Friday, January 31, 2020

The Best Way to Talk About Socialism is to Not Talk About Socialism

Updated Below

Why do most discussions of socialism shed so much heat and so little light? Because they’re about socialism! A word that has been so demonized in America (just as the word capitalism has been deified) that it prevents thought and discussion, rather than encouraging it.

For the record, I should say that I myself am not a socialist. Nor am I a capitalist. And the same is true of America, and of every other country and system on earth. There’s no pure one or the other, and discussing the two concepts as though they’re some sort of Manichean binary either-or choice is at best a misleading and sterile approach to the topic.

May I propose something I think would be better?

Here are some things we have in America that are taxpayer-funded for everyone’s benefit and apparently not socialism:

1.  Roads and highways.
2.  K-12 education.
3.  Parks
4.  Police.
5.  Fire departments.
6.  The military.
7.  The postal service.
8.  Catastrophe planning and response (National Guard, FEMA, etc).

Do you see what I’m getting at? To use just one of the foregoing examples, I think a useful framework for discussion would be, “Why is public K-12 education not socialism, but public college education is socialism?” Or, to put it more broadly while avoiding scare words entirely, “Why is public K-12 education good, but public college education (which in any event already exists at the state level) is bad?”

I have my opinions about such matters, naturally, but I care less about my (or anyone else’s) conclusions than I do about using a proper framework. There might be excellent, defensible reasons to distinguish between the costs and benefits of public K-12 education and those of public college education. That’s a discussion worth having. But reflexively looking at the first as the embodiment of the American Capitalist Way and the latter as Evil Foreign Socialism! isn’t likely to lead anywhere productive.

The same applies to taxpayer-funded health insurance for everyone’s benefit. If Medicare and Medicaid are good, and if free healthcare to soldiers and veterans is good, and if free or subsidized health insurance for congresspeople is good, what is it about taxpayer-funded health insurance for everyone that would be different or bad?

FWIW, my ideal society would be one where no one has to fear being homeless, or being hungry, or of being bankrupted by a medical emergency. And where everyone would have equal access to decent public transportation and to the kind of education that would offer the best chance of stable employment. My personal ideal is an outgrowth of my view (which I grant could be wrong) of human nature—I think humans are adequately motivated by hope, and generally don’t also need to be motivated by fear.

Now it’s possible that my ideal society is some sort of fantasy socialist utopia. But before anyone dismisses it as such, may I ask: how is my ideal so different from what we already believe with regard to crime? That is, I think most Americans would agree that in an ideal society, no one would fear being victimized by crime. No one would be reluctant to leave the house, or visit a park, or walk down the street out of fear of being mugged or worse. And we devote public resources—police, the judicial system, etc—in the service of that goal.

So I think a productive framework to considering my ideal society would be, “How is creating a society where no one has to fear being homeless different from creating a society where no one has to fear being victimized by crime?”

There might be important differences—differences so significant that in the end, you might decide that public resources devoted to freedom from fear of crime are good while public resources devoted to freedom from fear of homelessness are bad. And that opinion, even though I would disagree with it, is okay with me. I just want us to be able to have a productive conversation.

Itinteresting to consider what prevents us from approaching things by asking, “How is this new thing similar to and different from what we already have,” and instead shutting down the whole inquiry by invoking scare words, instead.

I think some of it is just the innate human tendency to be comfortable with the familiar and to fear the new. This is anecdotal, but a few years ago when I read an article about how one day soon drones will deliver packages to our doorsteps, my first thought was, “That’s horrible, what’s going to happen when one of those things crashes into a pedestrian?” And then I laughed at myself, because I realized, “What happens when a FedEx truck crashes into a pedestrian?” As it turns out, there’s a whole body of law on the topic, called Agency Law, and whatever else Agency Law does, outlawing FedEx isn’t part of it.

Anyway, if you think I’m on to something here, give it a try. The next time someone says to you, “Socialism!”, see if you can elevate the conversation by avoiding fraught labels and just comparing and contrasting the new to the existing, instead. It’s been my experience that doing so can lead to some really interesting and satisfying conversations even with people who don’t agree with you. And best of all, at the end you can still disagree, while liking and respecting each other, too. Which, if we could manage it, might not be a bad thing for society as a whole.


This Nathan Robinson article from Current Affairsabout how publicly financed fire departments and publicly financed health insurance might be similar, how they might be different, and what those similarities and differences might suggest for policyis an outstanding example of how to approach the topic productively.


Anonymous said...

I think the major issue for me in regards to "socialism" is not so much the desired results as it is the mechanism that would get us there.

There is a moral component ingrained in this subject that most everyone can agree upon, and it is that helping fellow human beings that are in need is, by and large, the right thing to do. The problem for most is not in the act of helping, but being compelled by a government to give hard-earned money to people who are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, yet refuse to do so.

Add to this the well-known fact that government programs aimed at helping those who truly cannot care for themselves for one reason or another are viciuosly abused from both ends, both from administrators AND fraudulent recipients, it leaves one feeling not only of having been robbed, but also left with absolutely no effective recourse to prosecute the theft.

If socialism is to work, the "control" of the system cannot be centralized any further away than a city or county level, where the administrators can be held accountable by their peers. Not by some elite oligarchy hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

Also, "socialism", in it's seemingly most popular definition, has nothing to do with helping people so much as it does helping oneself to other people's wealth. Ergo, it is based in greed, not compassion.

That, sir, is the bottom line, and why human nature has never, and will never, allow such a system to exist peacefully.

It is also why I prefer libertarianism above any other political philosophy, by the way.


Barry Eisler said...

It can indeed be difficult to get past adherence to tired labels and discuss specifics instead. But as I urge in the post, I think it is worth at least trying.

Anonymous said...

As to specifics, I believe that in order to advance society as a whole, everyone should indeed contribute to those things which everyone has generally equal access to and use of.

For example, infrastructure. Roads, utilities, education, etc. are indeed necessary components of not only a civilized society, but also a successful one capable of perpetuating the blessing of the work of the people to future generations.

I just had a thought....🤔.

Most of the problems that humanity faces can be boiled down to a basic, inherent flaw in the human character.

Authoritarian hubris of the individual. Both of which are driven, at least in large part, by fear.

That just came out of

Don Bay said...

Hi, Barry:

Because I have trouble seeing your Captcha, I believe it's too small and fuzzy for my old eyes. Would you please ask them to fix it. I hope my message gets to you.


Don Bay



Don Bay said...

Hi, Barry:

Because your Captcha is too small and fuzzy for my old eyes, would you please ask them to fix it.

I hope my message gets to you.


Don Bay