We know that many Americans – even some friends and neighbors – love the idea of socialism. We know that others fear, hate, and oppose socialism. How does that fit in with the ideal of liberty? Of living free?
But what is socialism? When you ask people what is it, you get all kinds of answers. And all kinds of reasons for their advocacy for or against it. Let’s take a few minutes and see if we can sort this out and understand how it impacts our liberty and our freedoms.
Dictionary definitions (as always, with a grain of salt – or a full canister!)
American Heritage provides these definitions:
- Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
- The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which the means of production are collectively owned but a completely classless society has not yet been achieved.
- Specifically, in Germany, legislation, supported by Prince Bismarck, intended to improve the condition of the working-man. Among the measures included were the insurance of workmen against accident, sickness, and old age, and the establishment of cooperative associations under state protection.
Merriam-Webster has a less complex definition: A way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.
Dear Wikipedia has this: Socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and democratic control, such as workers’ self-management of enterprises. It includes the political theories and movements associated with such systems. Social ownership can be public, collective, cooperative, or of equity.
Questions, questions, and questions! There are, of course, many more. But this may be enough for our purpose of relating socialism, liberty, and freedom. But here are some questions that we can ask:
- Is a cooperative association a form of socialism? It is collective ownership (by consumer-members) of producing and distributing goods.
- What about SERVICES in addition to goods?
- Is ownership ONLY by a centralized government? How centralized? Is a state or county or municipality a centralized government? Or can it be?
- How can a government own the means of production and distribution and NOT plan and control the economy?
- How MUCH of the means of production, distribution (and provision of services) is it necessary for government(s) to own to make it socialism? Is “some” enough to brand it “socialism?”
- Can we ignore the Marxist-Leninist definition (as perhaps we wish to ignore ALL definitions and theories of Marxist-Leninism)?
- What does Germany – especially 19th Century Imperial Germany – have to do with defining socialism in the States in 2021?
Now, that last question may seem unimportant, but look at what is specifically mentioned? The measures include “insurance of workmen against accident, sickness, and old age, and the establishment of cooperative associations under state protection.” That is, in modern American terms, Workers Compensation (mandated by most States), Supplemental Social Security (for sickness and disabilities), regular Social Security and Medicare (old-age), the special federal (and state) protections for cooperatives and unions – including but not limited to rural electric cooperatives, farmers’ cooperatives, and telecommunications co-ops, and labor unions and professional societies.
ALL of these things have existed since the FDR “New Deal” regime of the 1930s, furthered by the LBJ “Great Society” regime of the 1960s, and reinforced by such as Nixon, Carter, Clinton, Obama, and the Bushes. And in no way weakened (despite propaganda claims to the contrary) by the likes of Reagan or Trump.
Clearly Bismarck would have included “services” in his understanding: providing medical services for example. And all communist regimes (who all claim to be socialist, according to Marxist theory: communism in really the perfect end-state which none of them have ever really achieved) have treated it that way. Bismarck didn’t specify government control (as most of the other definitions do) but his “government protection” is just a euphemism as we have seen in the Third Reich and its modern successors. Call it a welfare state – it is still a type of socialism right up to Frau Merkel’s replacement.
But there are many other services that fall into this category. And it begs yet another question: can states, counties, or municipalities be “socialist” even though their higher levels of government are NOT? (And I suppose, the opposite as well: can a “federal” (central) government be socialist and lower levels of government NOT be socialist?)
Just to be clear, I’m speaking of mandatory government – NOT voluntary organizations where people can easily refuse to submit and are not forced to participate. (Note that even some “voluntary” and “non-governmental” associations are de facto mandatory government. Try breaking the bylaws of many “homeowners associations” or trying to buy electricity from some other source than your consumer-owned rural electrical cooperative. Or refuse to join the union in a “union shop” many places.
I’ve got lots of questions, but not too many answers, at least for now. What do you think? We’ll get into the impact of socialism on liberty in the next part.