There They Go Again
It's jarring to hear shouts of "socialist!" at these McCain rallies like it has some specific, current meaning. Who talks this way anymore? Well, in right wing circles, the sweat inducing, night terror of creeping socialism is as alive and well as it was 20 years ago.
To commemorate the moment the NY Times republished this yesterday:
December 31, 1989
We Have Socialism, Q.E.D.
Milton Friedman is senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
By Milton Friedman
Conventional wisdom these days can be summarized in the form of a syllogism.
Major premise: Socialism is a failure. Even lifelong Communists now accept this proposition. Wherever socialism has been tried, it has proved unable to deliver the goods, either in the material form of a high standard of living or in the immaterial form of human freedom.
Minor premise: Capitalism is a success. Economies that have used capitalism - free private markets -as their principal means of organizing economic activity have proved capable of combining widely shared prosperity and a high measure of human freedom. A private market system has proved to be a necessary though not a sufficient condition for prosperity and freedom.
Conclusion: The U.S. needs more socialism. An obvious non sequitur, yet there is no denying that many apparently reasonable people - including most members of Congress and of the Bush Administration - accept all three propositions simultaneously.
What is socialism? In its purest form, socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production. Ownership of anything implies the right to the income produced by that thing.
All means of production in the United States - people, land, machines, buildings, etc. - produce our national income. Spending by government currently amounts to about 45 percent of national income. By that test, government owns 45 percent of the means of production that produce the national income. The U.S. is now 45 percent socialist.
Socialism has proved no more efficient at home than abroad. What are our most technologically backward areas? The delivery of first class mail, the schools, the judiciary, the legislative system - all mired in outdated technology. No doubt we need socialism for the judicial and legislative systems. We do not for mail or schools, as has been shown by Federal Express and others, and by the ability of many private schools to provide superior education to underprivileged youngsters at half the cost of government schooling.
Airlines have had no difficulty in acquiring the planes and personnel to handle the increased traffic produced by deregulation. What has been the bottleneck? Airports. Why? Because they are government owned and operated.
We all justly complain about the waste, fraud and inefficiency of the military. Why? Because it is a socialist activity - one that there seems no feasible way to privatize. But why should we be any better at running socialist enterprises than the Russians or Chinese?
By extending socialism far beyond the area where it is unavoidable, we have ended up performing essential governmental functions far less well than is not only possible but than was attained earlier. In a poorer and less socialist era, we produced a nationwide network of roads and bridges and subway systems that were the envy of the world. Today we are unable even to maintain them.
Yet what are the loudest complaints? Government should be doing more; government is strapped for funds; taxes should be raised; more regulations should be imposed; build more prisons to house more criminals created by socialist legislation. Child care? Program trading? Earthquakes? Pass a law. And every law comes with a price tag and is cited as a reason for higher taxes.
Can we learn only from our own mistakes? Or not even from them?
It's such a soothing and comfortable rant, isn't it? It fits like a soft, well-worn old workshirt. You can see why the insult falls off the lips of guys like Joe the plumber without the slightest hesitation. But is that what Joe means when he claims that Obama is a socialist? I don't think so.
It entered the campaign a few weeks back in an unusual and forceful way. The wingnut radio hosts resurrected it to describe the financial bailout --- for which both Obama and McCain voted:
"When the government fails to pass a socialism bill and the market goes south, let it go south. I don't want to pass a socialism bill just to protect the stock market," said Limbaugh, by far the most popular host on U.S. radio.
That's what passes for principle on the right. They reflexively rebelled against the bailout not because it created a moral hazard or rewarded the malefactors of great wealth when they had screwed the pooch. They were upset that the government was spending money on something other than killing or incarcerating people, period.
Now, however, the phrase morphed into an insult aimed not at the government's bailout of banks and financial entities. In fact, it's just the opposite. Here's the other Limbaugh, with an screed that is a far cry from the elegant argument of Milton Friedman's:
Maybe I'm being too much of an alarmist, but I'm worried for the first time in my life that the election of a presidential candidate could lead to a fundamental change in our system of government. Just listen to the comments of post-debate focus group members expressing a knowing willingness to accept Obama's socialism, such is their angst at the subprime mortgage mess.
Already some 38 percent of Americans do not pay income taxes, and Barack Obama wants to increase that percentage dramatically. How ironic that he and other Democrats pretend to be targeting their message to "working-class" people when many of their constituents aren't working. But such is class warfare that the upper-middle class and wealthy are demonized as not earning an honest living.
Do you suppose it has registered with class warfare-receptive Obama voters that Obama is deliberately turning the American dream on its head? Could it be any clearer that his message to the middle class is: Don't aspire to achievement, success and wealth because a) it is immoral to have more than others, b) the government will take your wealth away from you and give it to others, and c) why bother to bust your rear end to make more when you can vote yourselves money from the public trough?
That's right. Obama wants to eliminate income taxes for many Americans, but that's a form of socialism because those people aren't wealthy. And these socialistic policies will make everyone stop working and the government won't have any money. Which is bad (or good?) I'm not sure.
So, you have right wingers inveighing against socialism based upon the idea that government can't do anything right, that it's government propping up the undeserving rich, and simultaneously that it's government being harmful to the deserving rich who are the backbone of the American Dream. It pretty much covers all the bases.
McCain hasn't actually used the word. But he came much, much closer to the heart of the real argument. He let it all hang out:
John McCain sharpened his economic attack Friday by accusing Barack Obama of plotting to turn the tax code into a tool for redistributing wealth, an idea he equated to welfare.
"When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you'd better hold on to your wallet," Mr. McCain told a raucous crowd in Miami, where he debuted the tougher rhetoric. "His plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don't pay taxes. That's not a tax cut, that's welfare."
Ah, finally. The Big "W". I think we all know what that alludes to, don't you? I'll reprise an oldie but a goody:
Sociologist Nathan Glazer of Harvard, who has long been interested in the question of America’s underdeveloped welfare state, answers a related question --- “Why Americans don’t care about income inequality” which may give us some clues. Citing a comprehensive study by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth called, "Why Doesn't the United States have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2/2001) he shows that the reluctance of Americans to embrace an egalitarian economic philosophy goes back to the beginning of the republic. But what is interesting is that both he and the economists offer some pretty conclusive evidence that the main reason for American “exceptionalism” in this case is, quite simply, racism.
AGS [Alesina, Glazear and Sacerdote] report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty."
"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution. In fact the political system is likely to be endogenous to these basic American beliefs."(p. 61)
"Endogenous" is economics-ese for saying we have the political system we do because we prefer the results it gives, such as limiting redistribution to the blacks. Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state.
So, while Milton Friedman may have had his own reasons for perpetuating the myth of inefficient socialist government, this is the worldview that informs the conservative obsession with "socialism." (The positively weird finger pointing at racial and ethnic minorities as the cause of the home mortgage meltdown is a perfect case in point.) For their next trick they will undoubtedly scream bloody murder when the government is forced to intervene more in the economy in order to keep average people like themselves from ruin. Until it hits them personally, they will be sure that no matter what happens, this government "interference" is designed to help the undeserving poor (minorities) at the expense of hard working people like themselves. They'll say this even as they stand in line to receive help for their own failing mortgage or extended unemployment benefits.
The difference, you see, is that unlike these other parasites, they work for a living and therefore, will be among the rich someday. (The American Idol Dream says that wealthy people got rich because they were very special and they worked harder than anyone else --- just like you.) Therefore, the prerogatives of the rich must be maintained for all the hard workers who will pull themselves up from their boot straps and became plumbing magnates. Don't rain on their parades by suggesting that they may just remain middle class Americans (which in global terms puts them in the top five percent of all humans who've ever lived.) How disappointing. If Britney can do it, why not me?
A commenter at the Human Events site, where David Limbaugh expressed his terror at the impending socialist takeover, distills the problem down to its essence:
Obama is not a Communist. He is a Liberal, which is far worse, and further to the left than Communism. Under Communism, there is this underlying philosophy:
From each according to his ability.
To each according to his need.
That’s in a Communist society. In a Liberal society, we do not demand that each person work. And then we give them far more than they need.
Liberals are worse than Communists.
There you have it.