Earlier this year, Room for Debate examined how the word “socialism” is used as shorthand and epithet in current politics and in other eras of American history. Many of President Obama’s opponents, like those at the demonstration in Washington earlier in the year during the health care discussion, insist that he’s a socialist.
Some readers wrote in to say that the use of the label is disturbing and incendiary. Others argued there’s more truth than exaggeration to that description. Here are excerpts from some of their comments. Because some folks think that I am the resident expert on socialism here, I am routinely inundated with questions regarding socialism, communism, anarchism, etc…. I am more than happy to educate a population of people who get too much incorrect information from T.V. I fear the death of books has arrived.
A Real Socialist State
As a Norwegian, looking at the U.S. health care debate from the outside, I cannot help but laugh sometimes. It seems like the word “socialism” has become a swear word. In Norway, we just re-elected a “socialist” government. That does not mean that we live in a communist state. We have full-fledged capitalism over here, and we are just about the richest country in the world, per capita. But we have chosen to let the state supply world-class health care to all inhabitants.
To allow private insurance companies to let private profit maximizing decisions get in between a patient and a doctor is close to unethical for us. In Norway, you get the same care no matter if you are a homeless drunk or the C.E.O. of one of the biggest companies. And that’s how it should be. They say that the measure of a country’s success lies in how it treats its most unfortunate citizens.
— Gjert Myrestrand
The Protesters’ Point
Conservatives may not use the term “socialist” according to its precise definition, but maybe they do have a point. Protesters are not necessarily racist or ignorant. Some are people who have worked hard their whole lives–in college and graduate programs, then in their careers. These are people who achieved the American dream and are afraid to lose the fruits of their labors. Obama is not a socialist, per se.
However, many of his policies — health care included — will “redistribute the wealth.” Our economy has always fallen somewhere between pure capitalism and socialism. Obama’s policies will push us further from capitalism, even if they are not “socialist” in the strictest sense of the word. Is Obama a socialist? No. But he’s sure as heck not a capitalist, either. I think this is what has a lot of people worried.
Eisenhower: Closet Socialist?
I believe that Republicans once turned on their own (President Eisenhower) when they accused the T.V.A. of being “creeping socialism.” And, of course, it was this same “socialist” who helped inspire the interstate highway system.
But where else, besides highways and hydroelectric dams, might the paranoid look to find successful examples of “socialism” in the U.S.? The list should probably include: public schools and universities; public libraries; local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies; both full-time and volunteer fire departments; public hospitals; the military (comprising several branches, complete with a standing army); etc. And this list doesn’t even include corporate welfare which, prior to the recent bail-outs, has subsidized almost every “private” economic activity in the country: farming, housing, small business, oil exploration, space exploration, computers, nuclear reactors, pharmaceuticals, etc.
So, you see, when the money goes to advance corporate interests, it is called “progress.” When it goes to help individual citizens in need, it is called “socialism.”
Big Government, Less Freedom
Regardless of how you define it Socialism is Big Government. And Big Government, means less freedom. The government has been getting bigger, and Bigger, and BIGGER, and our problems are getting bigger, and Bigger, and BIGGER! Big Government is NOT the solution it’s the problem!
Blame Digital Media
I guess the answer to the question, “What is Socialism in 2009?” is that it means whatever you want it to mean. In a digital era, I guess we should expect that individual things, like words, will become less and less significant in themselves. As people are increasingly able to adjust their sources of information according to their worldview, we can count on them to define words like “socialism” to be in line with what’s most convenient to them. I’m not saying this uproar has anything to do with the Internet specifically, just that the Tea Baggers have their own sources that seem meaningful to them even if they are completely bogus.
As long as there is something to be gained from playing on past fears, words like “socialist,” “fascist,” and “communist” will persist as an easy label for something inconvenient. That may be nothing new, but I notice that all these labels are intermingled today with no apparent regard for their original textbook meanings. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that today information itself has become relative.
A Condition by Any Other Name
Socialism in 2009 means that I work, and a large part of the fruit of my labor gets taken from me and given to other people (with a healthy rake-off for the bureaucrats doing the taking). I buy a house — not a McMansion, but a modest place well within my means — with 20 percent down and a fixed-rate mortgage, and then see my tax money going to bail out not only the individual fools who bought into those exotic loans, but the corporate fools who sold them.
I drive (as I always have) a small used car that gets good gas mileage, and I see my tax money going to reward those who bought oversized gas guzzlers. I exercise, eat sensibly, and otherwise work at maintaining my health, and now they want to take more of my tax money to pay for “insurance” to treat all the self-inflicted medical problems of people who don’t care for their own health.
The basic idea really hasn’t changed much, whatever the label people choose to apply. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — or according to how effective the lobbyists his interest group hires are, because after all “some pigs are more equal than others.”
Who’s Winning Now?
While Obama is far more centrist than socialist, what would be so wrong with a little more socialism in this country? I lived in France for part of a year and was a recipient of their health care, even as a non-resident. What’s wrong with prompt, affordable health care available to all? What’s wrong with an entire month of paid vacation for every working adult? What’s wrong with free education for every child from age 2 and 1/2 through university?
The countries that provide job security, health care, and education to all their citizens certainly put a crimp in the unequal “meritocracy” we seem to be so frightened to lose. Look around, people. Who’s collecting all the goodies?
— Susanna W.
It’s What I Live On
I’m 89 and loving it with my Social Security check of $2,065 every month and my Medicare medical insurance allowing me to go to my doctor knowing the prices are set by Uncle Sam and who I can visit without another doctor’s referral. I know it’s corny to say it, but give me this sort of Socialism anytime.
What Hayek Really Said
I recently read “The Road to Serfdom” by F.A. Hayek for the first time, long knowing that it was a seminal work of free market economics and a denunciation of socialism.
The most surprising thing to me was the fact that Hayek’s critique of socialism is explicitly directed only to the strict definition of ’socialism’ as Hayward notes above (i.e., “central economic planning and public ownership of the means of production”), and allowed for the creation of limited social safety nets like welfare and unemployment insurance.
After digesting that the great treatise against socialism defined it such narrow terms, it occurred to me that in our modern usage, ’socialism’ has really come to mean “any act of government at all, particularly ones with which I disagree.” Just like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, we have watered down the terms of our political discourse to mean absolutely nothing at all, and we are reaping the bitter fruit thereof.
— Othar Hugh Manati