A couple of weeks ago I read “A clear definition of socialism” with interest. The day before it appeared a good friend of mine had railed against socialism until I asked, what is it? My friend was certain that socialism is bad, but couldn’t say much about why or even clearly define it. So, I am pleased that the Trinity County State of Jefferson Committee is interested in discussing it. They quoted a dictionary to lay things out, which I also like.
But I find fault with the committee’s piece. “Socialism” is when the government owns most or all of a nation’s economic production. Without naming anyone the committee asserted that many politicians, celebrities, and young people are calling for it in the USA. Not even Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize farms and factories. So, who are they talking about?
The committee also alleged that teachers are a unified liberal cabal who indoctrinate children into un-American thoughts. If that were true (or if the skies were full of mind-control drugs) you’d think there wouldn’t be any individualists in our country, let alone an anti-establishment president in office. It’s a strawman. Furthermore, it insults teachers, who are not all liberal and do their best to set aside politics for the common good.
The committee’s hard evidence of socialism at work in our country today was an item from California’s congressional record almost 60 years ago. The committee implied the document was written by communists, encouraging readers to look into it. So I did. In fact, its author was Cleon Skousen, a conservative conspiracy theorist who wrote fanciful anti-communist propaganda. It was a daydream of what communists supposedly got up to way back when, and it is as irrelevant now as it was in the early Cold War. Likewise, Marx, Stalin, Kruschev, and that lot are long dead. Who still cares about them?
The committee promised details in its next column on the failures of socialism. At the risk of missing the mark, I’d like to rebut some of the talking points I have heard.
Supposedly, socialist countries are failures. Scandanavian countries are a favorite example of the weakness of socialism because their economies have gone through some rough spots. Big deal. If you want to keep score on socialism, do it for capitalism, too. The stock market is at new highs while millions of average Americans and their businesses are suffering terribly. Speaking of which, the Great Depression and Recession happened in a capitalist system. Reckless behavior by the rich and a lack of rational government oversight devastates average people no matter what system it’s in. Meanwhile, governments like the USSR, PRC, and DPRK have been communist in name only. They are actually just crappy authoritarian regimes that no clear-minded American has ever admired.
The U.S. certainly was founded as a capitalist country, but that doesn’t mean the Founders excluded collective institutions. Today these include the military, police and justice, firefighting, roads, mail, sewers, elections, Social Security, and schools. These can be called socialist institutions because on the national, state, or local level they have been removed from the free (capitalist) market and entrusted to collective entities. And thank goodness for it. Twice in the past month firefighters have fought blazes within a mile of my home without demanding payment. I’m also grateful for service to our country and community as soldiers, law-enforcement officers, teachers, and other public servants. Some may want to weaken or even dismantle these institutions because they hate the concept of socialism. But I shudder to imagine what our county and country would look like without them.
I worry that the committee’s philosophy throws the baby out with the bathwater. Balancing the rights of one against the needs of many is fundamental to all forms of government, which is in turn inextricably tied to economic systems. This links discussions of socialism and individualism. State of Jefferson advocates correctly point out that a substantial portion of our founding documents aim to establish individual rights. But these are not absolutes. In fact, the Founders feared runaway individualism as much as tyranny. They knew from experience that the country would disintegrate if citizens or factions became so obsessed with their own interests that they forgot the common good. That’s how the Articles of Confederation, the Founder’s first stab at establishing a government, collapsed.
Any government that can’t provide national defense or perform other vital functions can’t survive — which leaves nothing to protect freedom. In other words, individual rights may be granted by God, but it takes a government to secure them. Absolute liberty for everyone devolves into chaos and life that is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, in Social Contract theory, which underlays the Constitution, individuals relinquish some of their Natural Rights (aka their autonomy) to the government in exchange for a stable, safe, and fair society that protects the majority of their liberties most, but not all, of the time. If you think that the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) promises you everything you want every day, you misunderstand it.
This doesn’t make the U.S. anything like a socialist country, which is fine by me. I submit that socialism is just a boogeyman here anyway. Whether or not you literally sign a contract, when you drive down a road paved by your tax dollars in a car made safer by regulations, you are giving your “consent of the governed.” The same is true when you eat food that’s been inspected and drink clean water. If giving an inch to gain a mile bugs you, visit a country without taxes, government, or sewage-free drinking water.
In exchange for all the liberty you thirst for, you’ll give up your happiness and probably your life.