Sunday, October 19, 2008

What is socialism?

On both sides, lots of pundits are bandying the word "socialism" about: first with the bailout plan "socializing" the banks; then with Barack Obama telling Joe the Plumber that it was a good thing to "spread the wealth around." But it seems like no one has taken the time to explain what they mean by socialism. Just that there is a general notion that it involves the government using taxpayers' money.

From the little reading that I have done on the subject, this seems simplistic in the extreme. However, there is a wide spectrum to the notion of socialism as befits a complicated economic system with over a century's worth of thought and practice behind it. These thoughts below are based on the crudest definitions of the term based on some brief Googling on the topic.

Is socialism when the government owns the means of production? That's one rather simple definition, which certainly doesn't seem to be broadly applicable even to the bailout plan. The banks, as far as I can tell, are still publicly owned, though of course the stock values have sunk. I don't pretend to understand what is going on with the bailout plan, but it only resembles this form of socialism in the most limited way.

Is it worker-owned collectives? That's another quickie definition, which certainly doesn't sound anything like either the bailouts or this "spread the wealth around" notion.

Is it a focus on publicly owned rather than private property? It seems like the notion of private property is still a very strong one, even in the midst of floating plans about helping people facing foreclosure. There's never been a suggestion that the government would then own people's houses, as far as I've been able to determine.

I think Colin Powell spoke eloquently on the difference between socialism and taxation in this interview after his interview endorsing Barack Obama.

I wonder if part of the bogeyman imagery of socialism comes from the political radicalism that characterized socialism in the United States, such as Eugene Debs in the early 20th century.

At any rate, be aware of these cheap shots about socialism. I think most people making them are just bandying the word about without having any idea what it means.

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