What is Socialism? – Dispelling Some Common Myths

I am coming out of the closet, but it’s not what you think (probably). “Mom. Dad. I’m a socialist!”

I have felt this way for a long time, but I haven’t wanted to broadcast my proclivities until now. There is just so much prejudice against people like me! Some say people like me are just lazy or greedy! They say we want what others have without having to work for it. It’s especially hard to be a socialist in the United States, where people think socialism means bread lines or brain-washed drones waving little red books. But I have decided that I cannot allow the ignorance or prejudices of others to define me. I have to be who I am, no matter what anybody else may think.

Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen (via Wikimedia Commons)

What I am is someone who believes that everyone has a right to healthcare, a quality education, and nutritious food. I believe that circumstances beyond our control should not keep us from pursuing lives we value and have reason to value (as the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says). I believe that the best way to fund these programs is through a redistributive income tax system. That is, I think that those who make lots and lots of money have an obligation to contribute to the society that helped get them to the top.

I guess you could say the difference between a capitalist and a socialist is that a capitalist believes the market should regulate society, but I believe that society should regulate the market (see Karl Polanyi).

Myth 1: Socialism is government oppression.

That is why I disagree with people who assume that socialism means an oppressive government. I think we have an oppressive government today, only it is a virtual plutocracy. We talk about “the market” as if it is this thing “out there” when, in fact, the market is just us. When it comes to wages, access to healthcare, and even the environment, capitalists today say we should “let the market decide,” but that usually means letting a handful of rich people decide. If all of us are the market, and we make decisions about wages and taxes and market regulations, then the market is deciding.

Myth 2: Socialism is unjust.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith (via Wikimedia Commons)

For me, socialism is the ultimate expression of a social contract. This is what people like Dave Ramsey fail to understand when they criticize socialist policies, saying, “At the core of this demand [for progressive tax reform] is envy.” For me, socialism is about justice! I want Dave Ramsey to keep his money, but I disagree that he has an inherent right to keep all of it. American democracy is founded, in part, upon the ideas of John Locke. He said that when people form a government, they give up some of their natural rights (such as their absolute property rights) in exchange for shared protections. It is not sinful to suggest that the excessively rich should pay more than the poor in taxes. It is inherent to the idea of a social contract.

Myth 3: Socialism is impoverishing.

Of course, capitalists like Ramsey do have a point when it comes to specific policies. Some socialist policies can create market disincentives. For instance, many western European countries have laws that make it difficult for employers to fire people at will, which contributes to higher rates of unemployment. That is why the United States is one of the richest countries in the world. But we are a rich country with a lot of poverty. We have higher infant mortality rates and lower life-expectancies for large segments of our population (mostly the brown ones) than many poorer countries. You could say that socialism is impoverishing, but that depends on how you define poverty. To invoke the ideas of Amartya Sen again, I think wealth is the capacity to live a life one finds meaningful. If the citizens of a social democracy decide they prefer to exchange job protections for a slightly lower GDP or slightly higher rate of unemployment, who are we to say they are wrong?

Young Mill Worker (via Wikimedia Commons)
Young Mill Worker (via Wikimedia Commons)

So there you have it. I want you to know that I am not an ideologue. I mean, one of my favorite economists is Amartya Sen, who is heavily influenced by Adam Smith. In fact, I think Adam Smith was right about a lot of things, too. (Incidentally, some of what Smith says would shock a lot of capitalists who invoke his memory but have never bothered to read Wealth of Nations.) But I am still a socialist, because I think capitalism is oppressive. To talk about “natural market forces” (as if God made them) or to say we should “let the market decide” are catch-phrases designed to keep us from thinking about the way the market actually works. If the market is not over society, but a part of society, then to make decisions about the way the market works is not to threaten some omnipotent power over our lives. If we are the market, and the market is us, then socialism is just democracy at every level of society. It is democracy in the economy.

P.s. You can read a few more things I wrote about capitalism here.

3 thoughts on “What is Socialism? – Dispelling Some Common Myths”

  1. Interesting… I wish people would stop saying socialism and fascism as if they mean the same thing when they are complete opposite

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