A small fraction of conservatives view almost any taxpayer-funded service provided by government as socialism, and anything that smacks of community as communism.
It’s not just the obviously redistributive programs like progressive income tax, earned income credit, housing subsidies, etc. They denounce the basics too: public roads, public libraries, water and sewer systems. You can hear just about anything government proposes denounced as socialism, if it involves spending, hiring, or making new law or regulations.
This faction has its own wing nut fringe. We heard from them in 2018, when Hurricane Florence hit. A Chick-fil-A in North Carolina opened on Sunday (which they almost never do) to provide free food to refugees in three local refugee shelters. Crazy as it sounds, these fringe conservatives said a business’s voluntary donation of free chicken sandwiches to hungry travelers was socialism. (Some on the left were unhappy for other reasons.)
In a bizarre turn worthy of 2020, now some on the left make the same claim: any service government provides is socialism.
Here’s one of several related memes I’ve seen on Facebook lately.
Uncle Jack is hopelessly confused. I’d say he needs to go back to school, but he may have learned this twaddle in school.
But I appreciate the irony. He’s agreeing with people who, politically, are likely among the last people he’d want to agree with (how shall I say this?): the wing-est of right wingers.
Of course, the agenda’s different. The Left doesn’t call these things socialism to oppose them. They do it to convince us that we already support socialism, because we value most or all of these things. They’re as wrong and often as self-righteous as their conservative counterparts, but the major risks of their wrongness are slightly different.
What Is Socialism?
There are about as many varieties of socialism as there are of Christianity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; socialism is a popular secular religion which offers earthly salvation through human institutions, not heavenly salvation through God. Over decades and centuries, many people have wanted a piece of that action.
Generalizing can be dicey, but we can safely say a few things, if we know our political theory and some history.
In practice socialism is about amassing power by subjugating the masses to a wealthy, all-powerful elite — a lot like a feudal lord and his peasants, or a monarchy and its subjects, in some ways, but modern (its acolytes suppose) and blanketed in heady promises of equality, justice, fairness, and freedom, so it can sway enough people long enough to consolidate its power.
With socialism everything is in the name of “the people,” but individual rights shrink to nothing, when weighed against “the people’s” collective interests, as defined by the elite people who know better than all the lesser people. (That said, only a particularly crass socialist party would publicly brand the non-elites it wants to govern as “deplorables,” before elections are fully under party control.)
Socialism’s ideals appeal to many, if they lack a clear view of human nature or history, if they reject God, or if they fancy themselves part of the elite who deserve to rule. But it’s not particularly good at providing salvation for the masses, not even the earthly, material kind it promises. It enriches the elite few and impoverishes the rest. All animals are equal, so they say, but some animals are far more equal than others, to recall George Orwell’s chilling book-length allegory (Animal Farm).
Even worse, socialist regimes killed over 100 million of their own people in the twentieth century. It is a grisly, unthinkable price for socialist bliss — yet for the survivors, the bliss proved and still proves elusive. If you think the 21st century’s doing better, ponder the plight of the formerly free people of Hong Kong — and the Uighurs, who face systematic genocide by the same government of the People’s Republic of China.
Varieties of actual socialism tend to have these things in common:
- government ownership, extensive control, or comprehensive regulation of the economy, especially the means of production;
- a commitment to material equality over individual rights and liberty;
- forcible (not voluntary) redistribution of wealth;
- a view that society is principally comprised of economic classes which struggle with each other; and
- a general sense that it’s government’s proper role to provide for the material needs of the people, especially basic needs such as food and shelter.
In practice, a government adequate to decide who gets what, to manage the minutiae of a modern economy, and to enact and enforce all these decisions on a national scale must be vast and nearly omnipotent. It can only sustain itself in the long term, if it can survive at all, by gorging itself on the wealth and liberty of the people.
(It’s worth noting that communism is often presented as the full flowering of socialism — and vice versa — and in many cases the two terms are used interchangeably by those who advocate and practice them. There is little practical distinction between socialism and communism.)
Though socialism leads to big government — massive government — big government is not necessarily socialism. Socialism overlaps with the welfare state, which also requires big government, but in practice a welfare state is not full-blown socialism. Granted, it can be a deliberate step in that direction.
For more discussion of this, including the three basic theoretical paths to socialism (Marxism, democratic socialism, and social democracy), see my 2010/2014 essay, “What Is Socialism?“
So … No, Mostly Not Socialism
Let’s get back to that meme.
Fire departments are not socialism. They’ve existed in all sorts of regimes, with or without government ownership of the economy. They’re not redistributive in any significant way. They promote everyone’s safety at the common expense, but they don’t act to increase material equality. And it’s easy to argue in any system of government that they’re the best way to answer a general need.
Likewise police departments, EMT/EMS services (when they’re not private), public hospitals, the National Weather Service, the military, airport security, FEMA (mostly), the CDC, the FDA, NASA, etc. I’m not saying all these things are completely good, never wasteful, or fully constitutional at the federal level. But they’re not socialism.
Public schools come with an asterisk, but in their educational function they are not inherently socialist. The American variety of self-government has its own insatiable need for education. That said, socialist theory and practice tend to regard schools, especially public schools, as powerful vehicles for indoctrinating whole generations in socialism, if teachers and curriculum can be controlled.
Veterans’ benefits and the GI Bill are benefits extended to those who serve in the military. They’re not socialism; they’re parts of a compensation package.
To the extent that Social Security is a retirement savings program, to which I contribute and from which I receive my contributions upon retirement, it’s just a sluggish retirement program, not socialism. If we view my FICA payments as a tax, where I support people who cannot (for whatever reason) support themselves after retirement, you could make the case that it’s redistributive and proposes slightly to reduce inequality at the expense of liberty. It’s also the provision of a service which is easily and more productively provided privately. So there’s a big-government issue here and at least a whiff of socialism, depending on intent. But the existence of a compulsory retirement plan doesn’t make a nation socialist.
To the extent that Medicare is a medical insurance program where people pay premiums to get benefits, it’s not socialism. To the extent that it compels taxpayers to fund care for others, it’s at least redistributive.
To say that public utilities such as water and sewers — or roads and bridges — are socialism is risible. (I use the word in tribute to George Will.) Every modern community, to say nothing of some ancient ones, provides such things; no one needs socialism to do it.
“It’s all about how we take care of ourselves and our fellow Americans”? I agree with Uncle Jack that far. It’s about how we do that — whether the government defines, compels, and manages it, or we act freely. It’s not about whether we take care of ourselves and those around us. We don’t need socialism to do that. If we were better Americans, we’d turn to government for a lot less of that. (See “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.”)
Socialism absolutely does not mean “we pool our resources to provide things for everyone.” See those bullet points above. It means our resources are forcibly taken from us, to be given to others on someone’s terms other than our own (government’s).
This is not hairsplitting. It’s the difference between free, adult humans and sheep.
Does It Matter What Socialism Really Is?
Does it matter what racism really is? Or democracy? Or Brussels sprouts or kale or gravity?
Lately, on a few occasions when I’ve explained what socialism really is, I’ve been told my version is what socialism “used to mean.” Now it means something else to “us.” No one is bound by or obligated to learn what a word meant before. It can mean whatever “we” want it to mean.
(Who needs God to confound our language, as he did in the Tower of Babel incident? We happily confound it ourselves.)
Here are two illustrations of how it matters.
The Proud Graduate
First, a relatively recent graduate of an American public high school wrote this: “We live in a world of plenty, with more than enough resources to actually feed the entire planet. The largest barrier to food actually getting to people’s mouths is capitalism, because the goal of production is not to actually feed people, it’s simply to make the largest amount of profit possible. This in turn contributes to ridiculously massive amounts of food waste” (my emphasis).
You won’t be surprised that this person (I happen to know) openly embraces actual socialism (or communism). I wonder, did he simply not learn the basics of history, economics, agriculture, politics, and government that would have prevented him from writing that paragraph, or was he never taught?
For example, what we colloquially call capitalism is a convenient word for economic freedom. I mean actual free market, entrepreneurial capitalism, not crony capitalism, oligarchic capitalism or any other popular perversion. It’s countries with economic freedom who are able to feed themselves and ship food to other countries who can’t (usually for political reasons). Meanwhile, famine and socialism have a lot of history together.
This proud graduate’s perceptions probably affect his choice of candidates and his other votes. That’s a big reason why we all need to know what socialism is and isn’t. His vote counts as much as mine or yours.
It’s Fine with Them
Second, remember the last Democrat debate before the 2020 New Hampshire primary, when moderator George Stephanopoulos asked a stageful of candidates if the prospect of having a democratic socialist at the top of their party’s ticket concerned them? Only Amy Klobuchar said yes. Joe Biden didn’t. Neither did Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, or the others.
As if that weren’t bad enough, nominee Joe Biden has publicly adopted large parts of Bernie Sander’s socialist platform wholesale, to placate a bumptious faction in the party. (Bumptious is not altogether a euphemism for violent here, but I understand your suspicion.)
Bernie Sanders was on the stage that night. In a past election cycle he might have been the only one not to raise his hand. I reject his ideology, but I’ve admired him personally for years for being open with the voters. He’s been calling himself a socialist practically forever, and he’s not kidding. He didn’t hide his fondness for the Soviet Union or Cuba, even during the Cold War. What you see is what you get. How often does that happen in politics?
If they can get us to have warm, fuzzy feelings about socialism by telling us lots of things we already like are socialism, we’re much more likely to embrace, or at least temper our resistance to, real socialism when they offer it. They can more easily get us to tolerate things no American — no human — should have to tolerate.
In the meantime, as a bonus, we’ll think we know better than all those conservatives who warn us about socialism, even the ones who know what it is and confine their warnings to appropriate matters. So we’ll dismiss legitimate warnings of actual danger, not just the crying-wolf of the crazies and the blandishments of the woefully misinformed.
We’ll mistake the gas pedal for the brake pedal and the matches for the smoke alarm. We’ll mistake tyranny for compassion and bondage for freedom. And we’ll be proud of it. We won’t realize that we’ll be ones who are woefully misinformed — and we’ll still be allowed to vote.
If you understand and value what it means to be an American, few if any of the things you like are socialism. Don’t buy the misinformation — from Uncle Jack or anyone else.
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