Are you really into socialism? You’re probably not.
The term “socialism” has lost its sting in American politics, particularly among the young.
However, few Americans who claim to be socialists are truly such, if the term is to retain its value in describing a particular form of political economy.
It’s become more of a political fashion statement. A way of saying: “Hey, look at me. I’m a rebel with a cause.”
This sanitizing of the term hinders the ability to make useful distinctions in discussing matters of political economy. And it obscures important historical lessons that are forgotten at great peril.
American conservatives believe that markets are the most productive and fair way of allocating resources, and the only way compatible with individual liberty. They are skeptical of proposals to regulate markets, believing that they have self-correcting mechanisms that will serve consumers, investors and workers better than government oversight.
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American liberals believe that markets are necessary for economic growth, but do not trust them, particularly in terms of fairness. So, they favor significant government regulation to protect consumers, small savers and investors, and workers. They also advocate extensive welfare and safety net programs, and redistributive tax policies.
True socialists believe that markets are neither productive nor fair. Instead, they are intrinsically and irredeemably exploitive. Rather than markets, government should make the decisions about the allocation of resources and actually own and operate monopoly corporations in key industries.
American socialists aren’t really
In the United States, those who described themselves as socialists are actually extreme liberals. The policy statement of the Democratic Socialists of America acknowledges the value of markets and eschews government ownership of large, nationalized enterprises. Instead, it favors reforms that turn control of corporations over to workers and communities.
That betrays an ignorance of the role of investment capital in making markets work. But it’s not really socialism in a way that is markedly distinct from liberalism. If the term “socialism” is to have any real meaning, it has to include government dictating the allocation of resources and owning and operating monopolistic corporations in major industrial sectors.
Americans who profess to be socialists always modify it to include democratic governance, hence “democratic socialist.”
In theory, true socialism and democratic governance can be compatible. And much of Western Europe was once fairly described as being governed according to democratic socialism.
When Margaret Thatcher was elected British prime minister, the government owned the airline, the telephone system and the steel, coal and gas companies, among a broad portfolio of commercial enterprises. Yet the country was democratically governed. And when Thatcher was elected, she proceeded to move all these enterprises into the private sector.
Western Europe is no longer socialist
Today, no country in Western Europe can accurately be described as socialist. They all have more robust welfare systems than does the United States and varying degrees of government intervention in their economies. But all have market economies and rely principally on private investment and price signals to allocate resources.
In the United States, the closest we have come to socialism was the imposition of wage and price controls by President Richard Nixon during peacetime. I used to make that observation to Republican audiences when Barack Obama was president and many on the right were carelessly, and inaccurately, calling him a socialist. Saying that Nixon was more of a socialist than Obama never went over well with GOP diners.
The biggest move toward the real thing advocated by American democratic socialists is a single-payer (meaning the government) health-care system. Redefining health care as a public good, for which government is ultimately responsible, would be a big step. But it is still a long way from saying that everything should be a public good and that’s how all important sectors of the economy should be organized.
Venezuela is the real deal
In practice, true socialism has been more often associated with autocratic governance. A government that owns the major means of production owns the necessary means of political suppression.
Americans who claim to be socialists bristle when Venezuela is cited as an example of what true socialism reaps. But that’s been the historic norm. When markets are dispensed with as the principal means of allocating resources, shortages and repression usually follow.
That’s a lesson that shouldn’t be shunted aside in a desire to make a political fashion statement.
Robert Robb is a columnist at The Arizona Republic, where this column first appeared. You can reach him at [email protected]
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