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Socialism is a Dirty Word

(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.

Questions?  Comments?

*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.”

22 thoughts on “Socialism is a Dirty Word”

  1. applause Good counter to the folks who bandy about the word “socialism” without knowing what it is aside from a few inflammatory catch phrases. Lately I’ve seen a few ‘letters to the editor’ in our local newspaper warning against socialism, and obviously using an outline of ‘talking points’ provided by some entity who would stand to lose if socialism held sway. You said:

    “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.”

    Ironically, the rants I’ve heard against socialism have come from people who are not rich. It doesn’t make sense. The brainwashing techniques of the anti-socialism elements seem to be quite good.

    Anyway, nice work, Paul.


    1. I didn’t realize that everyone was rich in socialist nations?! Possibly, poor people don’t want socialism, since they know that they too will be made to share what little they have left. Socialism never worked, and it will never work, without a bunch of law enforcement to force everyone into compliance.


      1. In 2016, the top ten countries with the highest standards of living in the world were:

        1) Finland
        2) Canada
        3) Denmark
        4) Australia
        5) Switzerland
        6) Sweden
        7) Norway
        8) Netherlands
        9) United Kingdom
        10) Iceland.

        Of the ten countries, seven appear on a 2012 list of the ten most socialists countries in the world.

        There is no pure socialist country or economy in the world today, just as there is no pure capitalist country or economy. All countries have a mixed economy with varying degrees of capitalism and socialism. The real issue for most of the world isn’t whether we should have a pure socialist or a pure capitalist economy, but the optimal mix is. To say “socialism doesn’t work” strikes me as naive since it’s currently working to one degree or another in virtually every functional country on earth — just as capitalism is — with the exception of hellholes like Somalia.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Who formulated this list and what was the criteria, also, how transparent is the study? It seems that these types of lists are used to confuse and push, rather than discuss the good or the bad, also the good or the bad, are usually factors that are personal and cannot be made national without foreign intervention.


      3. The list of countries with the highest standards of living was compiled by the World Economic Forum. It is a Swiss non-profit organization which describes itself as “independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests.” However, it has been criticized as being beholden to capitalist interests.

        In addition to the link I provided in my comment above, Wiki has an article on them here.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Thank you for providing the link. So, it’s a gathering of the world’s richest and most influential people in a mountain top villa, where the public is not welcomed. Sounds like a gathering of Bond villains, more than anything else. I don’t mean to be tongue-in-cheek. But why would’ these people simply open their own wallets to fix things? They would rather steer the world to their own agenda and spend everyone else’s money than their own. I could be mistaken, but why would we blindly trust any group that meets secretly and doesn’t fully disclose their ultimate goal? Why couldn’t they simply spend their own money to fix what they think are the problems?

        Meanwhile, they have their hand on the wheel and in the proverbial cookie jar. They continue to get richer and the problems of the world continue to happen? I wonder why that is? Is it because, if there were no problems, then there would be no work to do or money to make? Philanthropy seems to be big business today. Not for profit is in the same category as well. Seems like the business model of global domination is the Catholic Church and the Vatican City.


    2. Carla, here are some interesting statistics for you. According to a report in Forbes, the top ten happiest countries in the world in 2018 are:

      1) Finland
      2) Norway
      3) Denmark
      4) Iceland
      5) Switzerland
      6) The Netherlands
      7) Canada
      8) New Zealand
      9) Sweden
      10) Australia.

      Meanwhile, according to a 2012 study (the most recent I could find), of the top ten socialist countries in the world, eight were among the happiest in 2018:

      1) China
      2) Denmark
      3) Finland
      4) Netherlands
      5) Canada
      6) Sweden
      7) Norway
      8) Ireland
      9) New Zealand
      10) Belgium

      Last, the 2018 Index of Economic Freedom lists six of the most socialist countries in 2012 as having greater economic freedom that the US (Ranked 18th in the world). Those six and their rankings are:

      New Zealand (3)
      Canada (9)
      Iceland (11)
      Denmark (12)
      Sweden (15)
      The Netherlands (17)

      That last statistic should caution any thinking person against blindly swallowing the notion that socialist countries all have heavily controlled economies that offer little or no incentive for the formation of private businesses. The Index of Economic Freedom, by the way, is published by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. The first problem with socialism is people and human behavior. For socialism to succeed there can be no people, people as corrupt and people are greedy. Socialism is generally the first step towards fascism or communism, since socialism by itself never works, and those who champion socialism, never see themselves actually working for the state, they like to see themselves high in chain, delegating down, rather than working themselves.

    If anyone wants to fix the gap between rich and poor, one must simply pay more in taxes, or happily give their money away to those they assume are poor. I wonder what poor means in America, does a poor person not have a smart phone? Does a poor person not have enough money for insurance? It would seem to me, that the most controlled group of people in America (those who live on government assistance) are the poorest. How could that be, since the government is supposed to help us? Because the government is filled with people. As well, the government does not make any person rich, except for high level ones.

    Socialist countries and nations also have the highest prison populations, since the welfare of the state is placed over the welfare of the individual. People are disposable in the socialist arena. Socialism, it seems that those who have never actually lived in a socialist country are the ones who want one. There are plenty of countries around the world, yet no one ever gets on a plane to check it out for themselves.

    There are no freedoms in socialist countries, since the state is of utmost importance, whereas the individual merely a cog in the machine. It’s easy to read books about what the core of socialism is or what it could be, but it has never worked and it never will, since people are corrupt or corruptible.

    At least, with capitalism, if you want to donate your own money you can. Why else would billions of people want to come to America? Are they fleeing socialist countries?


    1. I actually don’t recognize anything like socialism in your remarks. I think you might be more thinking of communism, than socialism. But I’m not here to convert you to my views, and you’re more than welcome to state yours.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Since socialism puts the welfare of the state over the people, in any socialist country, is there freedom of speech, expression or press? In practically all socialist countries, you can be imprisoned or fined for stating certain things that disparage the socialist narrative. In Germany you can be arrested for making a Nazi salute in public. Speaking of which, Nazi stands for National Socialist. There is no country that is pure socialist, because in order for socialism to become law, communism or fascism must take hold, or else socialism cannot exist. Socialism only works with willing participants.

        In capitalist nations, groups of people can and do participate in socialism; however; in socialist nations, no one can legally participate willfully in a capitalist community. The hippie communes are the perfect example of this. There are no hippie communes in socialist nations, only in capitalist nations do they exist.

        Socialism has killed more in the last century than any other ideology. How may I ask, can it be made law, without killing even more?


      2. Again, I don’t recognize your description of socialist countries as applying to what I consider socialist countries, with the possible exception of China — a country I regard as an outlier practicing communism more than socialism, but which some people regard as socialist.


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