My newspaper column is about socialism in these United States. You can read the whole thing after the jump.
News & Record
A gentleman of my acquaintance took a moment at a recent social event to say some nice things to me about my newspaper column. He paused, then added, "Except for the socialism, of course."
It was a friendly dig, not a thesis on comparative economics, but it reminded me that I'd been meaning to write about the devolution of the word "socialism." The term once referred to a system in which government owns industries and directs the economy. In the current American vernacular, it is used in its most expansive sense, and usually as a pejorative, to mean virtually any social program, or a tax code that sets marginal rates only a few points higher than the lowest levels of the modern era. "Marxism" and "Communism" get thrown around in similar fashion, but "socialism" seems to be the hot-button word of the moment.
Reframe the conversation
My idea was not to reverse the redefinition of "socialism" overnight -- anyone who trots out the dictionary in response to red-meat political sloganizing might as well bang his head against the OED -- but to begin a slow process of reframing the discussion, or at least pondering the point at which a political term becomes so unmoored from its original meaning that it means something else. Maybe, I thought, we could come up with an equivalent to Godwin's Law, the rule of online debate that decrees the first person to invoke the Nazis in a discussion that has nothing to do with Nazis to be the loser.
(Godwin's Law is necessary because the word "fascist" has been abused in much the same way as "socialism." At some point, perhaps in the 1960s, the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler became an all-purpose insult to be hurled by undergrads at anyone in a position of even minor authority, including traffic cops, college deans and their parents. More recently, "fascist" has been misapplied to radical Islamists, whose theocratic transnationalism contradicts the original meaning of the word, and to left-of-center Americans in Jonah Goldberg's deeply silly book, "Liberal Fascism.")
That said, there is an important discussion to be had over what some people call "socialism" and others might classify as the spending priorities of a government established by and for the people, with a constitutional mandate to "promote the general welfare." After all, certain social programs are favored by a huge number of Americans, starting with Social Security. Ronald Reagan's famous line that the scariest words in the English language are, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," stopped being funny about five minutes after Hurricane Katrina swamped the levees in New Orleans. The real question is, Who gets what?
Fannie, Freddie and the Bear
As I was writing this column, the United States seized control of the mortgage companies known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, putting almost half of the enormous home-lending market under federal control. That move followed last spring's government intervention to prevent the collapse of the Bear Stearns investment house, which came after a massive relief program for the airline industry; an auto-industry bailout is under consideration.
Some objections are voiced when public money is used to shore up the private sector (Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning used the S-word after the Fannie/Freddie deal was first discussed this summer and last week compared Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to "the minister of finance in China''), but the cries of "socialism" always seem muted in comparison to those heard in response to, say, a plan to provide health insurance to children. We are told that the government has to step in because companies are "too big to fail," but the same logic could be applied to allowing large segments of the population to fail; we socialize risk and privatize profits when it comes to corporations, but we have trouble looking at social programs as investments in human capital.
A corollary to complaints about "socialism" is that it involves the redistribution of wealth, yet we don't talk much about our economy's actual track record of redistributing wealth, which has accelerated in recent years. The richest 5 percent of Americans own more financial assets than the bottom 95 percent of the population. Anyone who wants to argue that rich people do it all on their own through hard work and the magic of free markets needs to reread the paragraph about Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns, and I say that as a big fan of both hard work and free markets. As Warren Buffett, the nation's richest man, once said, if there was a class war in this country, then his class has already won.
I don't want a government that controls the economy, just a pragmatic and efficient one that helps all Americans earn their own way, then gets out of the way. You can call that what you want, but I don't call it socialism.
© News & Record 2008