Eugene Debs, won 6 percent of the national vote and seemed on his way to much more in future elections—but World War I and the Russian Revolution intervened.
Up to then the world had little experience with socialists in power. Debs argued that economic competition was wasteful and governmental monopoly would improve productivity. Others argued that competition in fighting poverty, improving education, or fostering religious belief—"denominationalism"—also was wasteful.
Five years later, after Vladimir Lenin seized power, we started to see what was truly wasteful. Other revolutions murderous to some and instructive to all included the Nazi (National Socialist) revolution of the 1930s, the Chinese Revolution of the 1940s, and later ones in Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, and Cambodia.
We began learning that government monopoly does not improve productivity: Compare West and East Germany from the 1950s through the 1980s, or South and North Korea now. We learned that economic competition, although it might seem wasteful on paper, creates incentives for creativity and hard work.
The 20th-century revolutions taught us that when socialism struts in, liberty leaves. A socialist monopoly leaves those outside the ruling elite without an economic base for independence. Some always refuse to bow, but many do when told that refusal will leave them poor, or worse.
It takes time for these lessons to sink in. Communism is out these days, but velvet socialists in the White House still have faith. Many others ignore the lessons of competition when told "the experts" say this or that, or when equality becomes our prime goal.
In U.S. poverty fighting, 90 percent of which is under governmental control, we've learned that officials have little incentive to treat the needy as human beings rather than numbers—but the National Association of Social Workers still adores welfare socialism.
In K-12 education, No Child Left Behind has largely failed, and we've learned once again that schools with captive audiences are reluctant to change their ways. Yet the National Education Association still hugs school socialism, with some members shrewd enough to accommodate themselves to the narrow competition that charter schools create.