What’s so bad about socialism?

| September 28, 2008 | 27 Replies

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?

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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (27)

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  1. Mary says:

    You'll notice, grumpy, that those fine conservative capitalists are all for the socialist bail-out of Wall Street. Capitalism is fine, as long as wealthy conservatives are making money. When it comes to losing money, bring on the socialism.

  2. Todd says:

    Tell me grumpy,

    I'll leave you with one question, have you moved to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway yet?

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Mary comments, "When it comes to losing money, bring on the socialism."

    Indeed, capitalism in America has long been a vehicle for privatizing profits and nationalizing costs. Environmental pollution has been the most widespread manifestation of this phenomenon — companies take their profits and then declare bankruptcy when the clean-up cost comes due. However, other costs come from surprising directions. For example, the U.S. government subsidizes the growing of corn…which is primarily used to make sweeteners and cooking oil…which is primarily used to make fast food…which is a main source of obesity in America…which leads to serious, chronic diseases in America, such as heart disease and diabetes…the treatment of which is a significant cause of the skyrocketing cost of healthcare in America. Yet, curiously, those who defend farm subsidies are often the same people who decry national healthcare as "socialism." Why? Because farmers tend to be conservative and farming is big business, and conservative, big business types usually vote Republican.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Todd asks, "I’ll leave you with one question, have you moved to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway yet?"

    No, but I have worked in some of those countries and I have had colleagues from all of them, and the vast majority of people I've met live far more balanced lives than do most Americans. They spend more time with family and friends, they take longer vacations, they travel more, they are healthier, they have fewer violent crimes, they have far fewer of their citizens in prison…the list goes on. Oh yeah, and here's the kicker: on a per-hour basis they are more productive in their jobs than are Americans. America could do a whole lot worse than to learn from them. Not everything would transfer, of course, but there is a lot of good that America could benefit from Europeans if it were not for so many conservative Americans who reject the idea — not for any rational reason but merely because "it's European." It reminds me of little children I know who refuse to try new foods "because I won't like it." I'll tell you the same thing I tell them: try it — you might be surprised.

    • DR says:

      And what is the price for giving up all personal freedom and responsibility, Grumpy? You haven’t thought of that because either you don’t care what happens to your prosperity or you are historically ignorant. Look at what is happening in your precious Europe at the moment and understand that wears where we are as well because of the same progressive big government spending big handout big give everyone something for nothing and there will be no future consequence parties. Your problem is that you believe in a very childish, very dangerous make believe fantasy that there is the ability to have a utopia on earth. That is an utter and total fabrication of a mind that is mentally defective( yes – it is absolutely frightening how much of the population is suffering under this illness at this point in history ). One day something untouchable and uncontrollable will catch up to you and all that think as you do, and it is simply called REALITY. Wake up man, save yourself and your family and your country before it is too late.

      P.S. Don’t take peace for granted my fellow man.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      DR, you forgot to warn grumpypilgrim about the monsters under the bed.

  5. Karl says:

    Europeans who were easily dominated by socialism will soon be in submission to Islam either by choice or force unless the idealogs wake up and understand that there are some significant differences in benevolent voluntary socialism verses an activist one. The one seeks to love their neighbor as themself. The other somehow believes that individual motivation has nothing to do with it. That the only fair way to deal with the inequities in any situation is to elect of appoint social/political activists who they believe can make the playing field even. Only the last thing on their mind is a level playing field.

    Taken to this extreme Islam and fascist beliefs will force their agenda because they don't even believe they are even remotely wrong in what they believe to be the truth.

    Right about now I wouldn't be surprised to see serious consideration given to allow convicted hard core felons to start voting from prison. Worse yet, the obvious felons (like those who decry they are not responsible for aspects of the aggregious financial debacles) pardoned and over looked as simply pawns of the system. This is giving the inmates full charge of the asylum?

    Who will then label anyone as dangerous or not dangerous? Or who is best silenced by the assylum or the prison? Everyone sanity then becomes suspect and a danger to beware of.

    Its like saying – our team hasn't won in ages so we need to make sure the opponent is not only defeated this time, but also so labelled/damaged to the point they are going to want to change teams to stay on the politically correct side of the issue, or be put in the assylum or prison.

    Frankly there are more than a few respected and welcomed writers on this blog site that have a very distorted view of morality.

    Both political parties contain upstanding moral individuals, why even William Ayers is trying to say he's really only a political activist who may have gone a little too far.

    "Guilty as __________, but free as a bird. I love this Nation."

    Try that in an Islamic or fascist nation and unless you are the one in power, you will not be around to brag to anyone about it.

    America needs to do one basic thing. Drop the parties of the republicans and the democrats and build coalitions concerning the issues, not the party leaderships' agendas.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    "Europeans who were easily dominated by socialism will soon be in submission to Islam."

    This is utter BS. Western European countries are not "dominated" by socialism, they are democracies in which majorities have voted for social welfare systems that guarantee a basic standard of living for all, and a really enviable standard of living for most. Europeans like, appreciate, and assimilate many aspects of American culture. One of the aspects that a lot of Europeans are studying is how American culture assimilates immigrants, or fails to. Being free to learn from other cultures is one of the great things about a free society.

    Eastern Europe lags behind W. Europe in development, in part because its people were prevented from learning about what was going on in the world around them, and were fed a diet of misleading diet of propaganda about the West. It seems that some Americans, while living in a free society, are re-creating Eastern Europe 1948-1989 by building mental walls and never seeking information or direct experience beyond their own internal propaganda.

  7. Lauren says:

    the reason the police force and judges and the fire department are socialized enterprises is NOT because of the ridiculous reason you gave, grumpy. it is because it would be ridiculous and dangerous to have these institutions privatized and competing with each other. taxes were originally meant to pay for these institutions to keep the citizens safe from the citizens that are corrupt.

    i am rather conservative, and i am not wealthy at all. i am a single parent putting myself through college. i live on pennies a month after all my bills are paid. if anyone was in need of socialized medicine or other "social programs", it would be me. but i refuse to take part in those programs at the expense of the economy and personal liberty. that is the real problem that many conservatives have with socialism: it is a violation of liberty, which is supposed to be what America stands for. many people, like yourself, would give up liberty for the false idea that the government can take better care of it's people than they can take care of themselves. what you will eventually find is a people without a voice who must submit to the government's idea of what is best for them, as though the government could do a better job of running one's life than one could do themselves.

    as for schools, many conservatives put their children in private schools because the public schools, run by the public education system founded by the government, are swiftly failing. because of our public schools, America is falling farther and farther behind globally. that is why we push for school vouchers- so that parents may choose which school will give their child the best education, thereby forcing schools to become competetive and raising the standard of education.

  8. What is it with some Americans thinking that their country is the hottest shit and depicting European countries as communist prisons? Be glad Obama won, because you don't really want to know what people have been thinking about you here until now.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Karl: Your comment sounds paranoid and divisive. In my mind, all kinds of people can live to learn together. It is the "my group is best" attitude that polarizes us into subgroups. Take a deep breath. Go outside, shake hands with someone who appears to be "different" than you and get to know him or her.

    When a group of people closes ranks and demonizes another group, it starts off a wild round of aggression among groups. We should be seeking commonalities, not wars.

    For all his faults, Bill Clinton gave a marvelous speech promoting this idea. http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/06/09/the-d

    It would also seem (for you conservative Christians out there) to be the central teaching of the Biblical Jesus. http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/10/06/jesus

  10. Karl says:

    Erich says:

    "When a group of people closes ranks and demonizes another group, it starts off a wild round of aggression among groups. We should be seeking commonalities, not wars. "

    Like I said recently, when the commonalities are the lowest common denominator, we all loose. If Jesus was all about seeking out the lowest common denominator than I need to stand corrected.

    Ask a moderate conservative like me what it's like to spend a few months conversing with the "crew" here at dangerous intersection and maybe you'll understand why it not as easy to shake hands with someone who would really rather see you just fade away into the woodwork.

    I try to tolerate differences without getting hostile and abusive – that's a trait of many here on dangerous intersection, but as you also know, there are those here who would like to close ranks concerning anything other than the lowest common denominator of a naturalistic atheistic point of view.

  11. How long are you guys continuing to answer Karl's posts? It's pretty obvious that he is going to say what he wants, thinks what he wants, twist the facts and then start again.

    My theory is that rich Republicans have managed to brainwash people with lesser income into believing that as long as you are "free" you are a happy person and live a great life. It doesn't matter that your teeth are rotting, that you are struggling to pay your bills, that you call a trailer your home, that your children are malnourished and deprived of basics, that they might never be able to afford college or that you are so uneducated that people call you "white trash," it's all fine and dandy, because you are free. You know what is great about keeping the working class busy with a couple of jobs? They won't have the time, the money, and probably not the energy after a long workingday, to research the truth behind the lies that are being fed to them by politicians. They are playing you for a sucker and you happily say thank you.

  12. And has anybody noticed that big corporates have way less qualms about receiving benefits from the government? There are also people that you call "lobbyists" that try to influence politicians so that certain groups get what they want.

    This is probably one of the best pieces of propaganda I've ever seen. Actually, in real Communist systems you have the same thing. Simple people being the idiots who do the work for the ones on top of the party and sucking in the nonsense about values, self-reliance and the good things you can do for society.

  13. Karl says:

    Like I said above.

    Ask a moderate conservative like me what it’s like to spend a few months conversing with the “crew” here at dangerous intersection and maybe you’ll understand why it not as easy to shake hands with someone who would really rather see you just fade away into the woodwork.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    Karl: Please list some of your views that you think make you a "moderate" conservative as compared to a far right wing conservative. I'd be interested to hear your views on this.

  15. Vicki Baker says:

    PL, you said it. The rhetoric about socialism vs. rugged individualism rarely matches reality. Liberal blue parts of the map generate more $$$ for the GDP while the red areas are net absorbers of cash. Palin's town of Wassilla got $27 milion in federal $$, way more per capita than those she accuses of being socialist.

    Federal ag subsidies go to the big corn and soybean operations, which grow the raw ingredients for highly processed foods that make us fat. These farm factories are tended by deskilled machine operators who watch dvd's in the air condiitioned cabs of their huge tractors. Meanwhile farmes in ultra liberal hippie Santa Cruz who grow a good portion of the country's lettuce, strawberries, and brussel sprouts, get almost no subsidies and do hard physical work.

    Another example: the "Montana Freemen" movement whose violent anti-government rhetoric masked their dependence on federal handouts.

  16. Vicki Baker says:

    Karl, I don't see where, up to now, you get the idea that people here want you to fade into the woodwork. Lots of people here have been very generous with their time and attention, Dan in particular. I don't think anyone at DI demands that you embrace "atheistic naturalism" to be taken seriously. We do, however, demand of you what we demand of ourselves: a modicum of epistemic humility.

  17. Karl says:

    I believe in civil discourse, non-coercive and non ad-hominum attacks with those I don't agree with. That's what a moderate is to me.

    I believe in the existence of a Creator to whom the natural world and all created creatures and beings are accountable. In this regard I probably don't fit into the mold of this Website because I don't believe I am just a human animal.

    I believe that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

    I also believe in most of the rest of what was written in the Declaration of Independence.

    I am first a deist and secondly an evangelical christian. I don't believe in the need to preach at people, if they ask me what I really believe I will try to tell them as clearly as I can.

    I don't believe that people are the product of some godless naturalistic cosmic experiment that devalues the life of any single individual, group of people or race of human beings.

    I don't agree with the statement that humans are simply animals that are pawns to be pushed around by the winds of popular culture and humanistic philosophy.

    I try to be tolerant of other points of view but where there are laws and constitutions, one must be willing to accept the consequences of civil disobedience towards breaking the laws and attempting to quickly and easily modify or change such laws and constitutions.

    If I believe existing laws are unfair or inappropriate, I will voice my opposition to the principles being espoused in the laws, not bad mouth those who are charged with their enforcement. However, we need to identify those charged with the promise to uphold the laws and constitution who would rather operate under different existing interpretations of these laws and consitutions because they believe it is their duty to change the laws and constitution.

    The U.S. Constitution contains written possibility for changes to the wording of the document and the need to clarify its application to existing cultural and societal norms and ideas. Even the need for a Consitutional Convention is not excluded, but there are methods for each state to offer input into the laws and even definitions of societal customs that are acceptable in the United States.

    People like Ghandi come to mind as moderates, People like Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and several of the Obama clan in Kenya strike me as being extremists.

    Those who signed the Declaration of Independence knew they were participating in an act of rebellion to the King of England. Most of them would have said they were moderate, but were forced into extremist activities for the protection of their families, friends and faith in God.

    I guess if you consider a persistent christian's comments as divisive and out of line with what you are trying to do with this wesite then I will abide by your decision and remove myself from participation in the exchange of ideas and relationships here on Dangerous Intersection.

    If you prefer democracy – see if there is a need to close ranks.

  18. No wonder he keeps on lingering here, you encourage him, Erich!

  19. Tim Hogan says:

    Karl; "I try to tolerate…"

    Yoda; "There is do and not do. There is no try!"

  20. Vicki Baker says:

    Some ancient wisdom about maliciious rumors and whisper campaigns:

    As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife. The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.

    (Proverbs 26:20-22)

  21. Karl says:

    Vicki, Do you quote the Bible's wisdom literature as though it is really genuine in your mind, or is it a tool to use back upon someone you feel is being contentious?

    Sometimes speaking the truth like Martin Luther King Jr. did can stir up strife, but in the midst of strife, a really uncontentious demeanor can accomplish much good. Unfortunately, the uncontentious demeanor often ends up being sacrificed by man's inhumanity to man.

    It all depends on whether the words one uses are tales meant to harm or tales meant to flush out the truth.

    King Solomom had no intention of cutting the child in half, but by stating that was the only way to resolve the conflict, he discoverd who the mother really was.

  22. Vicki Baker says:

    Karl, I quote the Bible's wisdom literature because I learned it an early age from people who actually attempted to put it into practice, instead of trying to convince other people that they were morally superior because they called themselves Christians. So yes, it is "genuine in my mind" though I don't think the Bible is the only source of wisdom.

    Many of the things my parents taught me I still practice. Not to spread gossip and slander is one of the basic principles I am glad they taught me. I have shared how I stopped one of the rumor emails about McCain that came to me. Apparently, you judge everyone by yourself and are unable to imagine that the people you deride as godless may actually have higher ethical standards in this area than you appear to.

    Andy Martin's 4 year campaign of unsubstantiated rumor is not an attempt to flush out the truth. He has admitted that his original claim is a lie, yet it still circulates. His stories are definitely "tales meant to harm." You have spread these tales, and attempted to pass off Andy Martin as a credible source. This is a man who has said: "I am able to understand how the Holocaust took place, and with every passing day feel less and less sorry that it did" "

    How dare you compare your defense of this sad, vicious, mentally unstable little man with Martin Luther King? Really, how dare you?

    Please understand, I have nothing against you because of your religious faith or your conservative opinions. I know many people politically and religiously conservative people whose integrity I greatly respect.

    It's not your faith, it's not your politics, it's you.

  23. Robert says:

    It does not surprise me that you live in Madison Wisc. Socialism is a redistribution of wealth. It breeds lazy people and makes people feel entitled to everything. I started out poor. i worked hard and now I am rich. Am i evil? Should you take my money and give it to lazy poor people? I think not. For being a graduate of MIT your not very bright.

  24. James says:

    The question:
    "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.?"
    is based on the false premise that "everyone" pays for those services.
    Check the stats on who pays what taxes, and the basis for your article evaporates.

  25. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    James,

    Many people are schooled by the media to think taxes only means income tax. You need to understand something else. poor people pay taxes other than income taxes.

    Consider a couple working minimum wage jobs. 7.25 per hour before deduction, 40 hours per week, 50 weeks out of the year (assuming the employer isn’t using a bunch of undocumented workers, and actually allows for two week vacations during the year) works out to $14,500 per person, or $29,000 for the household. before taxes. Of course income tax is withheld on both paychecks,and it will be refunded at tax time.

    They also pay payroll taxes (7.6%).
    So $29,000 – 2218.5 leaves $26,781. They shell out $12,000 per year in rent (part of which goes on the landlords property tax) on a studio apartment with utilities in a rundown part of town, and about 150 per week at the grocery store(10 % of which is sales tax). Her job requires the use of a car, which requires an annual registration and wheel tax, The car also requires gasoline, which includes taxes in the per gallon price.

    This struggling couple pretty much lives from paycheck to paycheck. That means their annual income get spent, and nothing can be saved or invested. They are only making ends meet.Including the $.40 per gallon taxes on gasoline, this two income minimum wage couple are paying out 38% of their income in taxes. Only if they are extremely lucky will they get ahead.

    Now consider the millionaire.

    If I understand the IRS data, no one has an adjusted gross income of more than $400,000 or so. This implies that people with multi-million dollar incomes all take advantage of loopholes and tax dodges built into the system. lets take that $400,000 figure. If a millionaire is taxed at 35% of $400,000, that’s $140,000. There is a maximum taxable income for social security, currently $106,800. Taxes on that amount is $6,621. The gives an effective rate of 14%. Keep in mind that many millionaires have an adjusted incomes of $0.

    The millionaire does not need to spend 25% of his income on food or 41% on shelter, but not only is the interest on his 16 million dollar home tax deductible, chances are he owns stock in the bank his home is financed through and he gets the interest back as capital gains. Many millionaires in the US don’t pay property taxes every year. When the property tax bill is high enough, they can often settle for a fraction of the accrued taxes.

    There are other perks to the excess of wealth. For example, millionaires, can, instead of buying insurance, be self insured through bonded insurance accounts. Instead of having to pay for coverage, they collect interest for coverage.

    They can also avoid most sales taxes by having supplies shipped in from out of state.

    What about the corporate “persons”?

    It is a common practice for corporations to place a factory or store in a location after convincing the local government to providing a tax holiday for several years. Usually the corporation claims it will bring jobs to the area to stimulate the local economy, often the jobs are fewer and lower paying that predicted. Walmart is notorious for these property tax deals, and recently when Walmart tried to get tax concessions from the German government and could not, divested itself of a German retail chain it had purchased with the intent of invading the German economy.

    What are these taxes spent on anyway?

    Police and fire services are usually paid for by state and local taxes. Some localities use a fee based system to avoid calling it a tax. Roads and bridges are paid for by state and local taxes with some Federal funds.State, local and federal fund also go into education, health and housing.

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