This Isn't Socialism
Wherever one looks in the conservative media, Obama’s economic plans are invariably referred to as “socialistic.” Glenn Beck frequently refers to Obama’s policies as “socialist,” and National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested that Obama is charting a “socialized course.” Both John Boehner and Jim DeMint have referred to Obama’s policies as “socialist.” It is inevitable that the charge of “socialism” will be a central feature of the GOP message for the 2010 midterms.
Many liberals (though not the ones in charge of Democratic party strategy) agree—Newsweek recently ran a cover proclaiming that we are all socialists now. Huffington Post blogger Robert Scheer agrees that the United States is now socialist, or nearly so, though he doesn’t think the US has gone far enough to the left.
It is incredible that all these voices cry “socialism,” without, apparently, knowing what socialism actually is. Socialism is harmful and intrusive from a conservative point of view. So are Obama’s policies. But socialism and what Obama advocates are far from the same thing.
Wikipedia defines socialism as a “set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and a society characterized by equality for all individuals, with a fair or egalitarian method of compensation.” Does that sound like what Obama is attempting to do?
It shouldn’t, because Obama isn’t trying to accomplish any of that. True, the banking system, and much of the auto industry, is nationalized and government-controlled, which sounds like a socialist thing to do. But there are two important differences here, which separate Obama’s policy from socialism.
First, all this nationalization is temporary and limited—the plan is that eventually GM, Chrysler, and the banking system will become private and autonomous again. The current system is meant to be only temporary. And the government’s power over these companies, while considerable, is still limited—the nationalized companies still have a say in how they are run.
The second difference is that these nationalizations were more or less voluntary; the corporations here surrendered their independence to the government in return for government assistance. The federal government didn’t forcibly take over these companies—they asked to be taken over.
If Obama’s policies really were socialist, he would have taken these corporations by force, put government agents in charge, and the corporations would have remained in that condition in perpetuality. Instead, these nationalized companies will eventually regain their independence, after first getting billions in taxpayer dollars, which is a good deal if you can get it.
Conservatives point to other Obama policies, such as cap-and-trade, higher taxes, and increased government regulations. It may be that none of these things are desirable. But neither are they socialistic. Socialism is an economic policy.
What Obama is really pushing is a statist version of the Third Way (or a mixed economy), which is a sort of combination of capitalism and socialism, in which the private sector is free to set its own course within the bounds of government regulation. (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were prominent Third Way proponents). The market is allowed to work—but its first allegiance is to the state. There are different versions of this philosophy—it’s the dominant philosophy in Europe, and in less benign countries is usually called fascism. (Fascism emphasizes nationalism and militarism, which separates the third way from fascism).
In Obama’s version of this philosophy, government doesn’t take over big business—it complements it. The good news: that isn’t socialism. The bad news: it’s worse, since it combines the intrusiveness of socialism with the greed found in capitalism.
Why is this distinction important? Two reasons. The first is that words mean things, and it’s important to get labels right, if for no other reason than because misusing simple terms makes one look silly. The other is that if conservatives wish to oppose what Obama is doing, then they should know what it is they are fighting. In any conflict, the first rule is to know your enemy.