Sunday, April 25, 2010

Myths About Socialism

It’s amazing what some people believe about the President. As reported in the current issue of Harper’s magazine, a January survey indicated that 24% of the Republicans in the country said President Obama “wants the terrorists to win.” Writing for the March 24 issue of U.S. News and World Report, Robert Schlesinger reports that a recent poll indicated that 57% of Republicans think the President is a Muslim and about one in four suspect that he is the Antichrist!
As indicated in my last posting, one of the persistent charges against the President is that he is leading the country toward socialism. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll as reported in the April 14 issue of the NY Times, 92% of the Tea Party backers “believe Mr. Obama is moving the country toward socialism, an opinion shared by more than half of the general public.”
As I indicated in my previous posting, it might be a positive thing for vast numbers of people if the country did move more toward socialism. But there is little indication that the country has, in fact, moved very far in that direction. On April 10, Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, posted “Nine Myths about Socialism in the US” on “Bill Quigley’s Blog.”
Quigley compared the U.S. with the thirty countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He says that when one looks at how the U.S. compares to the thirty OECD countries, “the hot air myths about the US government going all out towards socialism sort of disappear into thin air.” (For those who are interested, you can read about the nine myths here.)
Quigley’s conclusion: “Despite what the right wing folks are saying, the US is not on the path towards socialism.” Then he adds, “But if socialism means the US would go down the path of being more generous with our babies, our children, our working families, our pregnant mothers, and our sisters and brothers across the world, I think we could all appreciate it.”**
So, while some people charge the President with leading the country toward socialism, seeing that as a very negative thing, the facts seem to show the U.S. is a long ways from socialism at this point—and for many people who are hurting now that may be the bad news rather than the good news.
** You may be interested to know that Quigley, who teaches Social Justice Lawyering and other courses at Loyola, was awarded the Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award in 2003. The first person to be given that award by Pax Christi was Dorothy Day in 1978, and other recipients include Daniel Berrigan (1989), Joan Chittister (1990), and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (1991). You may not be familiar with the latter name, but he was the bishop interviewed briefly by Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love Story.


  1. I agree with what you have written here. Rather than a move towards some bogeyman known as "socialism" (almost as scary to some Americans as "the terrorists"), what I see the Obama administration as attempting to do is to limit the totalitarian tendencies of free market corporations. The irony, as viewed from MY seat in Japan, is that the very people who would benefit from this protection are often fighting the hardest against the government, and in favor of the very people who have impoverished their lives. Any other country, and conservative Americans would say the people had been brainwashed...but of course America is a free society and one with a myriad of choices. :-) By the way, if you haven't seen it, check out the talk by Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice:

  2. I was happy to have this quick response from one of my American Thinking Friends living in Japan, and I am happy to know about Barry Schwartz, whom I have not (yet) read but who seems to be a wise man with a message worth listening to.

  3. Statistics are just statistics that can and are interpreted to fit the viewpoint of the individual (think of all the medicines approved by the FDA only later to be pulled because of side effects that were either absent in the original statistics are manipulated in such a way as to gloss over these issues in the original applications).

    The major issue with socialism is that it necessarily concentrates power into the hands of the political elite (e.g former soviet politburo, the chinese communist ruling party, the national socialist party in Germany and Italy in the recent past, in addition to a multitude of less prominent individuals and groups (e.g Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, etc.). What each of these separate individuals and groups had in common was the consolidation of power. A benign socialism such as seen over much of Europe depends on people of good will being the ones who pull the strings of political power. I personally do not trust that most people are going to work in my interest or my neighbors interest. Unfortunately history is filled with multiple of examples of the abuse of power whether is with dictators, religious leaders, military leaders, sovereigns, multinational businesses, etc. The decentralization of power and power structures gives the greatest liberty (not necessarily wealth and prosperity), since each person is empowered to be there own sovereign.

    I fully expect that the US will continue down the path of socialism since most of us are willing to give up our birthright(liberty) for a bowl of pottage(government security) expecially if we can covet it from our neighbor(class envy and populism!)

  4. I appreciate DHJ posting the above comments, but in response I want to make one think clear about my position.

    While I write rather approvingly of socialism, it is only democratic socialism that I am talking about (as you will note in the label at the bottom of my posting). I certainly do not advocate the seizing of power by political elites as DHJ mentions as examples.

    I favor the kind of democratic socialism by which an elected government makes laws for the general welfare of the nation--and especially for those who are suffering the most in the nation.

    Thus, I look with favor upon the enactment of social security in 1935 (signed by President Roosevelt), of Medicare in 1965 (signed by President Johnson), of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003 (signed by President Bush II), and of the health care reform bill in 2010 (signed by President Obama and opposed by every Republican congressperson).

    I am far less dubious about the government being willing and able to provide for the general welfare of the nation than about the multinational businesses and Wall Street in general being able to do so.

    Also, if "each person is empowered to be their own sovereign," doesn't that lead to anarchy?

    What we need to give up is not our "birthright (liberty)" but our individualism and to promote the general welfare of all the people in the nation.

    The right wing critics of the welfare bill have charged that it is unconstitutional, but let me remind you of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

    My contention is that democratic socialism can best fulfill the vision of that preamble.

  5. Government by any party is far too inefficient and political, including a democratic republic. Look at Greece (or California, or Illinois or...).
    The only socialism or capitalism I trust is family.. and close friends.

    We had an interesting group of libertarians on the campus of KU known as the Gentle Anarchists. I trust them about as much as the social democrats or country club republicans. But at least one did not have to follow the money with them.

    It is difficult enough following the five great Christian commandments without having to play politics too.

  6. Socialism is just a hot-button word used to distract people from the real issue--fascism. The "Father of fascism" Benito Mussolini said, "Fascism should more aptly be called 'corporatism,' for it is the fusion of state power and corporate power." By this simple definition, the US is now thoroughly fascist, under Clinton, Bush AND Obama. But two (three? four?) generations of state-corporate "manufactured consent" has taught a large swath of the population to celebrate this fascism as "freedom and democracy." Joseph Goebbels supposedly said "A lie, repeated often enough, becomes truth." Of course it never does; it only becomes a bigger and bigger lie.

  7. I think that David is onto the major problem that exists here and elsewhere. The fusion of multinational corporations and national governments (i.e. concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few). With Bush it was apparent that he was closely associated with energy and military interests. This was known and rightly brought to light by various parties. With Obama it is more subtle but every bit as insidious as it was with Bush. For example, the tobacco legislation was written with the cooperation and endorsement of Philip-Morris. The health care reform was written with the cooperation and endorsement of big pharma, AMA (not the rank file providers which the AMA has only 17% in its membership), large hospital groups, AARP, etc because it will be used to squeeze out the smaller players or continue/enhance some government perks that these groups receive. The proposed financial regulation is actually to the benefit of the large wall street banks at the expense of the main street banks (in addition to higher costs because of regulation on hedging strategies that airlines, electricity generators, and farmers use to minimize risks). The proposed cap and trade legislation is not opposed by utility companies, because they will be able to use the legislation to benefit like the largest utility company in Germany has by developing a market for carbon credits. Ultimately it is the end user (the citizen) that will get soaked by higher prices (due to regulations) and taxes for the benefit of multinational corporations and their enablers the national government including ours! Democratic socialism and Adam Smith's capitalism will never be enacted, because the powerful interests have no desire to level the playing field.

  8. A few quick comments over the preceding comments on socialism: I appreciate DHJ's acknowledgment that Mr. Bush's administration was as lousy with the intrusion of multinational corporations as have been recent non-republican administrations. To fail to mention this, as Mr. Macintosh's comments do, seems disingenuous. Second, I think the distinction between democratic socialism and non-democratic socialisms is crucial in defining what is actually under discussion. Third, regarding the extraordinary opposition to Mr. Obama (e.g., because he's muslim, because he's socialist, blah, blah...) don't we need to acknowledge what are very likely racist motives? To fail to consider this as a motivation is to miss the forest for the trees.

  9. Follow the money. It denudes the ethics of the social democrats as much as the big-business republicans.

  10. The PBS science show Nova last night compared classical and behavioral economics. A rather odd subject for Nova, but a very timely one for this blog. Classical economics rests on the assumption that we collectively somehow make rational decisions about money, while behavioral economics has fun running creative experiments to show how strange that assumption is. For instance, given a choice between $100 a year from now, and $102 a year and a day from now, most subjects noted the high interest rate paid for the extra day, and picked the $102. Given a choice of $100 today or $102 tomorrow, the same subjects overwhelmingly picked $100 today. Same basic offer, but opposite results. This experiment illustrated one of the strange but nearly universal principles of human choice, when "now" is an option, we have real trouble with delayed gratification.

    After Nova, the next show was about the vaccine controversy in this country. It was an interesting juxtaposition, because, in its own way, it was also about the question of rational choice. People who remember polio and whooping cough can't get worked up about a chance of autism, people who have children who developed autism shortly after a vaccination can't get worked up about an abstract risk of polio or whooping cough, diseases they have never been around. Or even about evidence that the autism was a coincidence, not a result of the vaccine.

    So what does this have to do with socialism, or capitalism, for that matter? Well, I believe people are rational enough that capitalism works quite a bit. I also believe people are irrational enough that capitalism sometimes fails spectacularly. From the Dutch tulip bubble to the recent dot com and housing bubbles, the animal spirits have at times lead us far astray, with devastating results. Sometimes we cannot find the right way, and if the issue is serious enough, we sometimes need the "government way" to avoid the wrong way. Certainly, there are better and worse versions of the "government way," and there is a legitimate debate over what and how government should do. Government evolves. Our thinking should, too.

    An article came out this week on titled "Who Do We Follow? Jesus or Jefferson?" It gives an interesting slant on the capitalism/socialism question. See it at

    Let me close with a caveat, I work for the government. Preachers have opinions about religion, teachers have opinions about education, and government employees have opinions about government. i believe that governments tend to work with a brute utilitarianism that is rarely elegant to behold, but that in our irrational world is frequently necessary.

  11. The question I have had for many years and still have today is what is the purpose and function of groups? In particular, if the preamble to the constitution is the purpose for the diverse states and groupings of individuals to come together as a nation, what happens when the nation reneges on these purposes (e.g common defense, general welfare, etc.)? Since governments seem incapable of actually solving any problems, it would seem like an interesting exercise to have multiple options in terms of governance much like we have on various products that we want. It seems like I have no choice in the matter of governance and I am stuck with this situation because of proximity alone. It took decades before we had real choice with telecommunications, but that is now a reality because of technological changes. The postal service is going the way of the Pony Express because of the internet and other technologies. In a like manner I expect that utilities will have competition in the future such that we may not have to be on the grid due to fuel cells or other technologies being developed. In a like sense how about a technological revolution directed at the leviathian, government, so that associations are developed by the governed rather than the governors. What is the point of groups???

  12. The last two comments illustrate well the calculus of economic questions generally. In their (unintended)combined effects, they counterpoise three significant human values that are polarizing: rationality vs. irrationality, altruistic vs. selfish behavior, and community vs. individual values. I'm quite certain, furthermore, that these are but small samplings of others (e.g., justice vs. injustice, etc.). But if I were doing a derivative in order to maximize each of these values in relation to the other, that would be a fair analogy of good government. In the end, Plato's suspicions about democracies may be confirmed and rule by philosopher kings the only wise answer. Such persons may be the only ones who are capable of doing the calculus!