How Socialist Must One be to be A Socialist?
Tibor R. Machan
In recent days the issue of Senator Obama's alleged socialist leanings has become the focus of considerable attention in the mainstream media. This was provoked by the Senator's rather explicit support of wealth redistribution--which is to say, the policy of politicians and bureaucrats taxing substantial portions of the resources of individuals and deciding to hand it around according to some formula of equality. This is indeed associated with the political economy of socialism and has been used to guide various socialist economies throughout human history, although there have always been widely different degrees of socialism in different human communities, from kibbutzes, communes, nationalist socialist and international socialist systems to small communitarian arrangements.
Full blown socialism amounts to the view that all of humanity is of one piece, one organism. Karl Marx proposed that this organism develops from infancy to full maturity, communism, over human history. Individuals in this conception of socialism are but cells in the organism. There is no private property because there are no private individualism. The wealth is spread just as food is spread throughout the human organism, normally without favor to any part of it.
But no all socialists are full blown, nor view the system along these developmental lines. Some socialists stress that the unity among people is something they must bring about, as a matter of their ethical obligations. And as such the socialism involved can be more or less robust, depending on how diligently the population works to establish socialist institutions and policies.
Now, arguing that Barak Obama is no socialist because there were many features of American society that are already socialist--the progressive income tax, for example, the expansive eminent domain policy recently affirmed by the U. S. Supreme Court, and several other measures recently instituted to bail out banks and other financial companies--is disingenuous. The questions no one raises to him--none of the interviews and debates I am away of indicate this--is how extensively would Senator Obama get the government involved in the American economy, how he views the institution of private property, who does he believe owns the wealth of the country. From his words over the years it seems that he would favor a far more socialist society than American is now, although it is true enough that America (as many other welfare states) is quite socialist already. That is why political economists have been calling it a mixed economy.
The most important issue is whether under Senator Obama's political leadership the country would be directed to be more or less socialist, more or less opposed to individualism, individual rights, private property, and so forth. And the next issue is whether where Senator Obama wants to take the country would be something proper, desirable, just.
The objections people have to socialism are based, after all, on the fact that the system views human beings as part of a collective, of an involuntary team or community, rather than as individuals with independent choices and the right to decided whether they will join some community. As Senator Obama appears to view things, a society is an integrated organism wherein individuals have no rights, no independent choices, certainly not about their productive efforts and the results of these, namely, their resources or wealth. He seems to believe that it is the government--the head of the collective--that ought to be in charge of what the rest of the people ought to do with their lives. Maybe he would accept some input, via a limited democratic approach, from the "cells of the body." But the decision would be made at the top, by the political leaders.
Even though some of America's laws and public policies are somewhat--in certain cases considerably--socialist, the country is still quite far from the total wealth-redistribution idea that socialism endorses. Arguably Senator Obama, just as Senator Hillary Clinton, consider this a liability and want to remedy matters. (Senator Obama explicitly faulted the American Framers back in 2001 for failing to include wealth redistribution as a feature of the U. S. Constitution.)
This is what the current talk about Senator Obama's socialism should be about, not about whether he is a pure, Marxist socialist.