This month’s proposed bail-out of Wall Street financial institutions has gotten me thinking about socialism — in particular, the knee-jerk reaction that some conservative Americans express whenever the word is mentioned. They say, “Oh, we can’t have nationalized healthcare because that would be socialism,” as if the word alone makes the argument self-evident. But here’s my question: if socialism is so bad, then why don’t conservatives complain about the many socialized institutions that seem to work just fine and that we all take for granted? For example, our nation’s various police and fire departments are all socialized institutions, but we don’t hear conservatives screaming about making those into private industries (notwithstanding wealthy conservatives who live in gated communities with private security guards). Likewise, our nation’s judiciaries (both criminal and civil) are socialized, but we don’t hear conservatives calling for private funding of judges.
So, given that conservatives consider socialism OK in some situations, but not in others, what, for them, distinguishes “good” socialism from “bad” socialism? Here’s my theory: conservatives don’t mind having everyone share the cost of things such as police, fire, judges, etc., because conservatives tend to be people with wealth and power…and people with wealth and power tend to own more assets than people without wealth and power. And what better way is there to protect those assets against loss (fire, theft, fraud, etc.) than by making everyone share the cost of things like police, fire, courts, etc.? Of course, not all conservatives are wealthy and powerful, and not all wealthy or powerful people are conservatives, but I’m talking here about conservatives who unquestioningly accept socialism in some contexts, while blindly rejecting it in others. I suspect these people realize (consciously or subconsciously) that, for them personally, socialized cops are good but socialized doctors are not. They’re content to let their neighbors help pay for the police that protect their mansion, but why should they help pay for their neighbor’s broken leg?
So, what about public schools? Well, not all schools are funded by the public; only grades K-12. Why? Well, people with wealth and power have, historically, been the people who own the businesses in America, and they need a literate workforce. Not a curious, college-educated, authority-questioning workforce, just a literate one. So, it makes a lot of sense to them to have the public provide that workforce, thereby saving them the cost of teaching their potential employees to read and write. This is one reason why so many conservatives push for things such as standardized testing and “no child left behind”: they don’t want to get stuck with the burden of educating an illiterate workforce. It’s also one reason why they push for things such as school vouchers and (Christian) prayer in school: the belief that morality is just as important as literacy and that America’s moral values are (or should be) based on the Bible. Likewise, they see no reason to help pay for curious, authority-questioning kids to attend college; to the contrary, the less that access to college is based on intellectual merit and the more it is based on, say, a family’s wealth, the more likely that smart, poor kids can be hired for low wages and that the kids of wealthy families can go to college (and eventually inherit the levers of wealth and power).
So, with reference to the title of this post — “what’s so bad about socialism” — the answer is that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently bad about socialism; society’s movers and shakers have simply disparaged the term in situations whenever it benefits them to do so.
Indeed, let’s compare nominally “capitalist” America to some nominally “socialist” countries in Europe. Countries such as Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, etc., have much higher income taxes, much higher gasoline prices, nationalized healthcare, nationalized universities, shorter work weeks, longer vacations…and they still have a stronger currency, a healthier population, fewer people in prison (per capita), fewer violent crimes (per capita) and a far smaller military (per capita). All of which leaves me with a question I’m going to leave with you: what’s so good about American-style capitalism?