What is Socialism and Why Should We Fear It?

Published on political affairs pa, by Thomas Kleven, August 3, 2009.

Barack Obama’s opponents regularly charge him with being a socialist and of favoring socialistic measures. There is little or no discussion of what socialism entails. The mere use of the word is enough said. If it’s socialistic, it must be bad – like calling someone an ogre. Even Obama has felt the need to try to deflect the criticism by making fun of it, as during the campaign when he parried the charge that he’s a redistributionist by joking about sharing a sandwich in elementary school. Obama knows full well, though, that the United States already has more than a little socialism, that many of the most fundamental aspects of American life have been socialized to one degree or another. Evidently he fears that, due to the word’s negative connotations, an open discussion of socialism would impede efforts to revitalize the economy, achieve universal health care, etc.  

Why the negative connotation? Because those who oppose socialism don’t care to have a frank discussion of its merits as compared with non-socialistic approaches, and because they have the power to bias the discourse and reduce it to meaningless and pejorative slogans. At this critical moment in the nation’s history, it is positively harmful not to have a frank discussion. We are faced with an economic crisis whose proportions are as yet not fully known. At a minimum, we are in the midst of the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Although most economists seem to think that the risk of descending into another depression has passed, and that at least a modest economic recovery is in sight, the future is still highly uncertain. Prolonged stagnation, with low rates of growth and high unemployment, is one possibility. Another is an even more severe economic crisis some years hence, a crisis that the tools developed since the Great Depression to manage the periodic downturns seemingly endemic to a capitalist economy will be unable to prevent from becoming a depression.

Whatever the future holds in store, it is clear that socialistic measures of some type must and will part of the current recovery effort. They are here already. The bailout plan, the economic stimulus, universal health care – all have socialistic features. Indeed, it is hard even to conceive of a modern mass society without a generous dose of socialism. Consequently, the relevant question is never whether to socialize everything or nothing, nor whether a particular measure is or is not socialistic. Rather, decisions about the merits of the recovery efforts, and of all government programs, should turn on whether they serve society’s well-being and are well suited to address the problem at hand. As long, however, as the merits of some proposal can be undermined simply by labeling it socialistic, it will be difficult rationally to evaluate it and wrong turns are more likely. To get past that, we need an instructive public discussion about socialism so as to clear up misconceptions …

… Moreover, it is not a foregone conclusion that the cars Americans use should be manufactured by American companies. It may be that foreign companies are simply able to produce better cars for less money, and that the resources this society now expends in producing cars would be better spent on other needs. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that that the automobile should remain the principal source of transportation in this society. It may be that public transportation is a more efficient way than the automobile to get where people want to go, and that the savings could be used to provide other goods and services whose benefits outweigh whatever benefits people derive from owning their own cars.

But continued reliance on a privatized automobile industry makes it difficult to consider such options, in part because its untimely demise would cause extreme economic hardship and in part because it would likely use all its political power to maintain its existence even if the public interest would be better served by its demise. On the other hand, government ownership might facilitate a balanced evaluation of the merits of maintaining the automobile industry versus shifting resources elsewhere. And government ownership might facilitate the management of the industry’s closure, if that were deemed appropriate, by enabling the government more readily to control the timing, retrain workers for other jobs, and prepare for the transition.

This is not to say that the nationalization of the financial system and the automobile industry is necessarily the best move. Nationalization too may have its drawbacks if those who tout capitalism are correct that the profit incentive is the best way to promote productivity and supply people’s demands and that government tends to be less efficient than private industry – both of which are contestable points. Rather, my contention is that an anti-socialist bias, based on a lack of understanding of what socialism entails, prejudices the public debate, takes potentially viable options off the table, and risks making unwise moves.

Another arguable risk of nationalization is that it concentrates power in the hands of the government, and that concentrated power can be abused. But the abuse of concentrated power can be problematic in the private sector as well, as the problems confronting our society as a result of the financial meltdown and the automobile industry’s near collapse show. In both instances, in order to prevent the abuse of power, the power of the people is the safeguard we need. We need not fear socialism as long as we remain a democratic society. Indeed, it may be that with more socialism the power of the people will be enhanced, and that we will thereby become even more democratic. (full long text).

(Thomas Kleven is Professor of Law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Houston, TX).

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