Two of the most commonly used terms in this election season’s campaign rhetoric are “socialist” and “socialism.” In some races for office, Democrats are claiming to be “socialists” while in other races Republicans are denouncing their Democratic rivals for allegedly promising “socialism.”
So what’s everyone talking about? In general, the quality of discussion about socialists and socialism has low, and I’m not certain I can elevate it. But here goes anyway.
In general, socialism is an ideology that advocates “public,” i. e., government, ownership of the means of producing and distributing goods and services. Some degree of government-produced goods and services is not necessarily bad. Most American city and county governments, for example, typically supply police and fire protection, as well as roads, sewers, and other public works (a few governments have experimented with contracting with privately owned police, firefighting, and prison management firms to supply service, but they’re in a small minority). Many cities and counties provide public utilities and waste management services. Stephenville contracts with private firms for utilities, solid waste collection and disposal, and management of wastewater treatment at a government-owned plant, but owns and operates its own water production and distribution system.
Socialism becomes more problematical when governments try to socialize—that is, take over—the responsibility for providing more goods and services, such as cars, cosmetics, and other consumer goods. Among the more benign problems are perpetual long lines at stores as would-be consumers wait to by scarce goods. Government bureaucracies typically cannot determine how much to produce of any given commodity to satisfy consumer demand as effectively as private companies can; hence the chronic scarcity of consumer goods in the late and unlamented Soviet Union, as well as in modern Venezuela.
Moreover, consumer goods produced in socialist countries are usually shoddier. The government bureaucracies that make them normally have monopolies; without competition, they have no incentive to improve their products. An excellent example is the East German Trabant, a car which made the Yugo seem a Rolls Royce by comparison (by the way, many American conservatives, claiming that American public education is mediocre because public school districts frequently have a monopoly over educating our children, therefore, advocate charter schools, voucher programs, and homeschooling to promote more competition and presumably boost education quality).
And of course, we must not forget the millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, North Koreans, and Cambodians who were enslaved or murdered as their governments tried to convert feudal economies to socialistic economies as the first step to implementing communism. Given that genocide in the name of socialism at least equaled and frequently exceeded Nazi-induced genocide—eleven million concentration camp inmates, of whom six million were Jews–one must wonder why anyone would be proud to call himself a socialist today.
But America’s self-proclaimed socialists may have something different in mind from the hard-edged socialism of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Un. Bernie Sanders, for example, has said he considers the Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—to embody the policies he’d like to see adopted by the United States. These countries are not purely socialist. They are rather, “social democracies,” which have large private sectors, free elections, and civil liberties, as well as generous health, educational, and welfare policies.
These nations are by no conceivable stretch of the imagination dictatorships. Their citizens seem to enjoy a comfortable, safe, secure, and elevated lifestyle, as well as the political freedoms we still enjoy in America. Yet they must pay for this lifestyle with higher taxes than we pay here. For example, the greatest combined federal, state, and local income tax rate in the United States is 52%. In Denmark the figure 56%, in Norway, 56%, and Sweden, 60%. Moreover, the highest sales tax rate in America is 12%, while Denmark, Norway, and Sweden each charge a 25% sales, or value-added, tax. So the trade-off implicitly offered by socialists, or social democrats, in America, is clear—more services in the form of more generous health insurance, “free” college education, etc., but higher taxes to pay for everything.
So perhaps the best questions one can ask a self-proclaimed socialist, or social democrat, are simple—what do they really want to do (as opposed to what labels they use), and how much will all their promised services, which they’ll usually say will be “free,” actually cost? And then judge accordingly.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.