What is socialism?

 by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems socialism was a big issue for some voters in the 2020 election, particularly in Florida.

For example, in a Nov. 17, 2020, article New York Magazine recounted the following:

“It was a McCarthyism type of pounding,” said Congresswoman Donna Shalala, looking back on the election she narrowly lost this month. Shalala had spent eight years serving in the Cabinet of Bill Clinton, the paragon of Democratic moderates, but by the end of her reelection campaign, she told Intelligencerpeople were coming up to her and saying, “You’re a communist.”

The smears relied heavily on lies, and on linking to the few people who caucus with the Democrats who embrace the socialist label, such as independent Bernie Sanders, a senator for Vermont, and  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected to congress on the Democratic ticket in New York.

Part of the problem here is that socialism means different things to different people. From that New York Magazine article

As Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida-based Republican consultant, put it: “Socialism broadly speaking in the United States is a bad brand. In Florida, it is a horrific brand.” Wilson, who is now a leading “never Trump” voice through his perch at the Lincoln Project, noted that to south Florida Hispanic voters “socialism isn’t universal health care and day care, socialism was secret police knocking at their door and shooting a family member in the head.”

Wikipedia, that voice of consensus knowledge, says that socialism is characterized by social ownership of the means of production. This was most famously carried out in the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes, but the Fabian socialists associated with the Labour Party in the United Kingdom also advocated social ownership of the means of production, producing a National Health Service, nationalized coal industry, steel industry, and other industries. Most of their program produced terrible results, but the NHS is well loved, and produces results comparable to the American medical system at a fraction of the cost.

Social Democrats have embraced democracy, and in general have been more inclined to advocate for a social safety net without wanting to nationalize the whole economy. There is a huge difference between a Labour government in Britain or a social democratic one in Denmark and the sort of socialist government found in Cuba and Venezuela.

Social Democrats and Fabian socialists have embraced democracy, believing that their ideas would sell themselves to people once they saw them in action. When they failed to produce results, they were voted out of office, but some of what they did remained. No Conservative government has been able to privatize the NHS, though Margaret Thatcher did manage to privatize the coal and steel industries, where the socialist experiment had failed badly.

We actually know a great deal about what goods are best handled by markets and what goods are naturally public goods. Even the most radical of our elected conservatives would probably not advocate privatizing the military and having everyone hire their own mercenaries to prevent their turf from being invaded. The military is insurance against invasion, and the peace it ensures within those borders is not something you can easily exclude people from if they don't want to buy it. People are therefore not required to buy that peace in order to enjoy it, so markets are not practical as a means to deliver it.

But the rhetorical use of the term 'socialist' goes well beyond social ownership. For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation came up with a market-based system for reforming the provision of health insurance, and the Republicans adopted it in opposition to the Clinton administration's proposal for a reform based on having employers provide the insurance. Years later, President Barak Obama used that plan as the basis for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Republicans denounced it as 'socialist,' although it did not involve nationalizing anything, it was just a way of changing the incentives in the market for health insurance. The ACA also gave states the option of expanding Medicaid, a program for government payment of medical bills for those who cannot afford medical care. In states that have not availed themselves of this provision, hospitals absorb the cost and pay for it by raising prices on everyone else.

Most nations, in the end, have public and private sectors, and there is not much controversy about it. People drive on public roads and stand on sidewalks paid for with taxes while protesting against socialism. Few of them would prefer police departments be disbanded so that we could all hire our own guards. At the moment, Medicare seems sacrosanct, although conservatives claimed it was socialist before it became the law of the land.

In a 1965 speech, Ronald Reagan said, “[I]f you don’t [stop Medicare] and I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Providing medical insurance to the elderly was not profitable. Retired people tend to have less money than working people, and old people tend to have more expensive medical needs than a younger population. Yet Americans found it unconscionable to have people dying prematurely because they couldn't buy health insurance or pay for care out of pocket or afford expensive medical insurance.

Does one become more free or less free with the provision of Medicare? If you are not wealthy, surely Medicare makes you more free, as you can get your ills treated sufficiently to go about life in a normal fashion, rather than be bound to your bed by debilitating disease. Certainly Medicare is sufficiently popular that it would be difficult to reverse the policy based on the ideological argument that it is socialism. The other problem with this argument is that Medicare isn't socialism. Medicare owns no hospitals. It is a subsidy to those in need, not an effort to take over the means of production.

Sen. Mitch McConnel, leader of the Republican faction in the U.S. Senate, called the part of President Joe Biden's covid-19 relief plan providing for $1,400 checks sent to all taxpayers socialism. He did not call the $600 checks Republicans had voted to send the same people socialism, and he didn't call former president Donald Trump's call for the checks to be $2,000 instead of $600 socialism, but then when President Biden decided to pursue the same policy Trump advocated by topping up the amount so it would total $2,000, McConnel decided it was socialism.

This definition of socialism, then, means that socialism occurs when Democrats try to use government to help those not already wealthy and powerful. The same policies, when proposed by Republicans, are not socialism. By using the term this way, Republicans have a rhetorical cudgel they can use to claim that those who, for example, support higher funding for Medicare, are equivalent to violent, oppressive regimes along the lines of the one now ruling Venezuela.