Geoff Schumacher, a liberal columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, recently used his space to offer his opinion on socialism as well as a bit about American economic history. The premise of the column is that presidential candidate Barack Obama (the column was written prior to his election) is not a socialist, and that the "socialist" accusation is a red-herring scare tactic because socialism has never taken root in America.
"Socialism is a political theory that revolves around substantial government management of the economy. The motivating factor is the desire to improve the lives of the poor."
Historically, socialism has meant government ownership of the means of production. The Left expected socialism to succeed capitalism, and then, after a brief period, lead to communism – under which there would be neither private nor governmental, but rather communal, ownership of property and the means of production.
Every time either socialism or communism has been attempted anywhere on the planet, it has failed. Secularists at Jamestown failed at it, and even God couldn't make communism work in Plymouth Colony. The Soviets outlawed private ownership and currency, and that approach failed within a year. Lenin revised the communist approach to allow managed currency and some private ownership, so long as the state controlled the "commanding heights" of the economy.
In the end, that failed, too.
Over time, socialists have worked deftly to re-brand their product, calling it, for example, a "third way." There have been several attempts at such "third ways," which have promised a mixture of capitalism (private ownership) and government guarantees of positive rights, such as the right to a home, food, a job, income, medical care, etc. Over the years, the list of those advocating a "third way" has included fascists and Nazis.
In the United States, we now refer to socialism as "liberalism," and it's at the heart of the Democratic Party platform. But keep in mind that the Republican Party doesn't advocate dismantling much of our socialist system, either. Many Republicans still support maintaining our monopolistic public education system, and want to keep the Post Office. They like protective tariffs and corporate subsidies, their social security reform ideas entail only partial privatization, and there is no talk of getting rid of the FDA, the FCC, the EPA or any of the legions of federal regulators.
The United States has remained immune from permanent socialism largely because Americans have historically embraced the ideals of rugged individualism and liberty. Classic liberalism (i.e. limited government, free markets and the protection of natural rights) has been the prevailing philosophy in America.
Socialism has generally been recognized by Americans as an affront to freedom, so socialists have had to remain content with progressive taxation, regulated capitalism, and limited opportunities for nationalization. Socialists have also earned a reputation as radicals and anarchists. At the turn of the last century, some socialists behaved violently, starting riots, igniting bombs and assassinating political figures.
Socialism became such a dirty word in America that Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he began implementing socialistic reforms in the 1930s, shrewdly avoided the term and claimed that he was indeed a "liberal." The bait and switch worked, and that is why big-government supporters in America are called liberals today, whereas in Europe, a liberal is someone who believes in low taxes, limited government, individual freedom and free trade. American socialists essentially hijacked the word "liberal" to avoid the negative connotations the word "socialist" carries. This confuses as many Americans as it does European exchange students.
So while Mr. Schumacher believes that FDR's New Deal saved American capitalism from socialism, the reality is that FDR's programs were so socialistic that they were even praised by Mussolini for being "fascist" (another brand of socialism).
Today, socialism is making another comeback, thanks again to an excellent public-relations effort. It has used a government-created global economic crisis, a self-serving political class, and an economically illiterate media to fuel historical myths in the hopes of bringing more government management of the economy back from the intellectual graveyard, where it has been rotting for the last 30 years.
While socialism retains its negative connotations in America – deep down we all still believe in individualism – efforts to further socialize our economy remain alive and well. Socialism's proponents have simply changed names once again (today, they call themselves "progressives") and have dabbed some new perfume on socialism's walking, stinking corpse.
Patrick R. Gibbons is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.