Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Response to Comments

So I’ll respond to the comments from my post below (who would have thought that a three word post would generate my most comments ever.)


Ah, the fun of trying to defend off-the-cuff comments. Of course I do not believe that we live in a “pure” market economy (and thus I believe that we, technically, live in a “blended” one.) And though I’m loath to use Wikipedia as a source, I concur that we do have some “semi-socialist” programs. However, even Medicare is not government ownership of production; the government buys the services of private individuals to provide medical care (albeit at a mandated, below-market rate.) A better example of “socialism” by the US government is the Veterans Administration where the government actually owns the hospitals and employs the doctors; other examples include public schools and public libraries (socialism by the state or local governments, rather than the federal government.) However, I would submit that if the United States is not the most free market of any country in the world it is very, very close. A “pure” socialist economy is one in which all means of production are owned by the all the people and controlled by them through the government. The following quote is from the principles of socialism of the Socialist Party USA: “In a socialist system the people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically controlled public agencies, cooperatives, or other collective groups.” Communism is an example of non-democratic socialism; the Socialist Party purports to be working toward democratic socialism. Saying that the US is not a “pure” market economy is a little like claiming that your tap water is not pure because it contains trace amounts of something other than H2O.

The attempts to redefine socialism to mean government regulation or government services is a political scare tactic used by the right wing and other anti-government forces to whip up fear of the government or political opponents by attempting to link them to the now defunct demon of communism (think the Union of Social Soviet Republic). Government regulation is not government ownership. To attempt equate them is an attempt to confuse the issue and the public. Labeling opponents as communist has been a favorite tactic of the right for at least fifty years (think the attacks on Martin Luther King Jr., Senator McCarthy’s hearings, or the John Birch Society’s claiming that President Eisenhower was a communist puppet.) With the collapse of worldwide communism it can no longer serve as a viable boogieman. But Socialism is still around and is being used in much the same way. Equating regulation with socialism is an attempt to confuse the public into fearing regulation and attack policies based on emotional sound bites rather than facts. That the right wing has been successful in propagating confusion is no excuse to accept it.

I’m sure that we could find exceptions, but my observation is that most uses of the word socialism to describe Obama, the Health Care Bill, Democrats, or Liberals are attacks intended to be derogatory made by the right wing. I highly doubt Obama would consider himself a socialist, or the healthcare bill socialist. The aims of the Democratic Party are not socialist and even most liberals are not socialist (though it may be possible to argue that most socialists are liberals or at least left-wing.)

As I’ve said before on this blog if we are going to have real intelligent discussions about issues we need to abandon attempts to use words or catchphrases that are deliberately calculated to ramp up fear and diminish trust. We need to focus on facts, not fear. Labeling the health care bill as socialist was a deliberate attempt by some (which was then picked up by less knowledgeable others) to increase fear and loathing for the bill and those that support it.


Rob said...

I admit that I don't pay as much attention to politics & economics as I should, especially lately; I've been paying more attention to things like my new baby, moving to a new house, work, Lost, and Breaking Bad. No real party loyalties (although John Stewart is a convincing fellow).

So, I don't have as much to add to the discussion other than my agreement that I think it's wrong that the word "socialism" is being used to describe and criticize the Obama administration.

"Socialist" does not accurately describe the administration nor its policies, and critics in the media should use terms that truly reflect what they find wrong with it all, rather than lazily toss around a concise term like "socialism" that (A) doesn't accurately describe what's going on, and (B) creates a fog of fear and confusion around the situation. Am I right, or does anyone see that differently?

Also, this reminds me of this clip from an episode of the Colbert Report that aired during the presidential elections. This was shortly after the whole "spread the wealth around" comment thing, as far as I remember.

Jeremy Johnson said...


It sounds like we are coming to agree on most of the issues here. I am glad that you agree that we live in a mixed economy, or a blended one as you put it earlier. I think you can understand why I might have mistakenly believed that you thought otherwise, based on your comment:

“I’m confident enough to say that we do not live in a socialist society, nor in a ‘blended’ one.”

I also agree with you, very strongly, that the U.S. is closer to a free market economy than most others. Though, I agree with Milton Friedman that Hong Kong is the closest thing to a free market economy that exists. I would also happily join you in saying that the market forces in our country are more prevalent than the public sector.

However, none of that changes the fact that we live in a decidedly mixed economy and not a free market economy. I don’t think your analogy about water is very helpful because the public sector in our country is hardly invisible or merely a trace in its scope. The federal government is easily the largest single employer in the U.S. When you combine state and local government, it tends to be 5 times larger than the federal government bureaucracy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, government jobs tend to make up 8% of all employed people. If our economy is a glass and the private sector is water, then we have a glass of mud.

All that, however, is a little beside the real issue, the larger point is that we agree that it is a mixed economy with a strong market base. I also readily agree that “pure” socialism does not anywhere exist in the U.S. Indeed, I don’t believe that pure socialism or pure capitalism are even possible in the real world. Even the darkest hours of Stalin’s social state sprouted bartering and black market trade.

All of this supports my basic point that there is a spectrum between the theoretical ideals of capitalism and socialism. Once you can agree that it is at least reasonable to view economies along a sliding scale, then you can recognize that different programs within an economy may fall closer to one side than the other. And that is the beginning of understanding. I’m not defending people that throw around the term socialism as a scare tactic and certainly there are such people. I am simply pointing out that there are other types of people, some of whom are sincere and informed who might describe the health care bill as socialistic because it falls closer along the spectrum to socialism than capitalism. It is neither fair nor accurate to describe such individuals as only ignorant or dishonest.

I understand that you hesitate to accept the use of such terminology by anyone because the bill doesn’t fit under the definition of “pure” socialism, but nothing in the real world really fits well under that “pure” definition. Moreover, isn’t the reasoning raised to urge you to understand others’ positions, essentially the same reasoning you raised to urge understanding of your position? It seems to me that when you made your water analogy and pointed out how prevalent the private sector is that you were arguing that just because an economy doesn’t perfectly fit into a definition of a “pure” market economy that doesn’t mean we should dismiss people referring to the economy as capitalist. That argument might be mirrored to say that while describing the bill as socialistic doesn’t fit with a definition of “pure” socialism, that doesn’t mean we dismiss people making such statements.

In closing (I can’t even avoid sounding like a lawyer in a blog) I will reiterate that I am not necessarily saying that the bill is socialistic myself. Even if it were socialistic, I don’t necessarily think that is always a bad thing (just usually). My only point is to say that there are knowledgeable people who are honest that might call the bill socialistic. I think anything else I would have to say from here on out would only be repetition or tangential so I will leave it to you and others to continue discussing the matter.

Jeremy Johnson said...

P.S. I have enjoyed discussing the topic. I haven't talked about economic systems this much since my days as an Econ tutor at Ricks! Now, the real question is does the U.S. have a shot against England tomorrow?

Mike H. said...

Good blog. Anyone want to tell me *why* billions in subsidies for corn ethanol are OK, yet Medicare is so evil? You have to burn *twice* as much ethanol in a car to get the same energy output, it's pre-oxidized compared to gasoline.

Of course, you could say chlorinated tap water (to rid it of pathogens), or vaccination requirements are socialistic. But, look at what happens to life & health if you don't do those things.