The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Conservative 'Red' Herring :
Socialism in America


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John S. Cline
March 1, 2009

Abstract

While pure socialism mandates complete governmental control of the means of production and distribution within an economy, mixed economies involve, as the name suggests, a more balanced blend of socialism and capitalism. Conservative politicians and business leaders in the United States argue that allowing socialist policies to enter into the American marketplace is incompatible with capitalism, and will lead to the country’s destruction. Despite well over a century of increasing governmental market intervention in the United States, conservatives use misinformation and fear-mongering to falsely conflate socialism with communism in order to attack government social policies and encourage the American people to resist those policies that they would otherwise resoundingly support. The conservative argument is not only false, but has led directly to the current financial crisis, and can only be repaired through a full restructuring of our business and social sectors towards a regulated marketplace, with strong social safety-nets and structures to ensure that all citizens have equality of opportunity.

Introduction

Before we have any discussion of socialism in America, and how this impacts capitalism and the free market system forming the basis of the American economy, it is helpful to lay a groundwork of definitions of the terms involved in the debate (from Conte and Karr, "Outline of the U.S. Economy", Chapter 12; see Glossary for more):
Capitalism:
An economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled and which is characterized by competition and the profit motive.

Free enterprise system:
An economic system characterized by private ownership of property and productive resources, the profit motive to stimulate production, competition to ensure efficiency, and the forces of supply and demand to direct the production and distribution of goods and services.

Market economy:
The national economy of a country that relies on market forces to determine levels of production, consumption, investment, and savings without government intervention.

Mixed economy:
An economic system in which both the government and private enterprise play important roles with regard to production, consumption, investment, and savings.

Socialism:
An economic system in which the basic means of production are primarily owned and controlled collectively, usually by government under some system of central planning.

Social regulation:
Government-imposed restrictions designed to discourage or prohibit harmful corporate behavior (such as polluting the environment or putting workers in dangerous work situations) or to encourage behavior deemed socially desirable.

As anyone watching the 2008 presidential election and the post-election ascendancy of the Democratic-led government in Washington knows, a frequent argument used by conservatives is that President Obama’s (and by extension, the Democrats’) economic and social agenda amounts to nothing less than socialism. Oftentimes, this has been ramped up to full-throated pronouncements of an impending Marxist communist takeover of our government (Achenbach; Beck (all); Cesca; Scarborough). This rhetoric, although anything but new, has been played up more often in the last few decades, to the point that any call to increase taxes or government spending or to regulate business in any form immediately raises conservative cries of the imminent collapse of capitalism as we know it. However, these cries are misguided and disingenuous at best, blatantly propagandist and insidiously Orwellian at worst. The American socio-economic fabric has been interventionist (“socialistic”) for well over a century, and has, with some false starts, grown steadily more so with each passing decade. The United States government itself has no qualms describing itself as a social democracy, and in fact the U.S. Department of State openly defines the American economy as mixed:
"If the pure capitalism described by Marx ever existed, it has long since disappeared, as governments in the United States and many other countries have intervened in their economies to limit concentrations of power and address many of the social problems associated with unchecked private commercial interests. As a result, the American economy is perhaps better described as a "mixed" economy, with government playing an important role along with private enterprise" (Conte & Karr, Chapter 2)

Reality? Who Needs It?

Conservatives today understand that America is a mixed economy with a variety of governmental interventionist approaches to both social and economic affairs, and they also know that the American people would not stand for a completely laissez-faire capitalistic socio-economic system in the 21st Century (Jacobe; Newport “Heavily Taxing Rich”). However, due to their adherence to ideological principles which support laissez-faire capitalism and minimal government interference in what they see as state and local societal affairs, conservatives continue to push back against what they see as the rising tide of socialism in American society.

The primary means of doing this is through misinformation and conflation: early socialism movements often advocated violent overthrow of the capitalist system (Marxism, which was splashed across the American public’s mind in bloody detail by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1949 Maoist Revolution in China), and even the movements that called for a less revolutionary means of achieving social and economic equality did a poor job of defining for the American public the difference between mixed-economy socialism (social democracy or democratic capitalism) and command-economy socialism (pure socialism or communism) (Foner 74-76). This allowed an opening for anti-socialist conservatives to frame the debate by conflating social welfare programs and market regulation with full-blown Marxism. Essentially, conservatives used the fear of totalitarian communism, with its violent revolutions, elimination of economic and civil rights, total control of the economy, and all-out war on all things capitalistic, to argue that adopting any element of any form of socialism was a slippery slope to communism (Vieregge 3-4). By conflating a mixed economy with communism, and by painting those who advocated for a government responsibility to the social welfare (i.e. the liberals) as radical socialists and anti-capitalists, conservatives successfully changed the public’s perception of socialism from one of approval in the early 1900’s (Foner 60) to one of fear and disdain after WWII (Lewis).

Socialism, Communism, and the “Red Scare”

Although there have been efforts to thwart American socialism for over 100 years, perhaps the most successful (in terms of messaging) was the Red Scare of the 1940’s and 1950’s (Lewis; Navasky; Schrecker). Through the use of governmental bodies such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and others, a veritable “witch hunt” was conducted to root out communists and their sympathizers (which seemed to include everyone from union organizers, homosexuals, actors and writers, liberal politicians, and anyone else deemed “undesirable” by the Right. This also especially included anything having to do with the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Harry Truman) (Navasky; Schrecker). In the process, those advocating Populist positions (community activists and educational and social reformers) were tied in with Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists; no differentiation was made, as all were seen to threaten pure capitalism and “The American Way” (Lewis; Prener), therefore including civil rights leaders, teachers, librarians and even the Girl Scouts in the crosshairs of suspicion.

The most famous of these witch hunts were the McCarthy hearings, for which we have added the word “McCarthyism” to our dictionaries to describe “unscrupulously accusing people of disloyalty” (“McCarthyism”). In the McCarthy hearings, thousands of individuals and organizations were accused of being tied in some way to the Communist Party, to the Soviet Union, or in some other way being a disruptive “Un-American” influence on society. Despite wreaking havoc in individual lives and careers, it also had the effect of demonizing all things socialist in the public’s mind (Navasky, The Social Costs). The conservatives succeeded through their campaigns of intimidation in undermining not only communism in the United States, but also slowing the momentum of the New Deal which they so vehemently opposed. The perhaps unintended consequences, however, were a diminishment of American creative and productive potential, and a generation of people living in fear of the “communist menace” lurking behind every corner which directly led to the buildup of massive nuclear arsenals and the potential destruction of the entire planet, not to mention the events in Vietnam and elsewhere (Navasky). The Left was battered and bloody, and the Democratic Party licked its wounds and pulled back from much of its platform of social reform, but the damage went far further than politics; it served to frame the American public’s understanding of socialism as something which was whole-cloth evil and malign, rather than actively present in their everyday lives and governmental institutions (Sirota).

Ironically, this misinformation campaign has had a remarkable side effect. Social welfare programs and elements of socialistic economic models that were already in place by the end of WWII were left essentially untouched, and other mixed-economy programs and governmental structures were put in place in the decades that followed. Some of these, such as the programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, form the bedrock of social safety nets that assist millions of Americans to avoid the worst effects of poverty every day. And yet, the American public goes about their daily life without ever considering that these are essentially socialist in nature, for the very reason that they have been taught to think of socialism and communism as identical. This means that conservatives, far from achieving their laissez-faire dreams of a capitalistic paradise, have fertilized the very ground upon which socialism can grow and prosper.

The American people actively support Federal government intervention in social and economic affairs (Chambers "Where the Public Stands"; Jacobe "Economic Populism"; Newport "Americans Want Next President"; Newport "Views on Government Aid"; Saad "Americans Want Regulation"; Saad “Haves and Have-Nots”). There have been immediate backlashes at attempts to significantly modify or dismantle Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the G.I. Bill, federal infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, electrical and communications lines, levees, dams), the FDIC (especially with the latest banking crisis), federal food and drug regulations, student loan programs, minimum wage guarantees, fair housing laws, and a veritably endless list of other programs, policies, regulations, laws, and social safety-nets which the central government sponsors, allocates funding and manpower to manage, and oversees to ensure effectiveness and compliance. Everything mentioned here is socialistic: they all involve central government intervention in the marketplace and societal affairs. And Americans wouldn’t have it any other way; in fact, they believe this is how a truly capitalistic country is supposed to operate (Prener; Sirota). Most polls show that not only would Americans be loath to dismantle or eliminate such programs, but seek to have government expand on them (Jacobe "Economic Populism"; Newport "Views on Government Aid"). Due to the decades-long misinformation campaign by laissez-faire conservatives, the American people do not recognize socialism when it pervades every aspect of their lives, because it doesn’t look and feel like the description they’ve been given for it: an overbearing, government-in-your-face, jack-booted militaristic slave state. Instead, they see small businesses thriving, people working at jobs they choose, families buying cars and homes and sending their children to college, and despite some unpleasantness filling out their taxes once a year, the vast majority of Americans simply do not pay much attention to what the government in Washington is doing (Dye & Zeigler 103-105) and continue to believe that they live in a completely free-market society.

The Dying Age of Screw-You Capitalism

Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate and conservative icon of laissez-faire capitalists everywhere, famously said, “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible” (Friedman 134). This attitude, coldly Social Darwinist (not to mention counter-intuitive) as it sounds, is the basis for modern conservative free market ideology (Cline “Survival of the Fittest”). The mistaken idea that corporate leaders, their corporations and hence capitalism itself has no social responsibility is the center of much of what has ailed society over the course of the last century or more (Cline “Connections and Consequences”). Capitalists are themselves members of society, their corporations are treated as entities in their own right within society, their decisions result in externalities which affect society as a whole, and they use the benefits of being part of society to grow their businesses and achieve the capitalistic gains they so desire. Friedman’s argument that capitalists should ignore society and do only what is good for the stockholders is not only counter-intuitive, it is dangerously short-sighted and perhaps, in some respects, even impossible to achieve in today’s globalized economy. A purely laissez-faire capitalist society may quickly find itself isolated by other, more progressive social democracies seeking to curb human rights abuses and protect their own labor pools (Holt 3-4; Prener).

Ironically for those espousing free-market classical liberalism, acceptance of social responsibility (by voluntarily giving up our right to inflict violence, harm, or suffering upon our fellow humans) is part of the Hobbesian “social contract” every person agrees to in a society, if only implicitly (“Thomas Hobbes”). Even when corporate leaders seek to operate from a purely “just business” mode, simply running their business in modern America requires some demonstration of social responsibility, whether it be by paying their workers a competitive wage, ensuring worker and product safety, or preventing the dumping of raw sewage into sources of drinking water. To do otherwise in modern America will guarantee a very short, and possibly very costly, business life (Malan). Corporate leaders are aware of their social responsibilities, at least subconsciously, and act against them at the peril of not only themselves and their businesses, but the country itself.

Conclusion

The laissez-faire capitalistic extremes of the 19th Century Robber Barons that conservatives still yearn for will never again be the economic model of the United States (although they have come closer to it in the last 30 years than they’ve been since before the Great Depression, with similar results) (Jacobe "Economic Populism"; Leonhardt). A completely free market, with virtually no involvement of the central government in the marketplace and absolutely none in local and state societal affairs, has never existed in the United States, and barring some catastrophic change to the world economy, never will. Does this mean capitalism is dead? Of course not; if anything, it is thriving in the United States. But a more balanced, socially responsible mixed market system with greater controls over business activities and systems in place to both ensure greater economic opportunity (as well as safety nets for those in need), is the model that has replaced laissez-faire capitalism in the United States and much of the rest of the developed world. In addition, pure socialism or its totalitarian counterpart, communism, is just as outdated in our globalized economic reality (Prener). As we have so resoundingly been reminded in the last few months, when capitalism is allowed to run amok, with limited or no oversight and regulation, combined with insufficient social safety-nets and widespread disparity in economic power between upper and lower classes, the entire economy of the country spins out of control and takes people at all levels of society down with it (Mishel & Shierholz). America is a social democracy, with a mixed economy, and the conservative fears of socialism are increasingly appearing more hysterical than factual. The Right’s ‘Red’ herring is fading into the dustbin of history where it rightly belongs, hopefully leaving the rest of America free to work towards a more equitable socio-economic system.

Glossary:
(from Conte and Karr, "Outline of the U.S. Economy", Chapter 12):

Capitalism:
An economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled and which is characterized by competition and the profit motive.

Free enterprise system:
An economic system characterized by private ownership of property and productive resources, the profit motive to stimulate production, competition to ensure efficiency, and the forces of supply and demand to direct the production and distribution of goods and services.

Fiscal policy:
The federal government's decisions about the amount of money it spends and collects in taxes to achieve full employment and non-inflationary economy.

Laissez-faire:
French phrase meaning "leave alone." In economics and politics, a doctrine that the economic system functions best when there is no interference by government.

Market economy:
The national economy of a country that relies on market forces to determine levels of production, consumption, investment, and savings without government intervention.

Mixed economy:
An economic system in which both the government and private enterprise play important roles with regard to production, consumption, investment, and savings.

Monetary policy:
Federal Reserve System actions to influence the availability and cost of money and credit as a means of helping to promote high employment, economic growth, price stability, and a sustainable pattern of international transactions.

Socialism:
An economic system in which the basic means of production are primarily owned and controlled collectively, usually by government under some system of central planning.

Social regulation:
Government-imposed restrictions designed to discourage or prohibit harmful corporate behavior (such as polluting the environment or putting workers in dangerous work situations) or to encourage behavior deemed socially desirable.

Works Cited


Achenbach, Joel. "The Conservatives' 'Cleansing' Moment". Washington Post, A03. March 1, 2009. February 28, 2009. LINK

Beck, Glenn. "Glenn Beck presents the Obama National Anthem". YouTube video. October 06, 2008. February 25, 2009. LINK

Beck, Glenn. "The March to Communism". February 13, 2008. February 25, 2009. LINK

Beck, Glenn. "Glenn Beck: Road to Socialism". YouTube video. February 18, 2009. February 25, 2009. LINK

Chambers, Chris. "Election 2000 - Where the Public Stands on Social Security". Gallup News Service. September 29, 2000. February 25, 2009. LINK

Cline, John. "Social-Darwinism and Catastrophic Human Events: Buddha Might Have Had Something There". December 19, 2008. February 24, 2009. LINK

Conte, Christopher and Albert R. Karr. "An Outline of the U.S. Economy". InfoUSA, U.S. Department of State. February 2001. February 20, 2009. LINK

Dye, Thomas R. and Harmon Zeigler. “The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics”. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.

Foner, Eric. "Why is there no Socialism in the United States?". History Workshop Journal, Socialism and the United States, pp 57-80. 1984 LINK

Friedman, Milton. "Capitalism and Freedom". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Holt, James H. "China in the WTO: The Debate". Foreign Policy In Focus 4.38 (December 1999) February 27, 2009. LINK

Jacobe, Dennis. "Increasing Momentum for Economic Populism". Gallup poll. January 7, 2008. February 25, 2009. LINK

Leonhardt, David. "A Bold Plan Sweeps Away Reagan Ideas". Economic Scene. New York Times. February 27, 2009. February 27, 2009. LINK

Lewis, Chris H. "The Anti-Communist Crusade and the Rise of McCarthyism". Colorado University, Boulder. February 26, 2009. LINK

Malan, Douglas S. "Companies Pay River Pollution Penalties". Connecticut Law Tribune. February 4, 2008. February 26, 2009. LINK

"McCarthyism". Definition. LINK

Mishel, Lawrence & Heidi Shierholz. "Without Adequate Public Spending, a Catastrophic Recession for Some". Issue Brief #248. January 13, 2009. Economic Policy Institute. January 25, 2009. LINK

Navasky, Victor, "Naming Names". The Social Costs. New York: Viking Press, 1980. From compilation by Ellen Schrecker, University of Pennsylvania. May 31, 2007. February 26, 2009. LINK

Newport, Frank. "Americans More in Favor of Heavily Taxing Rich Now Than in 1939". Gallup News Service. April 16, 2007. February 25, 2009. LINK

Newport, Frank. "Americans Want Next President to Focus on Education, Social Security, and Healthcare". Gallup poll. July 12, 2000. February 25, 2009. LINK

Newport, Frank. "Views on Government Aid Depend on the Program". USA Today/Gallup poll. February 24, 2009. February 25, 2009. LINK

Prener, Chris. "On the Myth of Socialism in America". The Weave Blog, St. Lawrence University. February 21, 2009. February 25, 2009. LINK

Saad, Lydia. "Americans Want Regulation More Than Rescue". USA Today/Gallup poll. November 11, 2008. February 25, 2009. LINK

Saad, Lydia. "More Americans Say U.S. a Nation of Haves and Have-Nots". Gallup poll. July 11, 2008. February 25, 2009. LINK

"Scarborough on recovery bill: 'This is as close to unprecedented of a total, all-out, socialist bill as I've ever seen in my life'". Video. County Fair, Media Matters for America. February 2, 2009. February 26, 2009. LINK

Schrecker, Ellen. "Congressional Committees and Unfriendly Witnesses". University of Pennsylvania. May 31, 2007. February 26, 2009. LINK

Sirota, David. "Nationalization: It's Not Scary, It's All Around You". Huffington Post. February 26, 2009. February 26, 2009. LINK

"Thomas Hobbes". The History of Economic Thought. The New School. February 26, 2009. LINK

Vieregge, Dale. "Towards a View of Democratic Socialism: The Influence of DuBois’s Later Writings, 1945-1961". February 7, 2003. February 25, 2009. LINK

3 comments:

Ankhst said...

A commenter posted a link to your essay on Huffington Post, and it is exactly the type of insightful (and well-documented) writing that is often featured on that site. I don't know if you've considered posting for HuffPo or not, but I think you would do well there, even if you only post occasionally (many posters are infrequent).

I'm just a reader, in no way affiliated with the site, so I couldn't offer you any advice on posting there. Conservative pundits have taken to cloaking their arguments against one cause or another [most often economic regulations] by finding a more populist argument whose conclusions match their motives, even though the barest examination will show they don't even believe their own argument. Most [in my opinion] are disingenuous, but they are rarely called out for it; the closest I've seen in a while was when Rachel Maddow had David Frum on her [at the time] brand new show, and even then, David disingenuously attacked Rachel for her "lack of seriousness" or something.

Admittedly HuffPo does a lot of preaching to the choir, but in this internet age, we can always send links to non-HuffPo readers when someone writes a post that does a great job of making the argument we are trying to make.

Keep it up!

One small [and hopefully non-insulting] observation: you've used the word 'affect' in many places where 'effect' should instead be used. I hope you don't mind me pointing that out.

Cheers,
Joe

Ankhst said...

Actually I just realized that commenter was you ;-)

John S. Cline said...

Thanks Joe! Actually, I've submitted quite a few posts to HuffPo, but so far none have been accepted. I imagine they've got a million coming in every day. There are a lot of smart folks (and, unfortunately, a few not-so-smart) who post there, so I tend to check it daily for both the good insights and good reporting.

I know about the "affect/effect" thing. I ALWAYS seem to get those mixed up. Thanks for the comment and the correction!