Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is it Socialism?

I was sitting in my living room watching President Obama's speech on healthcare this past Wednesday. I had Facebook up and the chat window opened.

Why are people so opposed to a public option? a friend asked.

It's socialism, I replied.

There was a pause. Then the reply...

So is a municipal police department.

Is it?

There's not some official definition of Socialism I can refer to in order to answer that question. Wikipedia says this:
Socialism refers to various theories of economic organization advocating worker or public ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources, and a society characterized by equal access to resources for all individuals with an egalitarian method of compensation.
I know, kind of vague and wordy. Wikipedia goes on to say that it is primarily an economic system, and that it stands in contrast or capitalism. And perhaps in a purely theoretical world that might be true. But in the real world societies tend to blend elements of both systems.

Americans today have very little experience with hard socialism. We don't have a history of state owned industries. We don't have a sovereign wealth fund with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets to invest (like the United Arab Emirates, China, Norway, Singapore, and a few other countries).

We do have a few industries where a major portion of that industry is actually managed by the government, in the sense that projects are government funded and workers are either government employees or are contracted by the government. Transportation stands out: government (federal, state, or local) builds and maintains our roads and manages our airports. Public safety is in that same boat (and that answers the question about the municipal police department). Education is another biggie. Most American's don't think of the word "Socialism" when you talk about public schools or state universities. But in the strictest sense of the definition, schools like Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, and UCLA are socialist institutions. So are most elementary schools.

We don't think of roads and schools as socialism. Maybe they are, maybe they're not. But we don't think of them as such.

A softer, fuzzier form of socialism worries most Americans much more. It's the idea that the government might provide services of some kind - a social safety net for the poor (or for the middle class, on the chance that they might become poor), health coverage, financial services (like mortgages or student loans), etc.

The problem is, we have those things to some extent already. Not only do we have them already, but most Americans like them.

We could do away with those things. We could put an end to social security. We could tell our senior citizens that we're sorry if they didn't plan well when they were thirty, but now that they're 69 and unemployed, they're own their own when it comes to medical bills. Their families should take care of them. We could close the VA medical facilities because they're Socialism. There are people who advocate that idea, based on the principle that Socialism is bad - somehow immoral, definitely anti-Christian, economically unmotivating, yada yada yada.

Why hasn't that happened? The politician who voted to end Social Security or Medicare would never be re-elected. The majority of people in his district would vote for his opponent in the next election. Most American's want those programs to continue to exist. Our voters aren't alone in that. I can't think of a developed democracy without these sorts of economic safety nets.

Politics and religion is a combustible mix. In injects emotion into most discussions and tends to remove reason from the discussion.

One of the loudest arguments being voiced against the growth of the soft and fuzzy sort of socialism represented by government supported health coverage (the so-called "government option") is that it's somehow "un-Christian." In support they often site II Thessalonians 3:10 - If a man will not work, he shall not eat. (NIV)

The verse is a good argument for the concept of work ethic. But it's hardly theological backing for an entire economic system. Capitalism has more to do with marketing goods than producing them - with supply and demand, profit and loss, and pricing. And people in the Religious Right who want to argue that Socialism is evil neglect the fact that early Christians practiced it in the Book of Acts (chapters 2 & 4).

The theological argument breaks down when real theology is applied. The truth is simpler than politicians want to acknowledge. Mature, devote Christians work because it's, well, righteous - not because it's personally profitable. Non-Christians may find their own reasons to work, but the flawed character they have (described in the early chapters of Romans) means they find a way to avoid work in any system.

The religious argument breaks down. And Christians outside America aren't as preoccupied with it. Americans have their perception of the issue skewed by the ties fiscal Conservative (Republicans) have created here with Evangelical churches.

America is a long, long way from being a Socialist country. Americans don't like the word "Socialism" because they associate it with Communism and with dictators. That association is fed by Fiscal Conservatives who, among other things, play the religious card. American's like the Socialism they have and fear the Socialism they don't have. With political purpose in mind, Conservative politicians feed that fear. But so far, a little Socialism (once it's part of the system) has proven to be easily tolerated and well like by the majority of Americans. And no one I know wants wholesale, hard Socialism.