Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Socialist Question

I have a question for my political opposites that have found their way to my blog. This is an honest question, one that I hope will be honestly answered.

For some reason using the term "socialist" really upsets a lot of people, and I don't understand why. I have no qualms with being called a capitalist because that's what I am, that's the kind of economic system in which I believe. I think a capitalistic society creates the most peace and prosperity for the most amount of people, above and beyond any other type of system. I believe that it goes with the grain of human nature and allows anyone, with enough hard work, to be prosperous and successful.

So why the angry reactions and defenses against being called a socialist? I realize there is also something called "social democracy" and "social interventionism" and I know some of my progressive friends insist that they are social democrats rather than socialists, but both of these systems are derived from pure socialism.

I would really love to get some feedback on this question, hopefully in a way that can be discussed rather than ranting and raving. Please help me understand where you are coming from.

Update: One more question - if you are a supporter of a more robust federal government and federally funded entitlement programs, why do you care if I want to help the needy by giving money and time directly to a local community/charitable organization? I don't understand the anger that exists towards people like me who would rather give directly to the needy instead of handing over money to an inefficient, wasteful, slow, frequently corrupt bureaucracy. Again, help me to understand where you are coming from.


  1. LB, do you seriously think that there can be intelligent discussion on this matter? The folks that believe in socialism do not even understand how PROFIT works and think that it is bad.

    How do you reason with them?

  2. I'm an Independent whose closer to Libertarians than anything else but I think it has to do with the stigma associated with Socialism in the past. Look at this list of Socialist countries, past and present:


    Almost all of them are associated with horrendous poverty and/or human rights abuses. I wouldn't want to be associated with those nations either.

    The thing about Socialism is, it's beguiling. The promise of equal distribution for all people with no poor and everybody on the same level as everybody else.

    The problem is, as you say, human nature. First, the leaders in a Socialist environment have every incentive to abuse their power and they do. Second, humans perform at different levels and it goes against human nature to see your efforts be taken away. It just doesn't seem (and isn't) just.

    That said, I am interested to see what socialists say about this.

  3. I think that Paul's comment comes close to summing it up: that "socialism" is used as a pejorative label instead of a meaningful concept. It's the same complaint that you (should) have about people using the word "capitalist" as a term of slander rather than one representing a concept. Basically, people are using too broad a brush with these and other meaningful terms: they are using a different definition.

    In fact, you are almost doing the same kind of language subversion when you say that social democracy is "...derived from pure socialism." What you have done here (perhaps unintentionally) is to say the social democracy ONLY comes from socialism, that it DOESN'T ALSO come from democracy. Effectively, that there's no way to get there except from socialism. Does it really matter where it comes from? I'm not saying that context isn't important, but I think this exemplifies how a concept (in this case social democracy) can -- and often is -- subverted by its use and ofter for a particular purpose.

  4. 1. I think the sensitivity around the label "socialism" is a specifically a US phenomenon which was inherited from the Cold War and the common misguided equivalence between Communism and Socialism that originated then. Liberty Belle is right that "socialist" is technically a correct way of describing social democrats (who are a subset of the socialist political spectrum) but most social democrats in the US may be concerned that 1) the "socialist" label may be taken to imply no support for market mechanisms or private accumulation of wealth at all, when they in fact support some kind of a mixed economy society that includes such as primary characteristics and 2) the "socialist" label rhetorically brings back Cold War style cultural polarization and demonizing

    2) Liberals of course support private voluntarism and philanthropy towards good causes but do not believe that such private charitable efforts can be anywhere near sufficient to address the problems of the needy (the evidence being the historical experience of poverty under industrial capitalism before the emergence of mixed economy governments with social insurance programs). It is not clear to them that private efforts are reliably and consistently more effective or efficient than government efforts (which can have the force of law) either.

  5. Note that the wikipedia list of socialist countries in the post by m (not m's fault - wikipedia is notoriously sketchy of course) does not include any of the social democratic countries commonly cited as admirable government/economy models by liberals in the US today e.g. Germany, France and Scandanavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden etc.

  6. If by 'Socialist' you mean someone who tries to be a voice for and empower the working class, then sure why would anyone get upset with that label? However if the definition of a 'Socialist' is a person who believes individual rights and personal growth are subservient to the state. . .

    Regarding point 2, try this experiment: Imagine it's 2003-4 and a Congressman who strongly supports the Iraq war is having a town hall meeting. A constituent holds up a $20 bill saying she doesn't want her tax dollars paying for this war. If the government truly believes the war is just, the Congressman should come and physically take that money to pay for the war. Does anyone have feelings of anger towards this hypothetical anti-war protestor?

  7. A socialist is presumably someone who would like for the country to be run under socialism. Definition of "socialism":
    1. a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.
    2. procedure or practice in accordance with this theory.
    3. (in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.

    If I don't want the ownership and control of the means of production to be vested in the community as a whole, then even if I want some part of the distribution of goods to be done by the government, I fail the definition of socialist because I do not meet all the requirements.

    I recommend that each time you use the word socialist about someone, you point out where she meets the definition, and you'll have many fewer protests of your use of the term. Of course, you'll probably be able to use it a lot less because there aren't many people who want ownership and control of the means of production and distribution to be vested in the government. For example, someone who supports the health care legislation still wants private hospitals, private practice physicians, private insurance, etc.

    One way to bridge that gap would be to refer to people who want the government to have some control over the means of distribution as "quasi-socialists" or as "mixed-economy advocates." What we have had in the United States for many decades, with government having some control over the distribution of resources, is a mixed economy.

    But really, once you allow for the government to engage in any of the distribution of resources, you're engaging in *some* degree of socialism. So if you follow a one-drop rule, then any advocacy for any role of government in the production or distribution of resources makes one a "socialist."

    I look forward to your movement's making plain that it opposes every form of government distribution of resources: public schools (which have existed since Colonial days); unemployment benefits; Medicare; Medicaid and CHIP; Social Security; etc. When that stance becomes highly publicized, I doubt so many people will support something they perceive as detrimental to their own interests.

  8. My definition of socialism is: the government doing something that private enterprise is willing and able to do. Thus, if President Obama nationalized Burger King and McDonald's, that would, without question, be socialism. Private industry is willing and able to provide us with fast food. But, we don't usually apply the term socialism to activities that the government undertakes when private enterprise is either unwilling or unable to undertake these activities. We do not call the Apollo Mission socialism. Neither Pan Am nor People Express indicated the slightest interest in opening a passenger route to the moon; and they lacked the resources to do it anyway. (And I don't know too many people who would have bought a ticket on the People Express Moonliner.)

    By this definition, President Obama's effort to extend health coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans is not socialism. These people are uninsured precisely because private enterprise is unwilling or unable to insure them.

    I also want to remark that the question of whether an activity of the part of the government is socialism becomes sterile when the need for government action is great. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have estimated that 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of health insurance. These are women who aren't getting Pap smears, men who aren't getting PSA tests, people whose blood pressure or diabetes are going untreated, as so on. That number is 15 times the death toll of 9/11, and it is repeated every year. I don't particularly care whether extending health coverage to save the lives of 45,000 of my fellow Americans, every year, is socialism; but if it is, I am, to that extent, an unapologetic "socialist".

  9. Perhaps there is anger in the fact that your self created profile says the following.

    "I will not allow corrupt socialists and communists to infect this country without a hard, hard fight."

    You are the very same as the people who you accuse of being angry name callers. If that is your starting point for a debate, there is no sense in debating.

    I agree with an earlier post. I want my money back from those who feel it is in the best interest of the America to kill people in other countries and I will give it to somebody in America who wants to live, but does not have health care.

  10. I'll take a stab. When you--and many Americans--use socialist you use it as an epithet to compare left-leaning people to Soviet Union, Khmer Rouge, Mao's China and other brutal regimes. If socialism in the U.S. evoked Western Europe's social democracies then maybe more people would accept the term.

    But, the real problem is you use the term "socialist" to describe people who fall on the political spectrum in about the same place that center-right European parties fall. That is, people who support a state welfare safety net, who like non-profits and understand that market forces are good things for efficiency but don't think that markets alone create solutions to social problems.

  11. I am impressed with how articulate you are so I am disappointed when you use words intentionally to mislead through over generalization. I see no value in using terms like socialism and capitalism. They are masks to hide behind or place other people in. Be specific or I'm going to stop listening to you and write you off as just another sound bite abuser.

  12. Very interesting comments, well-reasoned and rational. No partisan hate.

    My compliments to you all.

  13. The reason liberals hate being called socialists is because the full name of the Nazi's was THE NATIONAL SOCIALIST GERMAN WORKERS PARTY. What else needs to be said?

  14. I actually had a longer reply, but, in retrospect, I only have this...especially after the Nazi comment kind of sunk in a bit.(Godwin's Law has been invoked, this thread is now doomed.)

    Honestly...do you seriously care about why "they" get upset? I mean, really? You're the gosh-darn adorable patron saint of one of the newest facets of the Right in the ongoing culture/class war that is modern-day America. Note use of terms. War. it ain't like we're all gonna be snuggle buddies once it starts getting REALLY ugly.


    It already has.

    Be seeing you!

  15. Anonymous who said, 'Perhaps there is anger in the fact that your self created profile says the following. "I will not allow corrupt socialists and communists to infect this country without a hard, hard fight." You are the very same as the people who you accuse of being angry name callers. If that is your starting point for a debate, there is no sense in debating.'

    Such rhetoric is not about debate. It's about fear as a fund-raising tool. You can't get people in a recession to turn over their scarce dollars (or even the time they need to spend job-hunting and surviving) to your political cause if your opponents are merely people who disagree in good faith about the best solutions for problems. You must turn those opponents into cartoon villains, whether by using literal cartoons or by generalizing them all as "corrupt socialists and communists" who are not even people, but an "infection." You must get people to stop thinking through arguments and to emote. The desired result: a literal rise of bile in the throats of your targets when they just see or hear Obama, Pelosi, et al. An automatic "God help us all!" at the expression, however polite, of a different viewpoint than their own, and a refusal to engage that viewpoint beyond the plea for divine intervention to stop it.

  16. New reader here; I would love to hear some discussion on Jesse Fell's comment (particularly by Liberty Belle)- it struck me and i'd like to hear some back and forth regarding his definition of socialism.

  17. Just wanted to clear up some facts Jesse Fell uses concerning those 45,000 people who die every year due to lack of health insurance. That study by it's own admission asked the participants at the start in 1988 if they had health insurance or not. They then checked on 12/31/2000 whether they were dead or alive. There was no attempt to find out if they acquired insurance in the interim or why they had died. They just used the fact that they were uninsured to start with and since they were dead in 2000 it had to be because they were uninsured in 1988. Seems like a pretty flawed study to me.

  18. Bill H. Let's assume that some of the people who were uninsured in 1988 had health insurance at least part of the time between then and 2000. Still, this group had a much higher mortality rate than the general population. Doesn't that indicate that being even intermittently uninsured for a twelve year period increases your chance of death from medical causes? And let's assume that some of the deaths in this group came about from accidents. Is there any reason to suppose that the people in the 1988 group were more likely to die in, say, traffic accidents, than other people? The Harvard Medical School study is not the first to conclude that lack of health insurance results in the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans every year. And these deaths are not acts of God. They happen because we have not cared enough to do something about it.

  19. The study and its conclusions were a tad more complicated than Bill H understands them. From a summary:

    Objectives. A 1993 study found a 25% higher risk of death among uninsured compared with privately insured adults. We analyzed the relationship between uninsurance and death with more recent data.
    Methods. We conducted a survival analysis with data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. We analyzed participants aged 17 to 64 years to determine whether uninsurance at the time of interview predicted death.
    Results. Among all participants, 3.1% (95% confidence interval [CI]=2.5%, 3.7%) died. The hazard ratio for mortality among the uninsured compared with the insured, with adjustment for age and gender only, was 1.80 (95% CI=1.44,
    2.26). After additional adjustment for race/ ethnicity, income, education, self- and
    physician-rated health status, body mass index, leisure exercise, smoking, and regular alcohol use, the uninsured were more likely to die (hazard ratio=1.40; 95% CI=1.06, 1.84) than those with insurance.
    Conclusions. Uninsurance is associated with mortality. The strength of that association appears similar to that from a study that evaluated data from the mid-1980s, despite changes in medical therapeutics and the demography of the uninsured since that time.

  20. Thanks for the insight Bill.
    Another thing that is not talked about much is incentives. Humans respond to incentives that is why we have the best health care system in the world and that just about everybody who is sick can get care right away unless they live way out in the boonies.
    So if we allow the government to further distort the incentives for the delivery of health care services do people really think that humans are going to respond differently than humans have always responded?
    The real solution is to provide the proper incentives which will produce more and fairer competition. Paul Ryan talked about this at the health care summitt and in the WSJ a couple days ago.
    Obama and his gang do not understand incentives just like all socialists. They think they know best and history is full of the carnage of that type of thinking.

  21. I am neither pro socialism nor capitalism. That said there is a legitimately rational basis for socialism. Most on the political right in the U.S. advocate for laissez-faire capitalism, but Adam Smith's version of capitalism which advocated for this relied on the premise that demand is always greater than supply. Smith died before the industrial revolution which gave humankind the ability to produce more than demand. This destroyed Smith's guiding hand principle and began a bust and boom cycle. At this point every nation on the planet intervened in economic affairs to one extent or another. In a general sense that means every nation on earth is either fascist, socialist, or both. Today true capitalism does not exist anywhere on the planet. The U.S. has adopted some fascist ideas such as our current military industrial complex as well as some socialist ideas such as medicare. The only political theory that does not include heavily centralized government intervention is syndicalism, but the only period this was ever practiced was during revolutionary Spain before a military dictatorship overthrew the republic. In a syndicalist system industry is controlled directly by the workers. In such a system the workers are the only voting shareholders. They may, for example, elect the board of directors and make labor unions unnecessary. Currently the authoritarian styles of government we have today are far from embracing syndicalism. Therefore it is probably more prudent to accept that socialism is a reality, improve it's effectiveness, and fight against authoritarian tendencies in the government. The tea party movement has some good and some bad ideas as does the progressive left. Our best ideas are those which we have common ground.

  22. I identify myself as pro-freedom, pro-science, pro-America, and pro-diplomacy. It’s also fair to say that I would count as one of Liberty Belle’s political opposites.

    I don’t consider myself a socialist, primarily because I reject establishment of a command-based economy. But I certainly do favor the use of taxes to fund national infrastructure development – from road building to basic research – as well as to fund universal access to critical human needs – including education and health care.

    I take a “sticks and stones” attitude to the cartoon demons that so-called "conservatives" set up as scary bogeymen. Not long ago liberals were portrayed as villains. Now it’s socialists. Just tag your opponent with the fashionable pejorative and you don’t have to think anymore.

    Unfortunately lots of people seem to fall for this emotion-driven way of thinking. It may be easier to make quick decisions by acting on the basis of hate and fear, but that tends to degrade the quality of the outcome. Bogeyman politics has limited our ability to have a sober, productive debate about how we prioritize our needs and wants, and how we then go about advancing our rightful interests.

  23. I find it extremely interesting to compare Marx's theory of the inevitable socialist uprising, and what is occurring in our politics at the moment. Marx wrote in his Communist Manifesto that the proletarian would revolt and establish a socialist utopia. However, in the U.S., the people that seem most supporting of socialist programs are the representatives on Capitol Hill, who are, quite bluntly, the wealthy.

    Any thoughts?

  24. If history is correct, capitalism will evolve into something more humane than it's present day form. And just to note, most nations of the past whom have engaged in a fatal socialism or communism were not nations that experienced economic evolution. I believe that health care is a human right, and just like I put my money into the basket that comes around my pew, I will put my money into caring for my fellow human beings, that's called pro-life.


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