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Life Changing Socialism Is Not Idle Political Chatter

(Alexandru Ionas-salagean/Dreamstime)

Wednesday, 03 April 2019 10:52 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Donald Trump, who has remained in campaign mode during his entire presidency, recently gave us an interesting preview of his strategy for getting re-elected. In his State of the Union address, he raised the specter of "socialism":

"Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight we resolve that America will never be a socialist country."

If "socialism" will be an issue in 2020, we should devote some thought to just what that term actually means. Although campaigns are full of hot air, they are a serious business.

As W.S. Gilbert noted in one of his comic operas, "Patience," "The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter." Campaign references to "socialism" are not idle chatter.

Words often have more than one meaning, and determining the sense in which people are using an ambiguous word requires examining it in context. Both Jimmy Carter and Joseph Stalin were Georgians, but they weren't from the same place.

Carter's Georgia was an American state, while Stalin's was a part of the U.S.S.R. If someone claims that, like Stalin, Jimmy Carter must be bad because he, too, was from Georgia, we would consider that person an idiot.

For U.S.S.R. leaders like Lenin and Stalin, "socialism" meant a transitional stage between capitalism and communism and was described as a "dictatorship of the proletariat." The Soviet Union — which never claimed to have arrived at full communism — was a genuine dictatorship. But it was a dictatorship of a few individuals claiming to act in the interests of the proletarian workers and not allowing free elections to test that claim. The Soviet regime was highly coercive, treating people harshly and arbitrarily.

But "socialism" had a different meaning when used by the socialist parties of Western Europe after World War II. These parties sought more government ownership of major industries or more governmental regulation of private enterprise, more government services to the public, and higher taxes to pay for them. They did not consider socialism to be a transitional stage and they were fully democratic. People could contest their policies in free elections and, when they lost elections, these socialists stepped down.

People proclaiming themselves socialists today may be of either type. The Venezuelan regime, for example, is headed by Nicolas Maduro of the United Socialist Party. Its leaders being unwilling to lose an election, Venezuela isn't democratic. And these leaders have destroyed the country's economy. But the socialists in the Scandinavian countries, which have thriving economies, and other parts of Europe are clearly not in the Stalinist mold.

Some Democrats contending for the presidential nomination claim to be "socialists." But they clearly are not socialists in the Stalinist or Venezuelan sense. Attempts to link their proposals to socialism in the latter sense are little more than a smear and need not be taken seriously.

Still, we need to ask whether even non-Stalinist socialism is a good idea. There are nuances here. Socialism is a terrible way to organize an entire economy. It maximizes government's power to make arbitrary economic decisions that are all too similar to the "crony capitalism" that many of us object to. But socialism might be an excellent way to organize parts of an otherwise free market economy.

A part of the economy where "socialism" could make sense might be medical insurance. Insurance inherently socializes — spreads around — risk rather than concentrating it on a few unlucky people who become seriously ill or whose houses burn down. In return for premiums or taxes paid by everyone, all individuals are protected from devastating losses that can hit people rather randomly.

"Socialized medicine" is an ambiguous expression.

It doesn't specify whether government will operate doctors' offices and hospitals, or whether it will only provide insurance, leaving delivery of medical services in private hands.

When government agencies provide medical treatment — England, the Veterans Administration — it hasn't always worked well. Our current Medicare program, which provides insurance for people who mostly are treated by private doctors and hospitals, is probably a better idea. Today's Medicare-for-geezers works well, minimizes administrative costs, and provides a plausible model for a more comprehensive and universal system, Medicare-for-all.

Americans should not allow politicians to derail consideration of governmentally provided insurance just by labeling it "socialized medicine." We should consider alternative public and private approaches to insurance in terms of their relative advantages and disadvantages, their costs and benefits, before deciding what to do.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Socialism is a terrible way to organize an economy. It maximizes government's power to make arbitrary economic decisions that are all too similar to the "crony capitalism" that many of us object to. But socialism might be an excellent way to organize parts of an economy.
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Wednesday, 03 April 2019 10:52 AM
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