Friday, February 5, 2016

What is socialism?

I was on the phone the other day, a business call in which I was providing tech support for one of my web hosting clients.  I was scanning a log to try to pinpoint the problem the client was having, so I put the phone down.  I could hear the client and one of his employees chatting, and the subject of the Iowa caucuses came up.

The employee said she was having trouble making up her mind about the candidates, and Bernie Sanders came up.  The client shut that down quickly:  "He's a socialist, so no thanks."

For most people, "socialist" has certain connotations.  Most people have only a superficial understanding of the term.  We all learned in school about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and, depending on your age, we knew that people like Mao and Stalin and Khrushchev and Castro were tied up in socialism somehow, and those guys were bad, so socialism is a bad thing, right?

You might even remember that the term "Nazi" is short for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, which is German for "National Socialist German Workers' Party."  And the Nazis were the worst of the bad, so socialism is a really bad thing, right?

I'm sure that the handful of people who read this blog know that just because something is called by a certain name, doesn't mean that everything called by that name is the same thing.  For example, the Democratic Party, of which I am a proud member, takes certain political positions on social and economic issues, while the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper stands squarely opposed to virtually all of those positions.

Of course, it's difficult to imagine two more different systems than the one in Nazi Germany and the one in Soviet Russia.  The Nazis were fascists--radical authoritarian nationalists--who viewed the state as being more important than the people; all effort was to be given in service of the government and of the purity of the "German race."

The USSR and Mao's China and Cuba under Castro were all communist governments.  Communism generally means an economic system in which property is owned by the state and the economy is planned and controlled centrally by the government, but the focus is on the equality of the people, en masse.  When you operate in a communist economy, you can't start a business (at least not without the permission of the government); rather, you're assigned a job and you're paid according to what (in theory) your needs happen to be.  The state is merely an instrument to plan and enforce small-scale economic equality of people.

The problem with the communist arrangement is that it tends not to work very well on the large scale.  (It works exceptionally well on the family scale; in most families, children receive what they need and contribute according to their abilities, while the adult(s) work to provide for those who can't provide for themselves.  This is a good example, by the way, of why thinking about the government's budget in the same way that we think about a family budget is a terrible idea.)  So the USSR broke up and the resulting parts mostly adopted capitalism; China's economy has become capitalist in many respects; Cuba is...well, it's still socialismo o muerte down there, but they're so hungry that they'll take what they can get.

The problems with fascism are self-evident.

In reality, neither of these systems really reflects the sort of socialism that Bernie Sanders advocates for.  Specifically, he qualifies the term "socialist" with the term "democratic."  But if you look at what he is advocating for, it doesn't really look all that different from the U.S. economy between 1935 and 1965--a time when we faced and conquered some of the greatest challenges that any country has ever seen, and when we enjoyed the most broad-based prosperity any society in the history of the world has ever enjoyed.

I am a capitalist.  I own my own businesses.  I believe that fair markets are the best way of allocating goods and services in the economy.  I strongly believe in the right of individuals to make their own economic choices.

But anyone who says that our capitalist economy is not also socialist is a fool.

There is very little I could do--very little any of us could do--without the socialist influence on our economy.  For example, every day, I get in my capitalist shower and turn on the socialist clean water tap; I dress in capitalist clothes, eat a breakfast made safe by socialist regulations; I get in my capitalist car (with socialist safety features and fuel economy standards) and pull out of my driveway onto a socialist street, controlled by socialist traffic signals, onto the socialist freeway, and park in my capitalist parking lot, ride the elevator (made safe by socialist regulations) to my floor, turn on my capitalist computer powered by socialist electricity (think REA and Corps of Engineers hydropower), communicate via the socialist internet, send letters via the socialist mail service...I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

What I do, what we all do for a living is radically influenced, if not outright enabled, by a government that smooths the path for us.  The government invests in things that are difficult or impossible for individuals to accomplish on their own, like roads, and water and sewer systems, and electrical infrastructure, and national defense, and food safety, and police and fire protection.  It also arranges for Social Security and Medicare to make it easier for people to live after they have outlived their ability to earn a living.

All of these things are "socialist."  And yet they do not exist in opposition to capitalism; they do not work against capitalism; they work alongside capitalism; and, perhaps most importantly, they make capitalism possible.

It's not free to do these things.  They cost money, whether you do them with private investment or public investment.  But just like borrowing money to buy a house or a car, they represent investments that make life easier and more productive than without them. 

This is not some "pie in the sky" "free money and stuff for everybody" concept.  It is part of our social bargain.  By investing in college, we make it easier for the younger generation to reach their potential without incurring ruinous debt, so that they can get good jobs and become taxpayers.  By investing in a health care system that works--Medicare for All--we can save most people a lot of money by making private health insurance unnecessary.  These are things that most countries--including the most successful economies in the world--do already.  They can work here, because they have worked here before, and far from destroying our economy, they made it the envy of the world.

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