Socialism and the Masses


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.

— Jenny

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.”

— CraigB

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!

— Al

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.

— Chris

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.”

— James

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.

— morris

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


18 thoughts on “Socialism and the Masses

  1. I don’t think that Obama is a socialist, he’s not trying to overcome capitalism and change to communism. Even though I don’t agree with some of his decisions, I do not think he is a socialist.

  2. President Obama is part of a movement that is slowly tuning away from capitalism and towards socialism from within. I recall him saying something like “I do think there is a point where you have made enough money” and “we need to spread the wealth around.” Of course these were comments made without his best friend and greatest ally, the teleprompter. These comments sure don’t sound like capitalism to me. I am pretty sure that the basic premise of socialism consists of the government distributing the wealth generated by the country to its citizens. That sounds a lot like what Obama was talking about in his unscripted remarks. I do not know who he thinks he is to tell me how much money I can make in America. The simple fact is that more money for individuals=more jobs=more money for everyone. If you continue to penalize people for hard work and success. That is why I believe we should institute a flat tax. This way, there is no discrimination between the different classes of society.

    • Which major political figures would you hold up as examples for Obama to follow in terms of not using a teleprompter? Seems like a silly false premise — as if most politicians don’t use teleprompters when making major speeches.

      • Kyle has never made a dollar on his own as an American, thus he only can espouse what he thinks — not what he really knows. But that is okay; it seems to be the popular thing with many Americans.

        What too many folks do not get, including Kyle here, is that Obama is not the firs to do many of the said programs.

      • Actually, Mr. Carson, I have both a job and a business. I work at a tennis club doing whatever they need me to do and I have a DJ business with my friend that I have invested my own money in, and not my parents’. I have seen a portion of my paycheck go towards social security ever since I reached the legal working age. I doubt I will ever see any of this money because social security (a more socialistic idea than I like) is going bankrupt. I work hard every weekend and many weekdays trying to save up enough money to buy my dream car. (no, my parents aren’t going to get it for me) So before you make assumptions of me not having to work and getting everything handed to me, Mr. Carson, maybe you should get your facts straight. I am an independent thinker and I form my ideas from many different sources, not just Fox News, as you might also assume.

        Mr. Hebert,
        I wasn’t criticizing his use of the teleprompter. I was making a point that this was an unscripted remark, showing his true ideals.

      • Also, I know Obama is not the first to try these programs. Woodrow Wilson and FDR were among the most radical socialist presidents I know of. I think that any form of socialism is damaging to the economy and I strongly disagree with it. And as you stated, Mr. Carson, it does seem to be like the “popular thing” with Americans to not work. This stems from the eatightelment ideal. If we give in to socialism, which I know you are for, then that ideal will consume America and there will be no one left to do any of the hard work because there is no reward. My reward for my work is the BMW I have been dreaming of since I was 10. Luckily, our society has not been completely radicalized by political figures such as Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, and I can still realize that dream. Hopefully the American people can stop the eatightelment ideal at the polls before it is too late.

  3. I really like this post and the quotes you chose to explain this. Quite often I find myself in arguments with others about how socialism is not a Straussian counterpart to the capitalist vision of America. After taking a economic political theory course in my first semester I found the neutral education of socialism to be…lacking. I intend to refer my friends to this post in the future.

  4. Really? Obama is leading the US to the path of socialism? Interesting; now, do tell which aspect of the economy has been completely nationalized, and just where is the means of production being controlled by the government.

    It really bothers me when people through this around. It’s just a political buzzword, used to incite ignorant people into a 21st century psuedo-McCarthyism. I’ve also talked to several people about how they believe Europe to be socialist; the lengths I’ve been through to explain to them that socialism =/= social democracy…

      • Well, there are pages and pages that have, and could be, filled on this topic, but I’ll write a brief answer to your question;

        Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, has a centrally-planned economy instead of the free market, and is usually brutally authoritarian.

        A social democracy is a type of government in which all (or most) people have access to certain benefits given to them by the state, usually resulting in high income taxes; but, contrary to the popular conservative belief, the social democracy doesn’t stifle entrepreneurship. In cases such as Finland, business has swallowed the country due to its lightly restrained growth.

  5. Kyle:

    OK. I will get my facts right; you are telling m that you fully understand the Keynes process and why presidents such as FDR had to use injections after WWI? If so, I am impressed; I have heard no actual justification for said processes are in place beyond things such as: “silly” or “communist” of “collectivism.” The process of monetary and fiscal policy is not as simple as work hard but watch out because the government will take what you work for.

    Come see me sometime; I would love to have an unemotional conversation about this. I would love to learn from you. Right?

  6. I’m saying that I understand everything, but I believe that FDR’s New Deal did more damage to the economy than good. The depression followed Woodrow Wilson and it was WWII, not the New Deal, that got us out. I think that a flat tax would do a world of good for our economy. Not only would jobs increase, but companies will start coming to America from overseas instead of leaving. Some areas in the U.S. you can be taxed up to 70%. (city, state, federal) Personally, I think it is completely ridiculous that you have a higher percentage of your money taken just because you make more. If you had a flat percentage, not only could you abolish the IRS (saving the government money and reducing our national debt), but you could also help the economy and create jobs. The rich will end up paying the exact same percentage as the poor, and there will be no discrimination.

  7. Since they were brought up, let us take a look under the hood at how successful Finland’s “social democracy” is.

    Military spending in 2008 (Wikipedia):

    United States ranked #1 ($550 billion) in total dollars
    Finland ranked #44 ($2.7 billion)

    United States ranked #13 (4.0%) of GDP toward military spending
    Finland ranked #112 (1.2%)

    Charitable giving in 2006 (Wikipedia):

    United States #1 ($22 billion)
    Finland #18 ($826 million)
    (2nd place, the United Kingdom at $12 billion, was almost half of #1)

    This is not to disparage Finland, but to point out two things: (1) capitalism has made the United States wildly successful and wealthy, to the point that (2) they can quasi-subsidize the national defense of more socialist countries—countries who then turn around and mock us for not giving our citizens global health care and long vacations. It’s much easier for Finland to pay for health care when their military is so thin that the A-Team could take them down after being locked up in a janitor’s closet for an hour. Do socialist democracies find it easier to exist because the United States is less socialist than they are?

    Is there a place for social programs? Sure. There is also a place for zoos and animal rehabilitation centers…but we don’t try to put all the animals in there. Why? It is not natural. Likewise, humans are not really built for a hive mentality or to be put into an economic reservation. There is a time to feed the animals, but the true nature of the animal is to feed itself. Rather than come up with more ways to help people fend for themselves, politicians have decided to try and do the fending for us. This is a bad road to start down, because it dims the national vigor (yeah, you’ve seen the lions at the zoo on their third nap before lunch is shoved through the hole in the door). Once the folks who are hunting every day see a large portion of their kills being served at the zoo foodcourt, how long before they give up?

    Is capitalism perfect? No. Is more socialism the answer? Probably not. How about some fiscal responsibility over in Washington D.C.?

  8. Matt S:

    This is a bit of a stretch: “Is there a place for social programs? Sure. There is also a place for zoos and animal rehabilitation centers…but we don’t try to put all the animals in there.”

    In the end, I still believe we create governments to help each other and protect our welfare. Governments are not in place to assure rich people get richer; if they do, that is great….But in the end, the function of government should not look to advance wealth nor prohibit it. I know this is too idealistic. And yes, I have a good understanding of Adam Smith, though I am saying in some ways the exact opposite.

  9. I thought it was a stretch that the federal government would force everyone under their veterinarian program, but they did it.

    Indeed, government should not look to advance wealth nor prohibit it, but how does reallocating fit in?

    You make $10, and taxed $1.

    The government then changes the system.

    Now you make $12, but are taxed $5.

    Did the government advance your wealth, or prohibit it? By the President’s own words, he believes at some point an individual “makes enough” and any extra is “spread around”.

    Here is the rub, no matter where you stand on wealth redistribution: GOVERNMENT IS TERRIBLE AT MANAGING MONEY. The only way a land of rainbows and unicorns works is if Strawberry Shortcake has her hand on the rudder. We have Nancy Pelosi. Every government social program has ballooned into a budget buster, and now we’ve added the biggest one of all. The result is always the same: more taxes, legislative band-aid, more taxes, legislative band-aid, more taxes…and so on. The President claimed the health care bill would be deficit neutral. It will not be. Why we keep believing (or going along with) politicians when they say this is a whole other discussion.

    Socialism (of most flavors) puts the management of welfare into the worst possible hands. It does not intend to advance or prohibit wealth, per se, but it invariably slows it down.

  10. “Recent research at Harvard Business School began with the premise that as a state’s congressional delegation grew in stature and power in Washington, D.C., local businesses would benefit from the increased federal spending sure to come their way.

    “It turned out quite the opposite.”

    Q: These findings present something of a dilemma for public policymakers who believe that federal spending can stimulate private economic development. How would you suggest they approach the problem that federal dollars may actually cause private-sector retrenchment?

    A: Our findings suggest that they should revisit their belief that federal spending can stimulate private economic development. It is important to note that our research ignores all costs associated with paying for the spending such as higher taxes or increased borrowing. From the perspective of the target state, the funds are essentially free, but clearly at the national level someone has to pay for stimulus spending. And in the absence of a positive private-sector response, it seems even more difficult to justify federal spending than otherwise.

    • Not only are the purse strings mishandled by government, now we discover there may be a terrible return on investment.

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