Note to readers: my editor is stuck in the Seattle airport, unavailable for editing and proofing. So here goes anyway
I have great respect for government, especially our forms of constitutionally established representative democracy. Local, state and federal government in the U.S. provide structure within which civilized society can exist consistent with a maximum of individual freedom. None of it is set in concrete. The structure has to be always changing because standards that define civilization and freedom are always changing; fortunately, our system was designed to accommodate change.
There are other forms of government, and each provides structure for society to exist, but in vastly different ways. Totalitarian governments, for instance, emphasize control over freedom, centralizing power in the hands of a leader, and those to whom the leader grants a portion of it. Representative democracies put a heavy emphasis on structure that preserves as much individual freedom as possible, decentralizing power by distributing it among branches, across geography, and limiting how much any one person can exercise.
The distance between the two is spanned by many variations of governmental types. We don’t live in a binary political world. We live in an analog world of innumerable variations where cultures and traditions are reflected in how governments are formed and used. For instance, the most common form of representative democracy is not the American system, but parliamentary democracy that combines the legislative and executive functions in a way that holds a Prime Minister, who is a member of parliament, more directly accountable to the majority will of parliament, while being closely monitored by the minority.
Confusing the public debate of today is an assumption common in America that socialism is a form of government existing at the very door to totalitarianism. It isn’t. It’s not even a form of government. It’s an ill defined political philosophy about the role and responsibility of government to address social and economic needs. Socialism can be very comfortable with capitalism, and strongly protective of individual freedom. It does not, per se, undermine individual responsibility and self reliance. It places a high value on economic parity and governmental provision of essential services for the welfare of society as a whole that are beyond the capability of individuals and the private sector.
It got its bad name because Russian and Chinese communism attached the word socialist to their movements, and bequeathed it to other one party dictatorships pretending to be Marxist. Modern communism, plunging into dictatorship, began poorly and ended worse, dragging anything labeled socialist down with it. Marxism, not to be confused with Soviet style communism, was and remains a 19th century utopian ideal worthy of study, but of little practical value. For one thing, Marx underestimated the fallen nature of humanity lusting for power. In the U.S., Soviet communism and Marx became bogeymen used by right wingers to scare the public, much like monsters under the bed and in the closet, but not without some reason. The Cold War was real; there was a sustained effort to spread Soviet style communism throughout the world, and to undermine democracy where it existed. The Russians may have given up communism, but undermining the West remains their passion, and that’s a story for another time.
Contrary to conservative fears, governments in large complex societies, with many competing needs, are often, but not always, the appropriate vehicles for underwriting essential social needs that transcend entire populations. Only governments can raise the funds necessary and see they are used without discrimination, which they do imperfectly because people, and the systems they create, are imperfect. The U.S. has a long history of socialist programs starting with grants of charter to private corporations to build canals, roads and railways, providing them with substantial subsidies along the way. The entire American transportation and communication infrastructure is a gigantic socialist program of public-private partnerships underwritten by taxpayers. The military, including every defense contractor, is socialist. That it’s socialism funneled through huge corporations doesn’t make it any less so. In many ways, the same can be said for American agriculture, but why open that can of worms?
Food and drug safety, job safety, workers’ rights, social security, Medicare, Medicaid and more are socialist programs. At the local level so are schools, parks, streets, sewers, water, and the like. Land use planning and zoning are socialist. What gives American socialist programs their particular character is our preference for public-private partnerships, and a strong commitment to use them to benefit individual freedoms. That for many years those benefits accrued mainly to whites, especially white men and the middle class, is a subject for discussion elsewhere. What’s obvious is that extending those benefits to others brings scary warnings about Creeping Socialism.
Right wing friends go apoplectic, claiming that restricting their right to discriminate, to use their property as they choose, to put limits on their behavior, and to force them to pay taxes for things they don’t like, is the very kind of undemocratic socialism they fear will lead to what? Cuban communism? Venezuelan collapse? Chinese takeover? Who knows, but they’re serious.
On the one hand, they’re perfectly happy with all things socialist as long as it’s called capitalism and helps them maintain their place in society. On the other hand, they have a point. Government is a clumsy tool that can easily be misused. Governments may be necessary to create structure for civilized society, and are efficient at raising funds needed for the public good, but they have only one effective method of enforcement –coercion. Governments coerce the payment of taxes. Persons are coerced to behave in certain approved ways. Illegal behavior is coercively punished. Government reserves to itself the right to use lethal force as a means of enforcement. Because the idea of individual freedoms are especially important to Americans, using the power of government to do things must be approached with caution; not everything deemed for the public good has to be addressed through legislation, and some shouldn’t.
What conservatives call socialist, and most of the rest of us call progressive, works best at the national level, on issues affecting large numbers of the public across local and state boundaries. Old standards need updating. Weak areas need strengthening. Issues long ignored demand to be addressed. Environmental protection and infrastructure renewal are obvious needs. It’s increasingly clear that health care is another. Some form of universal health care is critical to the long term welfare of the nation. The ACA was a good start. Whether a form of Medicare for all is the next step remains to be seen. Certainly it could be worked out in a public-private way as Medicare now is. Appropriate regulation of guns is another. It would restrict individual freedom to own whatever one wants in any way one wants, but the cost of 30,000 plus gun related deaths each year is a cost too high. You can name your own.
They, and others, are complex issues the solutions to which will require more socialist oriented answers. Conservatives will resist. If they resist in good faith, the result will favor workable plans that respect our constitutional values of freedom. If they resist, throwing up siege works to block all movement, the nation will continue its downward slide toward second tier status.
A closing thought. If the right wing is deliberately blind to what socialism is, within the context of American history and values, the left wing is deliberately blind to what capitalism is. Like socialism, it’s not a form of government, but an ill defined political philosophy endorsing private enterprise operating with the least amount of regulation and taxation it can get away with. It’s amoral, neither good nor bad. Morality is what society imposes on it through structures established by government. Capitalism is good at moving money around to discover the best return it can get. It’s what fuels the engine of economic prosperity. It needs freedom of movement to work well, but not unlimited, unregulated freedom. It’s government that sets the rules and limits of freedom. The political processes of American representative democracy work well at deciding what that means.