What Is Socialism?

Author's Note

The Debate

I’ve held forth at some length recently on the meanings of the words republic and democracy, which are of interest to Americans generally, and which have also, here at home, been at the center of heated debate in recent years, over the Alpine School District’s official statements of its mission, goals, and values. The debate is confusing and off-putting for many, in part because it sometimes takes a combative tone, but also because one side has directed a great deal of energy toward artificially narrow definitions of democracy and republic. We are told that a republic is good and a democracy is bad — end of story. Neither concept is that simple, and the part about democracy being bad rings false to a lot of people who love both their country and their freedom.

If the activists were more careful with their terminology, they’d say that a certain kind of republic (our kind, the democratic, constitutional republic) is good, and we need to understand and preserve it; and a certain kind of democracy (our kind, the liberal, constitutional, representative democracy) is good, and we should understand and preserve that, too. They’d say that we should be careful not to be diverted to either direct or social democracy, both of which really are bad — and one of which is a major feature of the Alpine School District’s official goals and values.

The movement could put itself on a sound theoretical footing by adjusting its arguments in two ways: opposing social democracy specifically, instead of insisting that all democracy is evil; and explaining social democracy without calling it Marxism. Besides sounding too extreme and too alarmist for the circumstances, Marxism actually is a different road to socialism. The movement’s alarm over socialism is at least partially justified, but its influence is compromised by imprecise and incorrect terminology.

What Is a Democracy?

Author's Note

An American Thing?

In its simplest definition, democracy is rule by the people — in Greek, the demos. On the face of it, you’d think that this would be not only a very good thing, but also a very American thing. The famous first three words of the Preamble to the United States Constitution are a statement of the people’s authority to establish a government and its Constitution. “We the People” sounds very democratic.

Then there’s that short, most celebrated speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the famous battlefield on November 19, 1863, he speaks of “a new birth of freedom,” and the desire “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That sounds pretty democratic too, doesn’t it, especially the words “by the people”?

So democracy must be a good thing. Or maybe not . . .

What Is a Republic?

Author's Note

It’s a Republic

Let’s look carefully at the meaning of the word republic.

In Utah and especially in the Alpine School District, there has been much discussion in recent years about the United States’ national government being a republic, not a democracy. For that matter, the United States Constitution guarantees every state “a Republican form of Government” (Article 4, Section 4) as well. This is an important discussion — so important, in fact, that it requires us to use our words carefully and with precision. Imprecision, no matter how passionate, does not serve us well.

A republic, it is said in the local discussion, is a representative government, where the people elect their lawmakers. It is characterized by the rule of law, not the personal rule of some person, such as a king or an emperor. It is intended to avoid the considerable evils of pure, direct democracy.

Most of this is mostly true; there is a certain kind of republic which fits this description. There is also another valid term for the same sort of government, representative democracy, but we’ll leave the word democracy for another time. There’s plenty to say about the republic itself .

Our Use of Words Matters

Author's Note

Words mean things, and many of the most important words mean a range of things. Consider, for example, that love can mean anything from a selfless, divine love to something only barely on the happy side of animal lust. A five year old who declares his love for his mother means something much different from what his mother means when she says she loves him.

A man and woman who discover that they love each other would do well to explore what they mean by love long before they order the wedding invitations. Likewise, we must be careful to define our terms anytime we engage in serious discussion, legislation, or decision-making which turns on the precise meaning of words.

Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

This article first appeared at LocalCommentary.com in 2004 and is presented here slightly edited.

I’ve written a lot of letters to the editor and some opinion pieces that were published on the op/ed page, not as letters. Here’s a list of 17 things I’ve learned along the way, mostly by experience — and not all of it good experience.