I can’t tell you how many people have walked away from me shaking their head once I’ve asked what they don’t like about socialism. It’s always well into the conversation, often after they have used the term as a confirmation of why something is bad. As in, after I’ve shown my support for single-payer healthcare, their response is that single-payer is bad because it is socialist. “And what’s wrong with socialism?” I’ll ask, knowing that I’ve probably just brought an end to the discussion. (Much appreciation to the very few who have continued past this point, you know who you are.)
I’d like to say up front that I get it. Really, I get that we don’t want to be a socialist country, so my question is a bit of intentional provocation. I could try to mitigate the situation by drawing a distinction between socialism and social democracy, since I’m actually advocating for the latter, but sometimes I can’t resist poking fun at labelphobes. Because it’s socialist? Seriously? Can’t we have a conversation about the thing without resorting to strawman tactics? And why are we hardwired to conceive of every dispute as a polarity? Can we only be either capitalist or socialist? Is it not more favorable to land somewhere in the middle?
So far as I can tell, from my own research and the rather limited input from my interlocutors, there are valid arguments against pure socialism both at the state level and for individuals. (The problem is that too many people are inclined to see the faults of pure socialism as a reason to oppose any socialist policies whatsoever. But I’ll return to this point later.)
At the state level, socialism is a hindrance for ingenuity, innovation, and productivity; which, by the way, are the greatest strengths of capitalism. In terms of competition, government control of an industry is no different from a capitalist monopoly – if you don’t need to win over customers, you have no incentive to improve the good or service you supply. And assuming the state is not also fascist (which would lead to communism), socialism removes the profit incentive, both from large businesses controlled by the state and from small businesses trying not to become so big that the state wants to control them – once the state has control, the goal of a business shifts its highest priority from turning a profit to providing a service. So long as population is increasing, we need economic growth to keep up with demand. For economic growth, we need both competition and profit as incentives. Therefore, socialism is inefficient because it malnourishes the advancement of civilization.
As for individuals, socialism places restraints on personal liberty and right to property. The state gets to choose where to invest its money, its people, and its material resources, people no longer get to make these decisions for themselves. To pay for this, the state compels its citizens to pay taxes. Taxation means taking money from one person and giving it to another, which at its very core is a form of theft. Therefore, socialism is immoral.
Such are the arguments against socialism, as I understand them. If I’ve missed anything, please leave a comment to set me straight.
Both arguments fail because they rely on the same false premise that the controlling entity must be either the state or the people. The government controls the people, or the people control the government. The missing component, of course, is the corporate entity.
Any old-school economist worth his value in stock shares knows that market activity is an impersonal machine of necessity whose actions are defined by the laws of supply and demand. Those economists are wrong. So long as a company’s contribution to its sector of the economy is modest, supply and demand do indeed force the hand of management and, thus, the behavior of the company. But once a company has grown large enough to carry the health of an industry or even the whole economy on its shoulders, power shifts from demand to supply. When no one else can provide the same or same level of a good or service, a company can regulate output to manipulate price and profit margin, can spend lavishly to lobby politicians, and, most importantly for the working class, can wield resolute leverage when negotiating employee wages. At this point, neither the state nor the people are in control. The corporations are. Taxes are how society pays its bills. Under-compensation for labor is theft.
Corporations have done a marvelous job convincing the American people that they are still bound by the same economic laws as before. Not only that, but they have deprecated the government’s role in regulation, claiming for themselves sole responsibility for creating jobs, ensuring quality products, and mitigating disasters both economic and environmental. Trickle-down economics, brought to life by the Reagan administration, has made corporations the masters of our national destiny, and any attempt by the government to protect against egregious impropriety is cast as a villainous regime attacking the benevolent hero.
And yet, the working class continues to struggle. Corporations make deals with local communities to bring in jobs in return for tax and utility waivers, land grants, even loans, then abandon ship when business falters, leaving the communities to cover the losses themselves. They threaten to kill jobs and/or raise prices if the minimum wage goes up, knowing that government programs will supplement incomes for those whose paychecks aren’t enough to live on. They demonize stewards of the land, like the EPA, for enacting regulations that place unnecessary burdens on commerce. They lobby against transparency in order to preempt regulation and shirk responsibility when problems occur. It is the government’s constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare of the people, and yet we as a nation have bought into the fantasy that only a market free from outside interference will guarantee our prosperity. Never mind that there is no such thing as a free market, at least not here, not now. Never mind that businesses aggressively negotiate to eschew any social responsibility, paying as little as possible to get the labor and materials they need regardless of true cost or consequence. Never mind that we, the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world, still have millions of hungry, homeless, and uninsured. And never mind that there is no evidence that any one of the assertions stated above favoring the corporate world is true. Folks are seemingly content hide behind accusations of fake news and they happily, gleefully, ignore the facts. Like the Western diet, capitalism over-nourishes the advancement of society, to the detriment of the current and future well-being of the people. And the past few decades are now catching up to us.
The answer is not to pivot to pure socialism, as my back-turners may have assumed is the goal. Nor is there any reason to believe that it would somehow be the end result. We need capitalism. We need corporations. We need patent laws and trade secrets, and we even need the ability to pay top dollar to get the best leadership in the private sector. We also need a government competent enough to protect us when profits won’t. No well-reasoned person I know wants a full government takeover of any industry, much less all industry. The real question is what level of government intervention is appropriate for a given industry at a given time. Monopolies are bad for competition, driving up consumer prices and reducing consumer choice. Thus, government should step in (more often than they do) to break up monopolies. And if we are to so concern ourselves with how things are produced, are we not also obliged to consider how they are monetized and consumed? Should profit be the dominating priority for every industry? Put another way, are there goods/services that should be available outside of the conventional models of maximized profit?
I believe the answer to that last question is yes. Every child in America is guaranteed, ostensibly, access to public education to be paid for by taxpayers. The system can be improved upon, certainly, but does anyone believe that a privatized, for-profit education system would be better? Is there any evidence that even charter schools (which are almost all non-profit) are so successful that the entire system should switch over to their model? The result would be a formal recognition that those without do without when it comes to education, and although that scenario is somewhat true now, at least we openly endorse equal access to quality education for all, and we enact policies to encourage this.
Likewise, every person in America should be guaranteed access to public health care to be paid for by taxpayers. Under the current system, you get only as much health care as you can pay for, and in many cases much less. One of the benefits of capitalist markets, stated above, is that profit incentives encourage better products. And yet, we pay more for health care than any other developed country in the world and we receive worse outcomes. Tragically, people who do not have health insurance, or sufficient health insurance, choose to forego valuable tests and treatments rather than take on debt. Many who do take on debt go bankrupt just trying to stay alive. Health insurance also is often tied directly to one’s employer, so switching jobs creates the potential for dropped coverage. But the most important reason to insure everyone is that everyone will consume this product, some continually, others eventually. Choosing not to purchase insurance only shifts the inevitable financial burden onto those who do pay.
The taxpayers already foot the bill for those whose health care is not covered by insurance. Integrating this purchase into the tax system to create formal coverage will raise taxes, but it will reduce health care costs – by capping maximum charges for procedures and drugs, by encouraging growth in health care professions, and by providing lifetime access to care, thus detecting disease and disorder while treatment is relatively cheap. This does not mean the government runs health care. What it means is that the government represents the people and not the corporations. It means that the citizenry as a whole, through government, can use maximum enrollment to negotiate for lower costs with providers. It means the priority is on health and not profit. Better health outcomes means cheaper health care. This coupled with a national food policy that values nutrition over calories, a single-payer health care system is the most efficient, most effective, and most financially conservative choice for Americans.
So there is something to be gained from looking at both sides of this discussion, when the discussion is allowed to occur. Capitalism and socialism both have their strengths and their weaknesses – both have beneficial applications, yet each is ruinous in its pure form. It should be clear by now that what I’m describing here is, thus, not socialism per se, but something closer to social democracy. Perhaps I’ll write about the term itself at some point. And perhaps I’ll adapt my discourse with the back-turners. After all, there are plenty of other opportunities to provoke.