I am a socialist!
OK, I said it. And I suspect that many readers — whether they know it or not — are socialists too, and not just the people who support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the presidential election.
The word “socialism” has many connotations and like so much in our society today, many of those connotations are the product of ignorance. That’s because it’s hard to find a careful discussion of socialism without running off the deep end of Marxism, communism — and liberal Democrats.
Many people, I’m sure, would rethink their views on socialism if they had just a little education. Just a little.
Let’s first recall what we mean by capitalism: In capitalism, the means of production — the factories and farms — are owned by private individuals and sold in a competitive market place. If you make a product that people want, they’ll pay you for it, and your income depends on how much you sell. Of course, even under capitalism, it may be necessary for the government to provide some regulation, but by and large, capitalism is a system of economic freedom: If you provide a good or service that people want, you can sell it and make a living.
Socialism is different, and a bit more complex. To simplify the explanation, let’s talk about two varieties of socialism: Big S Socialism, and little s socialism. Big S Socialism is what many of us learned about in school. It refers to an economic system where the means of production — the factories and farms — are owned by the government. When early socialist philosophers wrote and talked about this sort of economic system, the idea was the state knew what was best for people and could produce the “right” goods and services. We do have a few examples of this sort of socialism in America today: Many communities have state or city owned utility companies. And while there are inevitably complaints that these “socialist” utility companies are inefficient or charge exorbitant prices, the alternative of lots of competitive, capitalist electric companies just doesn’t make sense. But such examples of Big S Socialism are few and far between in the United States. We are an overwhelmingly capitalist country.
The other type of socialism — little s socialism — doesn’t refer to state owned factories. It refers to how people receive the benefits of the economic system. Even under capitalism, some goods and services are distributed based on need instead of ability to pay. For example, early in the 20th century, the United States made the decision that everyone deserved a high school eduction whether they could pay for it or not. Police services are distributed the same way: If you hear a burglar downstairs, you call 911 and expect to have a police officer at your house in just a few minutes. And you don’t need to give the operator your credit card information for payment; you get the benefit of police services whether you have a job and pay local taxes or not. That’s little s socialism, pure and simple.
It’s this little s socialism that has become a hot topic in the election. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren are advocating big S Socialism and economic nationalism. But they do feel that our nation could use a bit more little s socialism. Free eduction through community college — advocated by both Sanders and Warren — is an extension to the policy our nation adopted a century ago. And Medicare for All doesn’t mean making all doctors government employees; it means only that medical care is so important that it is better allocated based on need instead of income.
I have no idea who the Democrats will nominate next summer or even whether Trump will survive as long as the Republican convention. But I do know this: Using the term socialism to denigrate people, much less Democratic political candidates, does nothing to help us understand the issues surrounding the 2020 election.
• Bill Brown is an author and a Ph.D. economist who taught at the university level for 23 years. He resides in Juneau.