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President Trump took on socialism in the most effective way—not on the question of its costs, but of its principles.

The last few months have seen an ascendency of socialist ideas about wealth, property, and the role of the state. Suddenly, the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street and Z Magazine has gone mainstream, with prominent Democrats demanding confiscatory federal taxes on wealth, the abolition of the private health-insurance industry, and centralization of planning and production.

Opposition to these ideas from the right has been mostly derisive and ineffective. When freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed spending trillions of dollars on “greening” the American economy over the next ten years, conservative economists shook their heads and grinned, explaining how the math doesn’t add up. Skeptics on social media posted memes representing Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and their ilk dopily conjuring free health care, housing, and other goodies out of thin air.

Even if they illustrate socialism’s illogic, though, they don’t address the fundamental wrongness of the socialist perspective. Socialism may be economically untenable but laughing at its innumeracy is the wrong way to proceed politically because its adherents are not persuaded by questions of cost, any more than proponents of the border wall are swayed by the argument that it would cost too much. Socialists openly acknowledge that they seek radical transformation of America, and they reject as false and rigged the arithmetic and vocabulary nonsocialists use to argue against them. Their standards are different, and their revolutionary appeal has wrongfooted critics.

As President Trump demonstrated in his State of the Union address last night, the most effective way to attack the socialist tendency is not nitpicking at its particulars but attacking it at the normative level—by explaining how socialism runs contrary to basic American values.

“We are alarmed,” said Trump, “by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence—and not government coercion, domination and control.” Trump reframed the debate from a discussion about price to one of principle. “We are born free, and we will stay free.”

Salesmen operate on the maxim that if you argue cost, you have already blown the sale. Ocasio-Cortez seems to understand that, and she’s right about one thing: on the deepest level, it really isn’t about how much socialism costs—at least in dollars. What really matters is what it would cost us as a people. On that matter, a substantial portion of Democrats now seems to have a view at odds with most Americans. Trump was wise last night to focus on the threat that this shift represents, and to raise again the timeless question of what kind of society we want to be—one in which liberty is primary, or one in which the state makes the important decisions about our lives. The matter may be up for grabs, but Trump at least has shifted the discussion in the right direction.

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