I spent a good 20 minutes listening to an interview with a Socialist/Marxist economist, yeah I’ll admit it what I do with my free time can be categorized as odd. Point is he confirmed that no, the President and the democrats in congress are not socialist. He went on to talk about how the cold war turned socialism into a pejorative. This is a profound idea and explains a lot of America’s total recoil from anything even smeared with a loose association from socialism.
Allow me if you will to digress here for a moment. I often get accused of digressing into semantic arguments, which admittedly can distract from the point, however how language works and the words people choose to communicate are often as important as the substance of their statement. This is most apparent in the discussion of the dreaded death tax, formally and officially, and literally known as the estate tax. Everyone, and I mean everyone who uses the term death tax, are semantically trying to re-engineer your response to the tax. By calling it the death tax, it applies to anything on the planet that dies. If it is called the estate tax it is understood it is a tax on estates, if there is no estate there is no tax, and most Americans realize that they have little to no estates with which to be taxed.
Like I said, I’m not a socialist but I can’t say that I made that decision rationally. I still don’t think socialism writ large works. It is difficult though, for me to say I came to this because of historical evidence or as a personal justification of this communal terror of socialism. It is quite easy for me to think that some of that hostility must come from some grain of truth, but that is not logical, nor scientific. So what is socialism? Well let’s get this right out of the way we have never seen a socialist government, and the closest we get is not Russia or Cuba or China. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the template for socialism isn’t any of those nations but us the US. The biggest socialist in the modern world was not Lenin, Mao, or Castro but Roosevelt. The new deal, which brought about social security, the WPA, minimum wage, the 40 hour work week, and a whole host of other programs that until there recent erosions kept millions from abject and generational poverty (this is the first time in generations that children are likely to earn less than their parents) is probably the biggest socialist agenda ever engaged in.
Socialism is an acknowledgement of something I determined a long time ago, there is no such thing as a self made man. Or to put it in a more poetic way, no man is an island. This is to say that citizens of a nation do not operate independently of each other, the decision of an individual effect masses often in multiple costly ways, economist call these externalities. Accounting for these externalities is one of the distinctions between capitalism and socialism. Notice that I didn’t say democracy and socialism. Forgive me once again for another diversion into semantics but socialism is an economic system not a form of government. Capitalism addresses societal issues with the market. Socialism addresses these problems with the community. This community often takes the form of government but it can happen independently as well. The pension system is an example of this. Pensions are a socialistic solution to the problem of providing for workers no longer capable of working. The 401k system is a capitalistic solution to the same problem. Both have benefits and drawbacks. Socialism is good for providing a social safety net but may not be that great for innovation. Capitalism on the other hand can innovate up the wazoo but often times this can be at the expense of society as a whole (e.g. BP, derivatives investing, OPEC).
American has never been a nation for pure capitalism. From the great western expansion to Medicare socialism has been in American economic policy decisions. Today I read the Supreme Court’s 1937 decision on the constitutionality of social security. The arguments against it then were the same as they are now: look at the bloody tenth amendment they wail. As it is now it was argued then that these things are “state” issues and since the constitution doesn’t explicitly mention unemployment insurance or social security they are unconstitutional. The proponents argued that these programs provided for the general welfare of the nation and it was therefore within the powers granted the federal government. What the court said in response to these two arguments is as relevant now as it was then:
“. . .there is need to remind ourselves of facts as to the problem of unemployment that are now matters of common knowledge. . .the roll of the unemployed, itself formidable enough, was only a partial roll of the destitute or needy. The fact developed quickly that the states were unable to give the requisite relief. The problem had become national in area and dimensions. There was need of help from the nation if the people were not to starve. It is too late today for the argument to be heard with tolerance that in a crisis so extreme the use of the moneys of the nation to relieve the unemployed and their dependents is a use for any purpose [other] than the promotion of the general welfare.”
“The purge of nation-wide calamity that began in 1929 has taught us many lessons. . . Spreading from state to state, unemployment is an ill not particular but general, which may be checked, if Congress so determines, by the resources of the nation. . . But the ill is all one or at least not greatly different whether men are thrown out of work because there is no longer work to do or because the disabilities of age make them incapable of doing it. Rescue becomes necessary irrespective of the cause. The hope behind this statute is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey’s end is near.”
This is a socialist manifesto if I’ve ever seen one. The point is socialism isn’t a zero sum game; socialism and capitalism can play together in the same government. In addition you need not lose your freedom or your democracy to embrace an economic policy that takes the community as a whole into account. Socialism has many virtues that we know and love and have been a part of our culture since the days of Alexander Hamilton. If we are ever going to have a thorough discussion of the role of government in our daily lives we have to remove the stigma attached to it.