Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Socialism In America

If you have ever bought a house by getting a mortgage, attended a university using government grants or financial aid, collected unemployment, used funds from the Montgomery GI Bill, received Social Security Benefits, been on workman's comp, used food-stamps, collected welfare, or been on disability then you have been the beneficiary of just some of the US's Socialist policies.  The broad availability of these things were all part of a socialist movement in the first half of the 20th century.  The real demonization of socialism didn't take off until we really got into the Cold War.  Many people do not realize that young nuclear families owning houses, and the general prosperity of the 1950's, was the result of massive government funding and socialist policies.  I find it humorous when conservatives hold up the 50's as an ideal while decrying government spending.

I myself have not been the beneficiary of many of the things I listed, outside of financial aid for school (which has been altered in recent decades to be more of a guaranteed revenue source for banks).  I hope one day to buy a house, and probably have a mortgage, but I have not yet.  I could have benefited from some of the other things I listed, but thus far I have been too stubborn and proud.  I take pride in having supported myself, and found ways to feed myself or find some kind of employment, even when I could have collected unemployment or gotten food stamps.  But when I have been in those situations I have only had to be responsible for myself.  And while I think people should always strive to support themselves, or rely on their friends, family, and community first, I do not begrudge the safety net to others.

But I should mention that I have benefited from one recent "socialist" policy.  I and my daughter are receive more affordable health coverage through the ACA (AKA, Obamacare) than we could through my wife's work.  I am thankful for that, even though I would like the ACA to be replaced with a very different system.\

But this entry is not about Socialism, or even a defense of socialism.  I simply wanted to illustrate the silliness of assuming that the country is going to fall if one's political opponents succeed on any one point.  My biggest complaint about our political system is not about issues, it is about tactics.

Our political discourse in this country is dominated by oppositional messages.  Politicians do not campaign on positive issues, they campaign on scare tactics.  When there is disagreement on an issue politicians do not argue their positions, they just accuse the others of trying to ruin America.  We have two major political parties in this country, and for both parties the campaign planks are built around wedge issues.  Gun rights, abortion rights, religious rights, gay rights, gender rights, civil rights, business rights.

The Republican party uses the specter of Socialism to blacken Liberals.  Socialism is held up as antithetical to all things American.  It is held as a self-evident truth by many that Socialism is evil and un-American by nature.  To hear politicians talk you might be convinced that Obamacare was the first major passage of a Socialist agenda item in US history.  After all, we couldn't have defeated the godless Commies if we hadn't been true blue free market capitalists right?

Obviously socialist ideas and programs will not destroy America.  They haven't so far, and they are an intrinsic part of our social fabric.  That is not to say that I support unbridled socialism.  I think that entrepreneur based capitalism is a more effective wealth redistribution system than pure socialism, but we are living in a country in a time where we are seeing the damage that ideologically based market based capitalism can do to the distribution of wealth and political power.

I think it is important to try to avoid ideology when trying to make a broadly workable economy.  I consider myself a capitalist, but I also think that some degree of socialism is vital to making capitalism work.  Even things that I feel ambivalent toward, like unions, have a role in a functioning capitalist economy.  For example, many individuals in our economy the only capital they have is their own labor.  If a worker with no valuable assets beyond their labor cannot even exercise some level of control over their own labor then they have no power.  The right to collective bargaining provides workers with the power to exercise control over the value of their labor.  This is an important thing if workers are going to be able to build their own base to create wealth from.

I'm just using collective bargaining as an example of the ways that I see socialism and capitalism as complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.  Ideological purity might be useful in polemics and philosophy, but I don't think it's very useful in trying to run a country of hundreds of millions of varying backgrounds and economic situations.  There are arguments to be made about whether or not specific programs might do more harm than help, or whether or not particular programs will set up a dangerous dependency, but the term "Socialism" should not be treated as a bad word.

Debate should be on how a policy would work, not on the philosophical underpinnings of the policy.  Of course in order for us to have a debate on how a policy would function we would have to agree on goals.  In order to agree on goals we would have to agree on what constitutes the betterment of our society.  Right now our bipolar political landscape makes even agreeing on what would constitute an improvement in our country impossible.  As long as we define ourselves in oppositional terms of Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal, or Capitalist/Socialist it is going to be hard to find agreement.

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