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The Case for Using the Word “Socialist”

There is a lot of chatter on the wires today about the 2001 radio interview in which Barack Obama discussed the Supreme Court’s role in addressing “political and economic justice” and redistribution of wealth. Taken together with his “spread the wealth around” comments to Joe the Plumber, a lot of people are seeing a pattern. Many have begun to suggest that Obama is a closet socialist just waiting to spring a trap on an unsuspecting America.

Well, let’s look at this analytically beginning with an accepted definition of Socialism. For sake of a common source, I’ll use Wikipedia. I’m not a big fan of it for discussions like this, but since the people have collectively “spoken” and regard it is sound, it’s common ground, I guess. It’s definition of socialism includes this:

Socialists mainly share the belief that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls capital and creates an unequal society. All socialists advocate the creation of an egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are distributed more evenly, although there is considerable disagreement among socialists over how, and to what extent this could be achieved.[1]

Socialism is not a discrete philosophy of fixed doctrine and program; its branches advocate a degree of social interventionism and economic rationalization, sometimes opposing each other. Another dividing feature of the socialist movement is the split on how a socialist economy should be established between the reformists and the revolutionaries. Some socialists advocate complete nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange; while others advocate state control of capital within the framework of a market economy.

Many people equate socialism with communism and Marxism, but those are really false analogies. Communism is predicated on a classless society with no government. To that extent, what we call communist nations are not actually communist at all. There have been countries that attempted to create a communist state, but most ended up totalitarian regimes. Even China, one of the stalwart adherents to communism, has realized they need to open the door to capitalism more and more.

So what’s the difference between communist/Marxist, and socialist societies? Well, the answer to that is long enough to earn you an advanced degree in most colleges, but let’s define it as a question of two things – revolution and control.

Under Marxist theory, a revolution would be necessary to wrest control of the means of production from the hands of the upper class. That would be followed by a period of control by a type of revolutionary council, and then eventually the abolition of government in favor of the collective. This latter period is where most Marxist states have gone wrong. They get caught up in the fervor of being in power, and end up inviting a revolution.

Socialism, by comparison, doesn’t necessarily require revolution. In fact, many argue that despite the fear of an Obama administration, the US is already well on the road to socialism thanks to the collapse of Wall Street and the intervention of the Bush economic team.

All socialism requires, per the definition above, is either “complete nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange or state control of capital within the framework of a market economy.”

It is in the latter framework that we need to address the question of “Obama’s socialism”. Obama’s team has reiterated, ad nauseum, their claims that Obama is committed to the free market. In response to the 2001 radio interview, his team had this to say.

In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of ‘redistributing’ wealth. Obama’s point — and what he called a tragedy — was that legal victories in the civil rights led too many people to rely on the courts to change society for the better.

Actually, that’s not what he said. If you listen to the interview, he said that he could easily develop an argument that the court’s could carry out the task of ordering redistributive policies, but that the administrative overhead would be too great for the courts so such change must come through Congress.

He also, quite specifically, never said he opposed redistributive policies, only that they must originate in legislation, not court doctrine.

So where is Congress on this? Even Nancy Pelosi, a devout liberal, is on the free market bandwagon, right?

We are all believers in the free market — it’s part of our democracy. We know that the free markets create jobs, create capital, and create wealth — that’s very important. But recently, left unregulated and undisciplined and unsupervised, they create chaos.

Well, frankly we don’t know if that’s true because we don’t have a free market. We have a regulated market. “Free markets” by definition, are free of outside influence. All transactions are between buyer and seller. When you introduce even basic constraints – say fraud protection, lemon laws, etc. – you no longer have a free market. Pelosi’s comments seem to indicate that she’s in favor of a regulated market.

So which does Obama favor? A free market or a regulated market? From his statement about the plan for government taking ownership stakes in banks, it appears to be the latter:

[T]he plan appears to extend a broader set of guarantees to banks without requiring any additional regulation, which represents more of the same failed philosophy that got us into this mess.

Ok. So Obama wants government regulation. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, let’s look back at that “widely accepted” definition of Socialism.

[O]thers advocate state control of capital within the framework of a market economy.

We now have government with a sizable ownership interest in banks, insurance, and securities. We’re also heavily involved in an automotive bailout. You can argue the current wave of nationalization started under Bush – which is true – but it’s not like Obama has opposed it.

Further, I suspect we’ll start to see justifications for expanding that reach into energy and telecommunications. The government is encroaching more and more on the people.

While it is not yet the complete nationalization of the means of production, it’s getting a lot closer.

Obama is in support of the government role in banks, wants more regulation (read: control) of the market. His cheerleaders in Congress want the same. He has talked openly of using government power to “spread the wealth” around. He has made coherent arguments that redistributive policies must come from government. (That alone leads me to believe he has spent a good deal of time thinking about it.)

With all that, I ask you, is there honestly anyone alive who can make that claim that the term “socialist” doesn’t apply here?

Written by Michael Turk