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March 11, 2009

hot-potato socialism

The New York Times asked Barack Obama whether he was a "socialist." He said no and then called back, saying, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question." The word is incendiary in American politics, and the president was obviously taken aback and perhaps concerned that his answer had not be forceful enough. But those of us who are not automatically appalled by the word "socialism" can reasonably ask whether we are on a socialist path. After all, the government is considering owning banks and providing universal health care.

I don't think there's a consensus definition of the word; distinguished thinkers have used it in various ways. From a rigorously libertarian perspective, any taxing and spending is socialist unless it is essential to protect individual freedom. So any government that funds things other than the police, courts, jails, and the military with mandatory taxes is socialist. But that means that every functioning government is socialist; the only question is to what degree. In the United States, marginal tax rates are much lower than they were in the 1950s, but are likely to rise by the equivalent of a few percent of GDP.

In short, if the tax rate is the issue, than we are less socialist than we've been for most of the 20th century and less socialist than other countries, but every society is socialist. Since this conclusion seems unhelpful, I would define the word in a more radical and precise way. A socialist society, in my view, is one in which "the people" own the major productive assets, things like farms, factories, and service industries. "The people" cannot own something in the same way that I own my cell phone. Private ownership means that my wishes directly affect the object; I can use, alienate, or destroy the object pretty much at will. "The people" cannot do that, because they are plural. If they disagree, they do not all get what they wish. And even if they are unanimous, each may not feel that his or her preferences caused the outcome.

Still, it is plausible to talk of public or popular ownership in several situations. A government can own a productive asset and can represent the people through a combination of regular competitive elections, negotiation among parties, and freedom of speech and debate. Or the workers in a given firm or farm can own it as voting shareholders. Worker ownership might be considered popular ownership of the economy as a whole, if everyone were a worker somewhere. In the Communist Manifesto, 6 out of 10 planks related to state or worker ownership of productive assets.

By this definition, the functioning societies of today do differ in how socialist they are. It is common for European democratic governments to own and directly manage major industries, such as arms manufacturers, railway lines, and oil companies. There is very little such ownership in the United States.

Nor is "socialism" (so defined) even a remote possibility here. The most radical proposal for health care reform--which no one gives any serious chance of passing--is Single Payer, under which the government would fund health care. But the doctors, hospitals, and drug companies would still be private enterprises and would compete for customers. The government may end up possessing banks, but only by default and for the shortest possible time. That sounds like "hot-potato socialism," if it is socialism at all.

March 11, 2009 11:52 AM | category: none


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