News commentators, anchors, field reporters, and politicians have been tossing around a term within the political and presidential debates that packs a lot of punch: “socialism.” So I am going to review what I consider the meanings of the term. This is not a scholarly article, nor even researched de profundis. It is only a starting point, but I hope a helpful one.
I would suggest the term “socialism” covers a spectrum of meaning, and confusing the meanings leads to erroneous understanding, reporting, and digestion of the political debate. Caveat emptor!
Socialism, when practiced by a communist state, usually means government ownership of the means of production under the direction of the leadership of a communist party. In communistic socialism, little to no private ownership exists, whether it be a business, a factory, a farm, etc. The communist party-directed state owns everything. This type of socialism is largely unknown or unpracticed by Western democracies. Even few communist states practice this type. Cuba and North Korea are likely the only exceptions.
In national socialism, which saw its most extreme embodiment in Nazism, socialism refers to government control and direction of the means of production and the economy. Like communism, this is an extreme form of tyranny; however, private ownership continues in this arrangement. A private owner or corporate owners would never cross the government. If the government says a business is going to build gizmos, then the business is going to build gizmos. The state assumes a martial and authoritarian attitude that subordinates private and corporate interests to its own. That doesn’t mean the private interests don’t profit and prosper. They often do. However, the state exercises tight control of the economy. As with communism, a single party often runs the show, as it did in Nazi Germany.
Red China is a mix of communism and national socialism. Reportedly, the communist-directed Red Chinese government owns about 60% of the means of production and service. Some local and foreign investment exists. And some Red Chinese individuals have become exceedingly wealthy. At any moment, however, the communist-led state may impose its will.
Western democracies have no to little acquaintance with national socialism. Venezuela was moving toward a type of national socialism, but I think that movement has taken a hit since the death of its progenitor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez led the Venezuelan government’s takeover of the private sector oil industry.
I might add at this moment that the terms “democracy” and “democratic” offer an astounding ambivalence that readers, viewers, and listeners must treat with care and discernment. I’ll delve into them in a bit.
Finally, there remains the still broad term of what I will call western socialism. I acknowledge that western socialism can be approached from two angles. I am going to choose mine, but I acknowledge that anyone could approach from another direction.
With western socialism, we mean the government assumption of greater control over the market in which goods and services are provided. While the government usually does not own the means of production or services, it can establish itself as an intermediary between, or governor over, the producer and the consumer. This constitutes a certain market control. However, it can also become the provider of services, as with the maintenance and discharge of social security or unemployment benefits. Under the current health care legislation, the government determines how the funding of health care will operate and to whom it will apply.
Western democracies experience this kind of socialism to one degree or another, and I will leave it to the ideologues to argue where to draw the bright line between standard government operation and the practice of socialism.
Our American Constitution provides for the general welfare or the common good, often called the “common weal” or “common welfare” of our people. This is a shared responsibility for each other under the direction of our democratically elected legislators and presiders, in short, the Union to which we agreed.
At what point does that common good begin and at what point does it end? Traditionally, laws, defense, foreign relations, domestic tranquility, interstate and international commerce, etc., have all been assigned to the operation of the federal government, with an overarching view to enhance and protect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the individual citizen.
Our arguments about socialism revolve around the government’s role in maintaining personal life, liberty, and pursuit against its role in promoting the common good. The religious, ethnic, cultural, and economic turmoil of our times has disrupted our domestic tranquility and is tossing our political ship to and fro. The federal government has without precedent entered the business of determining what constitutes a marriage. It now governs the purchase of health insurance to compel everyone to obtain it, to provide coverage for those who lacked it, and to control its functions for the purpose of controlling its costs. One candidate has extended a proposal to make it the province of the federal government to subsidize all student college costs because of the accumulated mountainous student loan debt. That same candidate describes himself as a “socialist”.
So now the question becomes, is favoring or legislating such programs “socialism”? This question differs from the pragmatic question of whether such programs are good ideas, feasible, or practicable. As with any budget item intended for the common good, such programs receive their funding from the individual taxpayers and the wages or salaries they have worked hard to earn. Most, if not all, of us would agree we would like to keep as much of our pay as possible. On the other hand, as good citizens, we see the need and the desirability for programs that promote our common good: a strong defense, a retirement we can count on, clean air, etc.
So the battle over “socialism” really comes down to how much money we are willing to be taxed and, if we are going to give up our hard-earned money, how we will allow it to be spent. We want government to be lean and effective, not bloated and ponderous; what should our government do with our money and how involved should they be in spending it.
As we vote, or our legislators votes for us, or our presiders employ their executive powers, we may allow a greater degree of government involvement and control over our lives. What is an acceptable level of that involvement and control? Is the only viable solution to student loan debt to use our taxpayer money to pay it? Should taxpayer money be used to pay college costs because they have become so outrageous no one individual can pay them? If I support such action, am I a socialist? I don’t want a big brother watching over me. I don’t want one political party dictating its beliefs to me.
Furthermore, am I partaking in socialism if I support such a use of taxpayer money? If I was, is that kind of socialism bad like national socialism or communistic socialism?
At the least, voting, for instance, to have the government use taxpayer money to subsidize all future college costs would constitute increased government involvement and diminished personal responsibility. I don’t think that means taking a stand for socialism. Whether it is a good idea or a bad idea, or a feasible idea, or a desirable idea remains another question. If college costs have become so outrageous and unreasonable in today’s market, it can be argued that allowing the federal government to pay for them would be a good idea.
The key here is that this kind of socialism is not necessarily evil or wrong, not when it is practiced democratically. When a majority of the citizens vote for it, or their representatives vote for it, this kind of socialism is democratic and lacks the strong-arm authoritarianism of the national socialistic and communistic ideologues. If that is what the citizens collectively want their government to do and how they want the government to do it, then it is democratic and is only economically socialist, and in regard to that program only, not the entire economy.
So when you hear a commentator or reporter or politician use the word “socialism” positively or negatively, beware! Examine and mull over what he or she really means, and evaluate the significance of what he or she is saying.
Finally, beware of the use of “democracy” or “democratic” when used by an authoritarian socialist, one who wants to exercise control over the citizens and their lives. The meaning of democracy is rule by the people, and a democratic country is one ruled by the voice of the people through themselves or by their consent through their elected representatives. When authoritarians, especially Marxists, use those words, they mean doing something for the people or on behalf of the people to bring a wider result, whether the people like it or not.
The difference is vital. In democracy, we decide directly or indirectly. In a “democracy”, the leaders of a particular movement decide “for the benefit” of their subjects. The mere increase of goods and services to more members of a state does not make a democracy nor a program democratic.
Do not allow good words to be hijacked by the unscrupulous. Caveat emptor!