The Socialist Spectrum

Years ago I was spending a lot of time with a woman I really liked but for some reason nothing seemed to happen beyond friendship. One night I asked directly asked her what she was thinking about our friendship and she informed me that she was a lesbian and in a small town like ours, she felt she needed to use me for cover.


It brought to mind that old line from a song "if everyone's a little gay, why can't you be a little bit straight?"

Oddly, that brings me around to socialism. There's been a lot of talk about Obama's "socialist" policies. People are outright calling him a socialist and were I living in the US, I'd like to meet some of those people and ask them a simple question: "how do you define socialism?" I'd also ask them if they can give any examples of socialism in the US they object to and examples they support.

As you have probably noticed, many socialist countries (including China -- they're not communist) have strong elements of capitalism in their societies and these elements are growing. However, I'm hard-pressed to think of a single "capitalist" country on the planet which doesn't have socialist elements. We have plenty of socialism in the US, but you'll note that most of our socialism is limited to what are called "public goods" (a good thing, in my opinion). For example, the construction and maintenance of the US Interstate Highway system was and remains a socialist endeavor and it's clearly what economists would call a public good.

Even though most socialists are a little bit capitalist (North Korea is the only exception I can think of), it seems that all capitalist societies are a little bit socialist. So why do Americans like to pretend this isn't true our the good 'ol US of A? Why do Americans get all paranoid and scared about something that permeates their life?

To a large extent, the "socialist" label is mostly applied to Obama for his call for universal health care, even though this doesn't have to be socialist. You can simply mandate that employers provide medical insurance. Don't have a job? You could pay privately or, at that point, take advantage of government subsidies for the insurance (which would be a tiny bit of socialism). This is more or less the German model and it helps to promote competition and keep health care costs down (it's great when you can see a doctor rather than being forced into expensive emergency rooms).

I still hear people argue that they don't want the government making their medical decisions (except for abortion. Or medical marijuana. Or death with dignity. Or ...), but why should they feel better off letting corporations make their decisions? If the current financial crisis demonstrates anything, it's that corporations value profits more than people. I can't say the US government is much better, but at least we have a say in it.

And for those who argue that universal health care would raise our medical costs, why would that be? There are approximately 193 countries in the world (the number depends on who's counting) and out of 193 countries, the US has, by far, the most expensive health care system in the world and it's a far cry from the best. Given that the US is the only industrialized nation not offering universal health care (I highly recommend reading that link), why is it that all of the others have managed to keep their costs down? Further, most of them offer excellent health care. Universal health care is quite possible, quite practical, and should be viewed as a right, not as a privilege.

Universal health care might be instituted as a form of socialism, but so what? We have plenty of that and I don't see people complaining about the Interstate Highway System or fire departments. I don't hear many (non-libertarians) calling for the abolishment of Medicare or Medicaid. The US has plenty of successful socialist enterprises. I'm not a socialist, but it's a stupid label applied by ignorant people. Next time someone uses that word, call 'em on the carpet!

As an interesting aside: I note that those who generally object the most to universal health care are those who've never faced the terror of a medical crisis without insurance.
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Hi, you don't know me but I found your journal through someone else's and always found your entries to be insightful or at least entertaining. If you don't mind, I'd like to post this entry in my journal. Your point is so valid and I think a few of my uptight extreme righty friends should read it.


Feel free to repost. I should make an entry in my profile that all of my public posts can be freely reposted. I get asked this quite a bit.

(And I'm glad you liked it!)
I gave you credit too. It's nice to have someone smarter and more articulate to express your thoughts on certain subjects. Much appreciated.
Note that there are a couple of links you missed. One helps to give some extra context, but I mention in the text that readers should follow that link. Kid of tough if it's not there :)
The people who call Obama socialist appear to be the same ones who claim he's a crypto muslim.

These are, bluntly, nutjobs.
Socialism is a dirty word to the ignorant. That's pretty much all there is to it. Socialism brings up the ideas of cold-war Russia and all these other 'bad' things. Capitalism, on the other hand, is shiny and free.

Unfortunately, I see it the other way around, and I am therefore in the minority. Capitalism is externalities, faceless, coal-soaked. It is people breaking their backs in the late 19th C for pennies per week, struggling to make it while they're being profited off of. Socialism gives back, but somehow 'punishes' you for doing well. Capitalism is supposedly a meritocracy--but it isn't... it's a plutocracy.

Americans like the myth that their country is a total meritocracy. Capitalism, somehow, fits within that, even though all the major socialistic ideas that have been implemented in this country are benefits no one would live without!

Many people here have a myth that our healthcare system is better than Canada's. Of course, they always have a libertarian bent to them. The Canadians I know love it. The poor Americans, of which about 3/5 of my friends LACK HEALTH CARE, don't really like not being able to go to the doctor because they don't have a good-paying job, etc. It really fucking blows that people like me get all there is in life, but people like them get nothing. I am extremely lucky in that my health care is paid for by my company; the poor, though, if it is available, have to pay out of pocket for health care coverage. What kind of shit is that?

Plutocracy: Those with the money get all the benefits. Those without can suck it.

"Give us your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to be free..." and we'll assrape them, indenture them, and send them into the mines!
I Hope You're Not Thinking Libertarian Capitalism
There's nothing wrong with capitalism. I'm quite a fan of it. It promotes entrepreneurship, creates job, drives efficiency and innovation and gives individuals opportunities that are difficult to achieve when individual initiative makes little difference to their personal circumstances. Capitalism is great.

The problem is when people see all of the benefits of capitalism and start worshipping the supply/demand curve and forget that capitalism is people. Capitalism helps people. Capitalism hurts people. Capitalists see a chance to make a quick buck at the expense of people and they'll often jump for it. Some believe that we should not take pre-emptive action here, but instead punish those who do bad things. Cases like Enron, WorldCom and many others merely show that criminals don't expect to get caught and punishing them after the fact doesn't change the fact that the damage is done.

In fact, outside of economics, I can't think of professionals in any serious profession who would argue that starting with a solid foundation and actively preventing harm is a bad thing. No doctor argues against preventative medicine. No architect would argue against a solid foundation for a building, or safety measures for workers building it. Computer professionals realize the importance of sanitizing input before things go wrong and if they don't have a solid design up front, they at least write tests (well, competent programmers).

Ignoring that point for a moment, can you think of any major scientific field which has been around for over 100 years where there's a large portion of the population who consider the founder almost infallible? Does that sound like religion to you? Well, many economists and would-be economists practically worship Adam Smith and his laissez-faire propositions. Now Adam Smith was brilliant, but like Einstein, Copernicus or Ignaz Semmelweis (germ theory), their initial brilliant insights have all been later refined, reworked, or replaced by people building on their work. Other than as a historical reference, no one cites Copernicus' work as the foundation of their own.

So Libertarian-style laissez-faire capitalism is a joke, but capitalism itself has many great things to offer. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water! The health care, housing, computers, travel and other things which most Westerners are accustomed to are the result of capitalism. (Yes, I know unimpeded growth associated with those things is going to hurt us badly, but I don't think it's impossible to have our cake and eat it to. We just need to want it enough).
Re: Some call it Socialism, I call it Economic Justice
That is an awesome icon. Can I steal and adapt it?
Re: Some call it Socialism, I call it Economic Justice
Sure! I ganked it from someone else over two years ago. They don't seem to have missed it. ;)
Jeez, and here's me popping along to two hospitals for checkups yesterday. No questions, no appointments, just a bit of a wait. I had an x-ray earlier in the year too - again, all pretty much turn up and get treated - same as my stay in hospital last year. I can't understand how an industrialised country functions without some form of public health care system. It's almost as if they want all the poor people to die out... Eck, maybe that's it.
It's almost as if they want all the poor people to die out...
You might be right. I used to go to a free clinic for women. Bush took that away almost two years ago. Now I have to pay to see a doctor. Sucks.
Along these lines, I chuckled heartily (and out loud) at the airport when I was watching Fox Noise Channel and the mouthpiece was talking about the "spread of socialism in the Americas". They were talking about how Nicaragua, et. al. were all "falling to socialism" and how the energy industries were all getting nationalized and all the horrible things that were happening down there.

Not once did anybody have the intelligence to even consider that the Americas have long had a large socialist country, with all the signs that the right-wing whackjobs say makes Obama and the Democrats socialist: gun control, universal health care, an extensive welfare system, nationalized industries, and high taxation of the moderately wealthy. And, worse yet, this country is considered one of our "friends", and the people seem relatively content and free, in some areas having more "rights" and "protections" than we do.

And Canada even states, quite clearly, they consider themselves a "socialist" country.
Hi, you're blogs are insightful and well though out, unlike the mass media hysteria over Obama. However, people throw around the term "socialism" as if any act of state intervention is socialistic. It's not. Having studied ideologies, it seems that "socialism" is thrown around all too loosely these days. Unless the means of production are under public control, this could be state control but not necessarily, then it's not socialist. When you have state funding for education, healthcare, public infrastructure, etc it's not socialism; whatever it may be, be it social or liberal democracy, state capitalism, keynesianism, it certainly is not socialism. One can argue, given the historical record, that capitalism cannot function without some type of state intervention; especially, as you pointed out in other essays on libertarianism, in education, defense, infrastructure, research and development, among other areas. Also, when you have a mixed economy so that some enterprises are state owned while others, the majority, are privately owned, that is not socialism. At most, it's social democracy. Many political parties, especially in Europe, that call themselves socialists are really social democrats. This whole "spreading the wealth" idea is not socialist, it's an attempt at helping to stimulate the capitalist economy.
Re: James
Actually, the "public control" part of the socialist definition is a bit problematic. Many argue that socialism is about the means of production and distribution being controlled by the state and it's communism which eliminates the state and passes things to public, collective control.

To take one example, consider education. Clearly the most countries view a university education as a commodity as it's something which is bought and sold, but education is clearly a service and not a product and commodities are generally viewed as products, not services. But to exclude services in a definition of "socialism" doesn't make a lot of sense since they're such a huge part of the economy.

So what happens is that some people try to exclude from the definition of socialism those services which have a clear public good: such as fire departments, military, etc. However, this includes "education" which is obviously also available in the private capitalist market (this isn't meant as an attack on capitalism at all!).

One can restate a "clear public good" as "has positive externalities", but so many things have positive externalities that it quickly becomes clear that there's a spectrum of positive externalities and this leads to the question of "where is the cut off point?" For example, an abundant food supply has positive externalities in that healthy, well-fed workers can produce more and benefit the overall economy, but no one really thinks about food production when they're talking about positive externalities, but everyone would consider the nationalisation of farms as socialism, so "positive externalities" also isn't a key indicator of socialistic behavior.

As a result, we really have to adhere to a strict interpretation of socialism. Whenever the state controls the means of production and distribution of anything, this is a socialistic behavior. A state controlled military is a socialist action, as is state controlled education, Medicare, Social Security, Interstate Highway Programs, etc. There is clearly a "spectrum of socialism" and every state falls somewhere in this.

As such, there's no real distinction between a "social democracy" and a "society with socialist elements".