Sunday, March 01, 2009

Revisiting Socialism

Tibor R. Machan

During the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, held in Washington, D.C., several speakers laid in on President Obama for his alleged promotion of socialist policies. They were referring to various provisions of his bailout program as well as elements of his admittedly highly dubious neo-Keynesianism, the idea that it is best now for government to create demand for goods and services to offset the proclivity of Americans to withdraw from the market, to stop buying stuff and thus to impeded employment and economic growth. These conservative Republicans, especially radio talk show star Rush Limbaugh, allege that bringing the government into the economy as President Obama and his team are bent on doing is tantamount to socialism.

Well, that’s not quite right and by making the charge one thing these conservative Republicans are certain to achieve is to discredit themselves, to demonstrate their ignorance.

Socialism in the sphere of political economy amounts to the public ownership of the major means of production. Nationalizing banks and car companies and farms and so forth would qualify as socialist. But what Obama & Co. are proposing is in fact what has been called over the last century a system social democracy. Yes, much of the free market is undermined by social democratic policies but that’s not quite socialism, not what most of us think of when invoking that term.

In the non-economic realms of society, too, what Obama & Co. are pushing for doesn’t quite qualify as socialism. That would involve the complete abolition of a system of individual rights, including civil rights, and the collectivization of the bulk of society. Under socialism actually no individuals are even recognized to exist. Society is the focus of attention and it is even contended that society is a living entity of which the population are the cells. No independent individuality is recognized because socialists claim that people are integral parts of society, just as someone’s organs, limbs, and related biological constituents are integral parts of a human being.

Certainly there is no direct attempt to bring about this socialist vision, not at least so far, although bits and pieces of the vision presented by President Obama come close. Furthermore, there is something to the claim, which is perhaps what these conservative Republicans are referring to, that an American version of socialism is being promoted by the current crop of Democrats in Washington. Consider, in this connection, what Normal Thomas, the leader of the American Socialist party and six time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, said in a 1944 speech:

"The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But,
under the name of ‘liberalism,’ they will adopt every fragment of
the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist
nation, without knowing how it happened."

Thomas then continued: "I no longer need to run as a Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democrat Party has adopted our platform."

So, arguably, a certain version of socialism could be said to be the goal of President Obama and the leaders of the Democratic Party. However, this is not Soviet Socialism--so when Rush Limbaugh refers to Lenin and Stalin in his criticism of President Obama’s regime, he is engaging in hyperbole, even in demagoguery, rather than helping his audience understand what is happening in America today.

As with many political systems, socialism has several versions. That’s true with capitalism as well, although in its pure, unqualified version capitalism is, plain and simple, an unregulated economy with full protection of the right to private property (including in the major means of production) and freedom of contract. But most people call various system with significant protection of the right to private property “capitalist,” including the current American or Canadian or English welfare states.

It is true that under the leadership of President Obama the American government is very likely to move closer and closer to a full scale socialist regime, so much so that in time many of the non-economic aspects of society will reflect socialist, collectivist principles. Perhaps in time there will not even be much room for the right to freedom of speech since a socialist government could well regard the exercise of such a right as a very serious obstacle to bringing about various goals of the government. Even totalitarian socialist measures could be coming down the pike if the government believes that its needs to micromanage the country so as to achieve its objectives.

But that’s not where we are now and to claim otherwise renders those making the claim disingenuous and robs them of credibility. It may be tempting to simplify in the realm of day to day politics but it is very doubtful that the distinctions warranted need to be abandoned, even in the heat of political debate.

No comments: