Thursday, September 10, 2015

You've Already Voted for a Socialist

I'm pretty big on using precise language (for example, I try not to say "church" when I mean the building where the Church meets). Sometimes people call me nitpicky, but the words we use really do shape our understanding of the world around us - probably more than we know. This is never more on display than in US politics right now! Senator Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination for President. He describes himself as a Socialist (although, to add to the confusion, he's not actually a member of the Socialist Party). Often, I see critiques of the man using comparisons to Soviet Russia, but having almost nothing to do with socialism. We also see people (according to polls Americans are more likely to vote for a muslim than a socialist, showing us all how little we know) and politicians themselves (some of whom actually know better) running from the term and using it derisively.

Let's get our language correct people - and perhaps gain some perspective on ourselves and the world around us.

The truth is, comparing Bernie Sanders to Soviet Russia is sort of like comparing a pile of freshly raked leaves to a hard boiled egg - there are certainly comparisons to be made, but they're not going to be helpful.

First, let's talk a little about the difference between Socialism and Communism. Communism is a form of government (like a monarchy or a parliamentary system or a representative republic). Socialism is an economic system. Yes, Soviet Russia was indeed socialist, because socialism is the only type of economic system possible within communism (unless you count corruption, in which case Soviet Russia wasn't socialist at all).*

Most nations on Earth today are basically democratic. There are some failed states with virtually no government, a few military dictatorships, and the odd monarchy - but for the most part, everybody is a democracy of one kind or another (which just means people get to vote for the people in power). Yes, there are varying degrees of effectiveness and freedom here, but that is a discussion for another day.

Economically, those democracies that exist (and no, just because the UK or Thailand has a monarch, they really aren't monarchies) have economic systems incorporating elements of both socialism and capitalism. In the extreme, capitalism means every man (or amorphous corporate "man") for himself; people use whatever resources they possess to leverage their ability to survive (or enrich the few and starve the many). Socialism, in its extreme, means every resource is collected together by society and used to meet individual and collective needs (or enrich the few and starve the many).

Every economy on Earth (except maybe Somalia) works along a spectrum between socialism and capitalism.

One of the easiest ways to look at this might be a rather un-contentious issue like roads and bridges. A purely capitalist system would keep gob't completely out of the transportation business, allowing private entities to control and toll roads that cross private property and allow market forces (ie trial and error, essentially) to control safety and prices. A purely socialist system would commandeer land for roads and bridges, then construct and maintain such using a corps of transportation workers on gov't payroll. Most societies use a mixture of the two - often using competitive bidding to keep construction costs down, but using regular payroll labor for maintenance.

Another way of looking at this spectrum might be the recent economic recession. Most gov'ts around the world used public money to keep banks and other institutions from going bankrupt and closing. This is a socialist intervention meant to prevent further losses in other parts of the economy. A purely capitalist solution would have let every failing business fail, leaving those bankrupted or impoverished to learn their lesson and do better next time. A purely socialist solution would have been to nationalize the banking industry, with the gov't taking over investment institutions and running them as departments of the gov't. Most nations fell somewhere in between, propping up institutions that could be saved and hoping to avoid future problems by enacting regulation to better keep such business in check.

There is a lot of strong opinion about how well these efforts have failed or succeeded in various places, but they represent elements of both socialism and capitalism. I'm not really aware of anyone anywhere (outside of maybe North Korea) who advocates for a straight socialism or a straight capitalism. Even places like Cuba, avowedly communist in gov't, collects only about half of its country's production in a given year, and could thus be said to be, maybe (grossly simplified) half socialist.

Now that last example, finance, is a great way to illustrate that whether your economic system is largely socialist or largely capitalist doesn't matter as much as how well its managed. Sweden and France, very similar European countries each take roughly 45% of GDP (money made in the country in a given year) for gov't expenses and provide lots of public services (free health care, education through college, etc). They have among the highest rates of taxation in the world and are considered among the most socialist. They are both strong, advanced democracies with stable governments and high average incomes. France is a giant economic mess, with skyrocketing public debt and a stagnant economy, while Sweden is swiftly ridding itself of debt and growing rapidly.**

All this to say, the United States has always been, in some sense, socialist. Granted, following the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal, we're a lot more socialist than we used to be. Things like medical care for children and the elderly, along with unemployment and emergency housing measure are socialistic by nature. I'm sure everyone would agree these things can be done more efficiently and effectively than they are, but that is, again, a conversation for another day.***

What I'm saying is: every Presidential candidate from both parties is a socialist (yes, even Rand Paul). The degree to which any candidate is a socialist is certainly up for debate, it's just not that productive a discussion. It's a much better idea to evaluate candidates based on actual plans to address actual problems (which will all be a variety of socialist and capitalist solutions whatever candidate you pick). And let's stop bringing Soviet Russia into things - they haven't really been relevant since Taylor Swift's been alive (but I'm sure that's merely coincidence).

*Yes we also have the example of modern China, which is trying to keep communism as it adds elements of capitalism to its socialist economic system. As we'll see later on, nothing is purely socialist or purely capitalist.

**In Frace's defense, they are roughly 6 times bigger than Sweden, population-wise and have a more varied set of difficulties to work around, however, their situation isn't really all that different from Germany, which isn't quite so far up on the socialist ladder, but still totally has its house in order.

***Just to be clear, there's no "Christian" backing for socialism or capitalism - a "Christian" economy would look something like benevolent anarchy in which people worked hard each day for what they needed and gave away the rest, but nothing was required or anyone. In other words, it wouldn't work in the US anyway, so don't worry about it.

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