(About a 10 minute read)
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” — Anonymous, but often ascribed to Mark Twain.
At the least, most of us harbor a few ideas that we mostly, or even entirely, owe our understanding of to the popular media. That’s to say, we have not studied the ideas much beyond what we hear of them from media sources.
A good case in point is the concept of “socialism”. Very few Americans, I’ll wager, have ever had the benefit of actually studying what socialism is — and isn’t. I would base my wager on having spent nearly a lifetime listening to descriptions of it that simply don’t match up with the reality of it.
As for myself, I got luckier than I deserved. My high school offered a course in economics taught by an exceptionally good teacher. So I learned a proper definition of socialism almost before I had any interest in it — and certainly before I thought there was much to recommend it.
Having said that, I should perhaps clarify that I do not consider myself a socialist. Nor do I consider myself a capitalist. I believe that the best economy would be a mix of the two systems, much like is available in Nordic countries such as Denmark (which in recent years has been ranked the highest country in the world for the happiness of its people, and the best country for doing business in Europe).
I do not believe I will see anytime in the next 20 years an informed debate in America about socialism.
For one thing the elites — on both sides of the aisle — would oppose such a debate. They have far too much to lose should the American people ever decide to swing much further to the left. And while there are a relative handful of elites who would welcome such a movement (Bernie Sanders and the multi-billionaire Nick Hanauer perhaps being the leading examples), most know all-too-well the dangers socialism would present to them.
For another thing, misleading notions of socialism are as deeply ingrained in American culture as anything can be. Too root them out would take a massive and sustained public relations campaign lasting a decade or more and consuming hundreds of millions of dollars. Who has that kind of money besides the very people whose interest is that the public get no clear, dispassionate idea of what socialism amounts to?
Again, there has been a concerted campaign against socialism — and all things left — in America since at least the first Red Scare of 1917-1920 that lead to the illegal Palmer Raids. That “scare” was based on the notion that foreigners would soon implement a Bolshevik style revolution in America, and the specter of just such a threat has been repeated time and again ever since. Only the “foreigners” have now and then been changed to “hippies”, “communists”, “college radicals”, and so forth.
Last, American culture is in many ways inimical to the concept even if it were properly understood. The cultural icon of the “Rugged Individualist”, Horatio Alger’s notion that hard work inevitably leads to success under capitalism, Ayn Rand’s notion that unbridled capitalism benefits all who morally deserve to be benefited, the Social Darwinist notion that those who don’t succeed under our system are naturally weak and inferior, and so on, are just four manifestations of the American worldview that spells trouble for any system recognizing that we evolved as social animals — and all the implications thereof.
Given all of that, it is somewhat hard to believe that socialism was once quite popular in America — at least by current standards. In 1910, one socialist American newspaper, the Appeal to Reason (based in Kansas, of all places), had a national circulation of 500,000 copies. And in 1912, Eugene Debs won 6% of the popular vote running as a socialist for the presidency — better than most third-party candidates do in America.
So what is socialism?
First off, there are many different kinds of socialism, just as there are many different kinds of libertarianism. But the core idea that unites most forms of socialism is the notion that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
By “means of production” is meant all that is required to produce a good or service, such as a factory and its tools, the infrastructure, furnishings, and related supplies of a school, or a road and its maintenance equipment.
“Means of distribution” would include any ways in which goods or services were distributed, such as interstate trucks, rail transport, stores, and so forth.
“Means of exchange” most often means money.
Socialism is like some forms of communism (albeit not all forms) in advocating that production, distribution, and exchange be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. Some scurrilous critics of socialism say this always means the government owing everything, but many socialists themselves do not advocate government ownership of everything. Rather, they see either a limited role for government, and instead advocate that production and distribution usually be owned by employees. To them, “community” means the local factory, the corporation, the town, etc. — as much as (or more than) the nation.
The different kinds of socialism can be divided into market and non-market forms. Non-market forms involved some kind of planning or regulation — often centralized — to deal with the vagaries of an economy, such as the tendency of unregulated economies to fall into a boom and bust pattern — prosperity or depression.
Market socialism more or less leaves the planning up to the market — the demand of the consumers.
In advocating community ownership, socialism differs sharply from capitalism, which advocates private ownership.
Much less well know, socialism differs sharply from communism in that communism advocates “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”, while socialism advocates, “to each according to his contribution”. That is, socialism advocates that people be compensated according to their contribution to the economy in terms of labor, productivity, and effort. A doctor, for example, would be compensated much better than a street sweeper.
Many criticisms of socialism fail to acknowledge that aspect of it — perhaps out of ignorance of that which they criticize. Instead, they falsely accuse socialism of removing all financial incentives to, say, go into engineering rather than flip hamburgers.
This is plainly not true. Pre-Marx, socialism was defined by its principle of “to each according to his contribution” because the principle contrasted with capitalism’s notion that unearned wealth in the form of interest, rent, or profit by virtue of ownership (irrespective of a person’s contribution to the economy) was justified.
Socialism has its share of problems, although I do not believe them to be any more numerous or greater than the problems of capitalism. Indeed, it shares with capitalism some problems. Sustainability is one of those problems. There is nothing in the inherent nature of socialism — just as there is nothing in the inherent nature of capitalism — to check the demand of consumers (either individual or business) from stripping the earth of its resources and wreaking havoc on whole ecosystems in the process.
Another problem, which is more specific to socialism, is that of bureaucracies. This was a problem Einstein, who was a socialist, recognized as one of the most significant challenges faced by socialism. Not surprisingly, he hinted that it might be solved following scientific study of bureaucracies.
By their very nature, bureaucracies tend to be indifferent to individual variations in wants and needs between people, hidebound, and fully capable of almost endlessly compounding mistakes. They provide social and political stability — but at what a price!
Curiously, Alexis De Tocqueville offered one of the most insightful criticisms of socialism long before the word itself had been invented. In a footnote to Democracy in America, he warned of two possible dystopian futures for American democracy.
First, if I recall, he posited that democracy might lead to anarchy. But second he mentioned “a system for which I have no name” in which democracy led to what today might be called a form of communism. People living in barracks, distributing all goods and services equally, and so forth.
Although De Tocqueville’s specter resembles some kind of communism more than socialism, the mechanism whereby he thought it could come about should concern us. That is, he believed if the people seized enough power that they could vote their wildest wishes, they’d vote to grab all wealth in the society and distribute it equally.
I do not see that as a necessary flaw with socialism, however. True, it is a danger, but I believe a well ordered constitution can thwart it.
Most of the other criticisms of socialism are not, in my opinion, criticisms of socialism in general, but merely criticisms of one or another form of it.
Perhaps one of the appeals of socialism is instinctual. Our species — along with our ancestors — spent millions of years evolving to live in small, egalitarian groups that survived — not because we had the most muscle, the sharpest claws, or the largest fangs — but because we were among the most cooperative of all species on earth. It seems to me possible that, at least for some of us, socialism hearkens back to that early human condition — egalitarianism.
As for myself, I believe that certain entities are best socialized — that is, owned by the community, rather than by private individuals. The military, the police, the fire departments, the schools, the roads, the prisons, the utilities, for sure. Beyond that, perhaps — I am not entirely sure about this, but perhaps — the major industries and/or corporations. I would certainly like to see the Federal Reserve go from semi-private to public ownership.
For me, much of the attraction of greater socialism lies in the ameliorating effect it might have on the problem of the growing disparity between rich and poor. I see that issue, along with such existential threats as nuclear war and global climate change, as one of the most pressing issues of our times.
Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”.* And much more recently, Justice Brandeis noted, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” It does not take a rocket-scientist to figure out how great wealth amidst relative poverty leads to oligarchy and then tyranny.
Put differently, one of the main attractions socialism has for me is the hope it holds out for at least reducing the threat to my freedoms and liberties that is poised by the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few powerful people.
*Perhaps worth noting in this day and age of nearly unlimited private money flowing into politics is another insightful observation of Plutarch: “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread to the law courts. And then to the army, and finally the Republic was subject to the rule of emperors.”