By Nathan Barton
The subject of just what constitutes socialism, and just what about socialism violates both personal liberty for secular people and personal liberty and loving God for followers of Christ Jesus, came up recently in a family discussion.
What IS socialism? There are, a quick check on the internet will show you, dozens of definitions. Lots of other words are thrown about with great abandon: collective, public control, government… whoa! Government?
There seems to be a fairly common theme that socialism can be either merely “collective” (or public) control OR government control.
Gee, I’ll have to come up with my own general definition. Let me see…
Socialism is a system in which the means of production and distribution of goods and services are shared (both ownership AND management) by a group, a collection of people. Sometimes, governments claim to be that collection, or to represent them.
Okay (now that I’ve set up my strawman), can socialism be “good” for us? For a society, part of a society, families, individuals, etc.? What is “good” – I mean moral: having liberty, peace, and prosperity, or at least the potential to readily have these things.
Well, ANYthing that is controlled by government is (my opinion, here, and strongly held) is de facto dangerous and bad. The problem is, of course, mandatory government. The use of aggressive force: the ability to make people do what you (or someone) wants them to do. Your liberty is directly inverse to the power of government, and if you give government control (whether there is “ownership” or not) of production and distribution of goods and services, you give government incredible power. Liberty therefore goes away. And government, especially as it grows in power, results in LESS peace and LESS prosperity. Usually quickly.
So what kind of “non-government” but collective ownership and control of the “means” is possible?
We can have voluntary associations of people, can’t we? Whether of consumers or producers or both. Everyone jointly owns and at least has some control over whatever it is. “All things are held in common” is one way of doing it. Or “certain things are held in common.” We have real-world examples: consider rural electrical and telephone cooperatives. And consider cooperative farms and ranches and even grocery stores. Consider non-governmental libraries and museums run by historical societies. Many people will even recognize names of some of these sorts of things: Ocean Spray is a cooperative of cranberry growers. Farmland Industries (the “double-circle Co-op” folks) is both a producer (grain, livestock, etc.) AND a consumer (farm supplies, fuels, etc.) entity. Associated Grocers (AG) is/was a cooperative that provided goods and services to its member grocery stores. And so on.
Even when these cooperatives are tainted by governmental involvement (example, Rural Electric Cooperatives were largely financed by government agencies), these are both socialistic AND certainly better than government. Provided that government does not come in and interfere. And provided there is not a monopoly.
What else? We also have churches. Back in First Century Jerusalem, the Book of Acts tells us that the Jerusalem church shared all things in common: those who had possessions sold them and gave the money to the apostles so that all, including those who never had possessions AND those who no longer did, could share. Although there is nothing to indicate that the church then actually owned and operated businesses or manufacturing or provided services (other than serving meals eaten together), this has been used as a supposed model for nearly 2000 years. Various efforts, including monasteries and convents, entire colonies (example, Mennonite and Hutterite communities), and such have been established and many run for centuries as socialist communities where all things were held in common, including means of production. This is found today in many places, including (and not least) with LDS institutions such as ZCMI (Zion Cooperative Merchantile Institution, a chain of department stores) and IFA (Intermountain Farmers Association, an ag cooperative). Mostly these are voluntary groupings.
No doubt there are other sectors and types of socialism on a small, voluntary scale, from hippie communes to hobo jungles to extended families.
Although many of these DO come a cropper sooner or later, they seem to have the potential to be good overall. However, there seems to be a direct relationship between good (and potential for good) and size.
Which brought us to the second point we discussed. As most readers will know, most economists, historians, and political types say that the Fifty States is a capitalist society and socialism does not exist, except for a few notable exceptions like the Social Security system and Medicare/Medicaid.
We agreed that is completely false. But also that people by and large do not realize just how much of our society and economy are socialist in nature. Here are just a few more obvious ones:
- Education: the government-run, tax-funded (public schools) are a huge example of socialism; education is a service.
- Highways: transportation is a service, and roads, streets, and highways are a product.
- Much of the tourism and recreation industry: national and state parks, national forests, reservoirs and beaches and the like are often (usually) government-owned.
But as we continued to discuss it (it was a long trip), we added these (less obvious):
- Utilities: many utilities including power, water, sewer, communications, and even trash collection and disposal are owned by various agencies, from the Tennessee Valley Authority and Western Area Power Administration (TVA and WAPA) to small towns and special districts.
- Defense and police: Yes, even these (or especially these) are forms of socialism: defense and protection from/response to crime are services. Ditto for fire protection and emergency medical services.
- Housing projects: including military and reservation housing as well as the low-income and many retired communities.
Even when provided by private companies under government contract, these are sill socialist in nature.
We are NOT a “mixed economy” at all. The Fifty States have a socialist economic structure with a shrinking private sector.
We concluded it is NOT a pretty picture. It is possible to have socialism, on a voluntary and small scale (the hippie commune, the local church colony) but on any significant scale, and almost always when government is involved in any way, it is a disaster.
What do you think?
Mama’s Note: The key difference, regardless of size, is self ownership and voluntary association. Any organization can be called a “government,” so the difference is in whether membership is voluntary or not.
Any form of social organization can possibly be beneficial to the voluntary members. And any form can be detrimental to both willing members and others if the organization (members and leadership) indulges in any form of aggression.