Why I'm throwing my lot in with the Social Democrats.
"Socialism" is one of those scare words that the well-funded right-wing noise machine uses to smear their opponents and frighten their base. With it, they evoke faded memories of the Cold War among their elderly base
, memories of famines, of deprivation, and of and midnight raids that "disappeared" dissenters. Which is too bad, because America is loaded with socialist programs.
Americans Are Already Socialist (To Some Degree)Roads
are a socialist program: imagine having to pay a toll for each and every subdivision, arterial, and freeway you drove on. They don't have to imagine it in the city-state of San Pedro Sula in Honduras
; private security forces protect the wealthy, collect tolls for driving through "their" part of the city, and everyone else suffers.
And no, gas taxes
don't cover the costs of road maintenance, and they haven't covered the cost for over a decade
The city parks
to which you take your children are a socialist program. A massive theme park like Disney World may need ticket booths and security guards, but how would you feel if you had to swipe your credit card every time you took your kids to the neighborhood swingset?Police
are a socialist program. In theory, the police are supposed to protect everyone equally, to keep the peace, and to serve the people. Fire departments
are a socialist program, and when Obion county in Tennessee allowed a for-profit scheme to take hold the results were catastrophic
are a socialist program. Water quality
and Food safety
are socialist programs. Sewers
are a socialist program. Schools
are a socialist program. Mail service
is a socialist program written directly into the Constitution
The right complains that we shouldn't be able to "force" a "highly trained doctor" to supply socialized medicine "for free," but when your house is broken into you can demand the time and effort of a highly trained detective, and nobody thinks that's weird.
Americans Aren't Capitalist Anyway
Seriously. One-third of Americans don't own a home
, and that's the largest single capital purchase any of us ever make. Slightly more than half of all Americans own any stock
, which is the other
form of capital. One-third of Americans are not "capitalist" in any sense of the world, and only half of us have any "capital" that we can directly influence, that is to say, "allocate efficiently in the marketplace," and most
of us don't even do that. Instead, we put it into index funds, mutual funds, or workplace savings account and let other people literally "do the capitalism" for us.
And that's okay
. The world is a big and complicated place, and most of us don't have the time, energy, or education to fully understand the stock and real estate markets, which is where most capital is managed. We're busy raising children, supporting communities, and having lives.
We've Never Been A Capitalist Country
Full-fledged capitalism is, as the economist Robert Nozick once observed, a kind of "universal acid" in that it eats away at every other value we have. Unregulated capitalism can sell you anything and everything: methamphetamines over the counter. Fentanyl at your 7-11. Child sex-work. It's all good, so long as everyone, including the naked seven-year-olds in the magazines, "consent" and get paid. We're not that far from that kind of horrific fantasy as a country
And this is hardly new. In America, buying a young girl for sex was once legal
, as long as she was the child of a slave. We fought a war over this, and the anti-slavery forces kinda won, although the Supreme Court at the time gave whites more authority than blacks
in the years following.
We've never been a full-on capitalist country. We've seen what child labor (never mind sex work!), slavery and inescapably potent opiods do to people
, and we've decided not to tolerate them. We know that when your house burns, it's likely so will your neighbors', so we fund fire departments. We don't want to die of food poisoning, so we fund food inspection programs.
In the capitalist thinking of people like Nozick and Rand, self-interest and selfishness are the highest goods. They power the economy. "I want" is the thought that makes you go out and buy a pizza, a t-shirt, a house, a motorcycle, an iPhone. Any attempt by the goverment to regulate these things is a market distortion
that alters the relationship between the seller and the buyer. Capitalists argue these distortions are destructive to the only moral imperative: the consensual transaction of goods and services.
It's a fact, thought, that we also have needs: we need
food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and communication. We also have wants and needs that go beyond physical items, things like community, camaraderie, friendship, and love, things that cannot be easily bought with a dollar.
Americans Are BothWe are neither a capitalist country or a socialist country.
Instead, we apply our values to regulation and tolerate those market distortions that uphold our moral values. Americans argue all the time
about those moral values and the resulting market distortions, but they rarely put it into such stark terms. We should.
The "taxation is theft" and "redistribution of wealth" rants of the conservative capitalist movement are inherently dishonest. Libraries, city parks, sidewalks, and so forth are public goods
, held in trust by the cities and towns that own them for the people that live in them and contribute taxes to them.
We already argue about what to socialize, and to what extent. We should be honest about that. When we argue about whether or not something should be socialized or privatized, we are arguing about our values.
Social goods are moral goods: education, knowledge, mobility, safety, security. Our constitution says it exists to provide for the general welfare. Our Declaration of Independence says that we are made to seek life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; in modern parlance, these are guaranteed by healthcare, criminal justice reform, and education.
Governments are the only institutions deliberately constituted to serve everyone
being governed; the only question is whether or not everyone is governed equally, equitably, and justly.
Social Democrats Ain't Soviet Communists
The Soviet Union, for all its faults, had at its core a mission: to turn industrialization into a cornucopia machine, to turn the workday into a source of extended leisure, tranquility, and pleasure for its citizens. Needless to say, they failed horrifically, leading to a corrupt state that carelessly killed its citizens. We know why they failed, and more importantly, we know better than to try that experiment again.
The experiment failed because the Soviets tried to create innovation to order. They tried to emulate America without becoming America, and so the "marketplace of ideas" was banned; instead, unqualified bureaucrats made decisions about what was to be made, invented, or innovated, and Soviet scientists struggled hard to get their ideas in front of a patron.
In the United States, government sponsorship of innovation allowed for variation and failure. US funding to research universities accept that never every experiment will be a success, and US funding helps bridge the gap between research and commercialization. Last year, the FDA approved seven major drugs for wide-scale human-stage trials; four of those drugs were discovered by university students in government-funded programs.
Capitalists point to the Solyndra
scandal as proof the government shouldn't be "picking winners and losers." But the goverment does this regularly, and for all the money lost on Solyndra, the goverment has more than made back its initial funding into renewable energies
. That's what responsible investment is about. The US, rather than try to pick that one
technology, funds many, and reaps rewards from the ones that play out.
(Corporations Are. (Soviet Communists, I mean.))
On the other hand, if you've ever been in a company of any size, you know that they don't
play the game this way. Companies pick individual technologies and then run with them. If an initiative is a failure, those responsible sometimes get fired. Negative results are not tolerated. The workers rarely, if ever, get a vote of any kind in the course of corporate decision making. Supplies are bought and resources are distributed "From each according to his ability, to each according to the corporation's
needs," with the caveat that if your ability doesn't meet the corporation's needs then you're out, on the street, left to fend for yourself.
Corporations are basically small communist states: the board owns the means of production, implements centralized production planning, and you're just a member of the proletariat. Welcome to your cubicle, comrade.
We're Not Capitalist Enough
America prides itself on being a capitalist country, but what we've learned is that it's just not capitalist enough. It doesn't free people up to be the best themselves they could be. David Frum (whom the left seem to adore these days) once wrote that he liked how American capitalism repressed Americans: "Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk disciplines people and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won't try to vault over the big top. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now." Remember: that's praise
. It's fantastic
that we're terrified that at any moment forces much larger than ourselves could come in and crush us like bugs, and those entrusted to govern and oversee our lives, via our votes, think that's wonderful.
If you're a libertarian, you ought to be absolutely outraged at this depiction of capitalism as a force to break your will, beat you until you're unwilling to assert yourself and your individualism. American capitalism as it currently is, is a lottery: millions stay subservient, a few thousand take risks, and maybe one or two get rewarded before they get subsumed. That doesn't sound like freedom to me.
The truth is that without risk, innovation becomes the domain only of corporations big enough to sustain a few failures (if not the people who made them), and the little guy doesn't have a chance. Europeans innovate more than us these days because they're not afraid to. American corporations are afraid
of that term they all claim to admire, "disruption," and so they've made sure that it doesn't happen. We're not a capitalist country, we don't encourage innovation. We are a merchantlist country ruled by large corporations and the extremely wealthy, who dispatch lobbyists and pay for the elite educations of minions who dutifully take up regulatory positions in our governments to steer America away from taking care of ordinary people without that kind of patronage.
We are a country of shortages and rationing. We're the Soviet Union, only our central planners are Google and General Electric.
The Socialist Democrats ain't your grandfather's politburo
As Brad Delong said earlier this week, socialists like AOC aren't the kind of "socialists" America was screaming about back in the 1950s. Francis Spufford's vignette-driven account of why the Soviet economies failed
is the most-accessible way to understand what happened, but it comes down to this: centralized demand for specific innovations in a system that required patronage led to alternatives being discarded. There was no "market of ideas," and no way to encourage innovation positively. Even people led by their passions for math, science, and cybernetics lived in constant fear. (A good, longer summary is Cosma Shalizi's In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You
The "Socialists" of today have learned their lessons, and socialism today is more innovative, more creative, more flexible, and more sophisticated than American capitalism. Public goods aren't directed from the central office; they're held in public trusts and directed by communities rather than "shareholders."
Robert Heinlein once summarized the different spheres of government thusly:
- Private where Private Belongs
- Public where it is needed
- Circumstances alter cases
In America, we have a lot of socialized goods. I listed some of them above: the police, the fire department, and so forth. The question is: why do we socialize some and not others?
Well, what kind of country are you?
There are three kinds of countries: Militarized, Enlightened, or Failed. A militarized country is one in which the military is the only true objective; everyone is subservient to the needs of the country to expand outwards and conquer others. In such a country, everything is directed toward that support: healthcare, education, and infrastructure are all dedicated to creating strong, healthy soldiers capable of carrying on the effort.
An enlightened country is one which is not actively seeking to conquer its neighbors. It has a defense force, but it doesn't have to be three times as large as the neighbor's, and it doesn't have to be as large as the next seven largest militaries combined
. It just has to be big enough to convince a militarize country that if they come in, they're gonna get hurt badly enough to make the effort not worthwhile. In the meantime, these people fight with economics: their healthcare is dedicated to making every citizen as capable of production and innovation as possible. Their education is dedicated to make every possible citizen capable of working the levers of a complex, technologically advanced society.
A failed country is neither. It might look
like either, but in reality it is being hollowed out by both economic and militarized forces as its leadership drains it of money
. The citizens of a failed country are getting sicker
and dying younger
. Their education is left by the wayside
. The leadership is so eager to ravage those who can't fight back that it wrecks the landscape
, because hey, they're not gonna need it; they'll all just get on their yachts and go someplace nice while the population crashes and maybe the environment recovers... a little.
What to socialize, and why
We socialize the police because we believe that every American deserves to live in a community without anxiety or tragedy, and that the rich shouldn't have special privileges before the law. We socialize the police because if someone breaks into your
house, it's likely they'll break into someone else's as well. Without it, we don't have a country with the peace of mind necessary to pursue our future goals.
We socialize the fire department because we know that, even if you can't afford to pay taxes, if your house catches fire it's likely your neighbor's will as well. We socialize the fire department because it's a form of insurance: no one knows if or when we will need it, but if we do, we'll need the full force of it. Without it, we don't have property we can feel secure about.
We socialize education because we don't know, and we can't
know, what future employers, and our future country, will need except that we'll need people who have been trained to think clearly and work well. Socialized education is an investment in our collective future as a country. Without it, we don't have a future.
to socialize baseline healthcare and catastrophic healthcare treatment, because human beings don't "consume" healthcare, and we need a healthy workforce to produce the next generation of miracles, and we cannot say with any assurance who among us will produce those miracles. Without socialized healthcare, your unlucky illness is someone else's profit center, and if that seems moral and right to you, well, then we don't have a future.
None of this excludes private supplementation
I'm fine with wealthy people hiring extra security guards, buying above and beyond the usual building code requirements for fire safety, buying into private schools and willingly throwing as much money as they want on boutique medical services like cosmetic surgery or a new and innovative medical treatment. (More than a third of which are discovered by, yes, publicly funded projects
I'm not fine when the wealthy become convinced that those are the only services that matter, and the rest of us should be, at best, "allowed" to live out our lives with polluted air and water, a wrecked climate, the genetic luck of the draw about our health, with standard sub-standard education, and vague disinterest from the police and the courts about the well-being of our communities.
So, yeah: Let's give the socialists a chance.
I mean, they haven't wrecked many of the European countries in which it works. Or we could look to Bolivia
, which hasn't done too badly for itself.
We live in a complicated society entirely driven by a desperate need to secure our futures. I'm all for streamlining the complications and alleviating the desperation. Insurance companies are impossible to deal with because it's not in their best interests to be reasonable. You have to pay to have your taxes done because tax preparation companies lobby every four years to prevent the IRS from using knowledge it already has to do your taxes for you.
And every regulation of the market is a kind of friction. But we already agree that some friction is necessary: we don't let people star their children in porn films, we don't let people buy fentanyl over the counter, we don't let people buy grenade launchers. All of these are wants someone has (or there wouldn't be underground markets for them). We also agree that some socialism is necessary, or we wouldn't have police, fire departments, and neighborhood parks.
It's clear to me that we've gone so far into letting the capitalists control things that we've edged into Failed State territory. It's time to unwind this situation and do something different. Actually Lived Capitalism, American Style has overreached, and led us to a place where the majority of Americans are miserable, angry, and sickly.
I don't want that. You don't want that. And the answer is not "work harder for our corporate masters." It's work together to build a community where we're actually, you know, a community
and not an atomized collection of individuals all looking for the opening we'll use to stab our neighbor in the back just to secure a couple more bucks for a couple more days.
Let's do better.