On Socialism

Socialism is defined by Dictionary.com as “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.”  Put into more practical terms, it means that the government owns or runs industry and services that it need not own or run because of a belief that it can best provide for the welfare of the people.

Everyone can certainly agree that the federal government must be in charge of some matters. Indeed in the United States that is exactly the purpose of the Constitution—it expressly specifies the powers and responsibilities of government, then in its Tenth Amendment the Constitution vests all remaining powers in the people and the States.  See here.

The question is how much the federal government should do when it has a power. For example, it is the federal government’s right and responsibility to regulate “commerce between the States” and “provide for the common Defense.”  See Article I, here.  Thus, while there were no airplanes flying over the founder’s heads as they ratified the Constitution, clearly Congress has a responsibility to pass necessary safety and commerce-related laws regarding air travel. Many countries, however, have national airlines where the passenger airlines in the United States are private. Does the federal government have the power to take over this section of the economy? Possibly.  Should it?  No.  To do so would clearly be a move from free enterprise and capitalism toward socialism, by any definition. And despite the roller-coaster nature of the airline industry as a business, this can be run by private enterprise.  And so it should.

Traditionally, of course, Europe is more socialist. Not only in fact but in name. In America to call something socialist has distinctly negative implications, while in Europe political parties take on the name socialist prominently and without shame. Quite apart from the connotation (how a word is thought of in a culture), it is sometimes important to take the denotation (the dictionary definition) and apply it. And thus the question: Is America slowly but steadily moving from capitalism toward socialism?  A Newsweek cover piece suggested we have been, and implied that it is not such a bad thing.  See here.  Looking back, the article was right in its first point, but remains profoundly wrong in its second.

The examination of whether America is increasingly socialist can only begin with the headlines of the day (and indeed with Traditium’s last column, On Religious Freedom, here). A massive restructuring of America’s health care system has been passed and will be implemented in the coming years if it is not repealed. The system, while not a complete government takeover of the health insurance or the health services sectors as a whole, represents a staggering increase in government regulation and overview.  Many decisions once made by doctors and individuals will increasingly be made by government.  Clearly this effort was motivated by the belief of its proponents that government decisions are better than those made privately. Connotations aside, can that belief be described as anything other than socialist?

Similarly, in the 1970s the Congress passed laws encouraging lenders to make loans to risky borrowers who wanted to purchase a home. Pseudo-governmental entities backed, insured, and in many cases bought, these loans so that an outcome would be achieved–increased home ownership in America. Years later, when the economy turned for the worse, mortgage payments could not be made by many of those the banks might not have leant to in the first place, and the foreclosure crisis followed. Fingers were pointed, blame was assigned and voluminous new regulations were placed on lenders. The reason of the market (to require 20 percent down payments by owners, for example) was replaced by the will of those who wanted their good intentions to be implemented by federal mandate (I.e. more people should be able to buy homes so let‘s pass some laws) and the result was government blaming the markets for the consequences of the crisis it created. The good intentions of government rarely seem to result in the desired result, only larger government, which is the great flaw of socialism. (To be sure the banking industry is rife with incompetence, but that is a column for another day, and the solution is hardly to replace one set of incompetent decisions for another).

It is important to back up a step at this point, and clarify that the idea of a community coming together to provide for itself is not alone inimicable to American values.  The danger lies in assuming that providing for others must be done by defining the government as the community and equating charity within a community with national redistribution of wealth under the force of law. The federal government must do some things, and the Constitution defines them. Where it takes its powers and seeks to do too much, go too far, and ends up doing little more than growing itself, that is socialism.

A community providing for itself is very much a part of human history. Indeed in the Book of Acts the early Christian community was defined in similar terms.  See Acts 4 here and Acts 5 here.  Moreover waves of immigrants throughout American history have formed tight communities through churches and social organizations to come together and help one another.

It is only where these principles are applied to government that they seem to fail in direct proportion to their scale. This is so because government is an entity that feeds itself first and no program, whether it fails in its initial mission or not, seems to be phased out. Second, though, is that there is nothing morally fulfilling about being forced to give over the money you earn so that a bureaucracy can decide how best to help “the community”. Such a process strips any charity or goodwill from the decision, and the community can be as harmed as much as it is hurt in the process if it goes too far.

Indeed human history shows that the more socialist a government is, the more likely it is to fall into serious economic trouble and often ruin.  One need go no farther than the first few minutes of any recent news program. Greece, Spain, Italy and other nations are wrestling with almost insurmountable debt from governments that tried to provide people with cradle-to-grave protections, programs and services. Medical care, early retirements, large pensions, shortened work weeks, increased government services and the like. All very noble in theory, but it has failed. Over and over it has failed.

Peculiarly, as fast as many European governments are running away from “European-style socialism”, the current United States administration is running towards it.  As there have been issues in the banking, auto and health insurance industries, their reaction has consistently been a greatly increased government role, if not something uncomfortably close to taking over the industries.  This has been mixed with a shameless attitude of class warfare which neither the Clinton administration nor the Carter administration was willing to adopt–perhaps because they were more wedded to practicalities than theories.  But the theory that government can best decide for people is the commonality through all of this administration’s actions. They are leaning on the pillars of socialism as the building crumbles around them.

American debt is now staggering, with the possibility of paying it off only attainable in terms of decades or generations, not years. Meanwhile the country is losing its high credit rating in the process, and its credibility in the world. The time for the theory of socialism has passed. The instinct to grow government and regulation in response to every problem is now simply a luxury we cannot afford.

America is a community, and it is also a melting pot of many communities. Communities from all over the world. Certainly they should all care for one other, act in charity, look out for one another. Indeed, Catholic charities, hospitals and services that serve everyone have been a part of the American community for quite some time. Now, though, their mission as a faith is under threat by the very administration that thinks government should do these things.  By threatening to force these organizations (and similar ones of other faiths) to condone what they abhor (see Traditium: On Religious Freedom, here) they force them from their missions. Charitable acts inspired and called for by faith are stripped of their truth and meaning, and turned into social welfare services likely to become just another cog of bureaucratic machine if the law is not changed before it is implemented.

How then can we possibly sort it all out? How can we decide as a community what should be done by government? How much is too much? We are fortunate to be able to turn back toward our Constitution to determine the rights and responsibilities of government, and pare it back where it has gone too far. We can also use the yardstick that is the denotation of socialism and measure the size of government and its programs.

Are we a socialist nation now? Are we headed rapidly in that direction? If you believe that the answer to these questions is yes, you have a duty to vote against the candidates who promise to continue the country in that failed direction.  Even if they are promising programs you like, programs that sound nice, programs that have glorious names. The question is always: Is the government trying to do something here that the States or the people can do for themselves, and borrowing the money to do it?  If the answer is yes, the program must be opposed to avoid furthering the nation down the road to socialism. While some may think that is the path “Forward”, history shows otherwise.

© Copyright 2012  JD Pierce, Traditium.

6 thoughts on “On Socialism”

  1. Italy, Greece, and Spain can definitely be cited for the lack of budgetary control. It seems to me that is the issue — the management, not the system. I think many systems can work if they are well managed. China seems to be doing well for itself with a great deal of government control. We have candidates calling for less regulation of big business after a major banking debacle that placed our nation in an economic free fall. Perhaps a more “fair and balanced” approach to this topic would have pointed out the fact more and better government management could have prevented this financial disaster. Government management then release to privatization certainly aided the automobile industry. Why does one of our two parties seem extremely concerned with the government getting involved with some social and economic concerns, but simultaneously seem more than willing to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body? I think too often what lies underneath is a strong interest for a very few people to control more of the money — and, while that is not Socialist it certainly doesn’t seem very “American.”

  2. By al means let us oppose socialism. Even if it delivers four percent unemployment. A stable housing market. Solvent and comparatively honest financial institutions. Great and affordable schools and universities. Infrastructure. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms for heaven’s sake. Let us avoid at all costs becoming anything that resembles Angela Merkel’s Germany. Europe has come by its socialism the hard way. Let’s leave it at that for now. Talk to any European – there are plenty here enjoying the prosperous and secure retirement that their collective work – pardon the pun – and humane social values have made possible. They are likely to tell you that the ‘socialism’ routinely demonized by the right has nothing in common with what they experienced and know from home. They will tell you that democracy in Europe is real and vigorously practiced there in a way unknown here. And because of this the social benefits that result from that widely practiced democracy are also unknown here.

  3. It appears that news of the European Debt Crisis has not yet reached all quarters.

    I would just like to add an another thought on the topic of Socialism. Today I had the pleasure of reading the column of Bishop Robert Morlino, the Bishop of the Diocese of Madison, in Wisconsin. He is the bishop for Paul Ryan’s parish, knows him personally, and wrote his column to clarify issues surrounding media criticisms of the faith-based rationale for Ryan’s economic policies. The column “Subsidiarity, solidarity, and the lay mission” is here: http://www.madisoncatholicherald.org/bishopscolumns/3366-bishop-column.html. See also the National Catholic Register article on the column here: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/paul-ryans-bishop-defends-him-amid-attacks-on-his-application-of-church-tea/

    This profound discussion of the Churches’ doctrines of solidarity (standing together) and subsidiary (the principle that a person is best helped not by a far away government or authority but rather by someone as close to his problems as possible) add something to the discussion here.

    Really almost since inception of the republic, our government has consistently grown the fastest at the federal level. The people, as a result, have become increasingly regulated from the authority farthest from them–not the city level nor the state, but ever-increasingly from Washington. D.C.. Not only does this seem inconsistent with the intentions of the founders, but it also cuts against the well-reasoned principle of subsidiarity.

    I highly recommend Bishop Morlino’s column if you want to learn more about these principles and how they are important not only in tradition and history, but in the policies at play in the upcoming election.

  4. You are correct. Germany has not felt the kind of struggles other Socialist governments have felt, so it has not reached all corners. To my point, it is the quality of the managers rather than the system that is most critical. If I enjoyed mimes, I might enjoy trying to watch you emerge from that glass box. However, I do not enjoy mimes. Therefore, I will move along confident my point was made. It’s not merely about the system. It’s the management of the system that matters. Both capitalist and socialist models can be mismanaged. Just ask George W. Bush.

  5. Oh if only I had gone to Catholic high school as well as Catholic grade school. Perhaps then I would have heard of the Church doctrine of Subsidiarity. Somehow I missed hearing about this during my years under the stern tutalage of Wyoming Dominicans.

    Maybe if I’d have gone to a Catholic University I’d have heard of it. But then again, maybe not, as one the articles cited above mention a controversy that occured at Georgetown University recently. Ninety or so faculty members and and priests at that ostensibly Catholic University wrote a letter criticizing Ryan’s economic proposals as being inconsistant with Church teachings about society’s obligations to the poor – indeed, they accused him of misrepresenting Church teachings to imply that his economic proposals are grounded in Catholic teaching – which they asserted was not the case. So I suppose if I’d have gone to Georgetown or DePaul I’d have missed out on Subsidiarity yet again, though I probably could have attended lots of classes in comparative religion as university studies developed my “whole person” through “exposure to different faiths, cultures, and beliefs;” a program that sounds awfully as if it has a relativist agenda convecting sulfurously in its depths.

    Bishop Morlino mentioned the terms Solidarity and Subsidiarity it his article. He did not, however, do more than simply *define* what these terms mean in a general way and imply that the Church teaches these things. For a profound, technical understanding of exactly what bishops and theolgians mean when they use these terms – as well as support for claims that Subsidiarity is Catholocism and not simply chamber of commerce big-government bashing – we’ll have to look elsewhere. Even Bishop Morlino stated that Subsidiarity is “simply the law of human reason” which sounds like Bishop-speak for “it’s just common sense.” And of course, common sense is what the Eugenicists were exercising when they advocated forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and others deemed “unfit.” (“If we can breed livestock for desirable traits, why can’t we do the same with people?” was a common rhetorical question asked in the 1930’s both in the US and Germany.)

    I suspect that when such sources are consulted, we may find that Subsidiarity is not as set in stone in Catholic thinking as Bishop Morlino implies in his article. His blanket assertion that socialism is intrinsically evil is also one that might find its critics among Catholic thinkers.

    As far as some quarters not having heard of the European debt crisis: Nobody can have missed this occurence. What is frequently missing from discussion, however, is consideration of whether the cause of this crisis is in fact an excess of capitalism. In Europe the bursting of speculative bubbles pushed national budgets once in surplus to hopeless abysses of debt. This specuation was enabled by banks and other financial institutions – whose legions of auditors and risk managers had been rendered powerless by corporate boards and CEO’s ever fixated on stock price and the value of their personal portfolios. Markets were ultimately self-regulating, of course, though in a catastrophic way for most everybody but these CEO’s and corporate boards.

  6. I’ll leave some of that open for debate, but the idea that subsidiarity is principle of reason and not an important Catholic principle needs a bit of attention. Quoting here from Quadragesimo Anno, an encyclical of Pope Pius XI (see http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno_en.html):

    “80. The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ . . .”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: