What Exactly is Socialism?

I love talking about economics, but I am acutely aware the conversation is fraught for many, and for good reason.

I have always found the historical aspects of economics fascinating. To understand the progression of economics is to know mankind’s evolution. For most of us the economy is very personal, which makes an academic discussion unappealing, especially for those who believe they have been marginalized. However, there are times when we need to remove emotion to fully understand the intellectual foundations of the debate. This is why I say what you think you know about socialism is likely wrong.

Some of you took exception with the definition of socialism in my last column (https://tinyurl.com/areyouasocialist). Those who emailed me approached their responses in two ways, but both were wrong in their understanding of the historical realization that is socialism.

First, there were those who just outright dismissed the definition, providing no counter argument. From that point the dialogue descended into a rant of all perceived ills in our current economic model. There were a lot of capitalized words, in bold print and heavy use of the exclamation point. There was also liberal application of various curse words. What became abundantly clear is our educational system has produced a bunch of economic illiterates, and a few who would have benefited from the time tested parental vocabulary modification technique, soap in the mouth.

But many more dismissed my factual definition of socialism, followed by some variation of the phrase “what socialism means” to them. My response to these emails was pretty simple: “Thank you. You’re wrong. It is not called the “Insert Your Name Here” Economic Principle.” It is called socialism.” Copy, paste, send, repeat.

What socialism “means to me” is irrelevant in an intellectual debate. Put any hyphen before the word socialism you want or try to apply any ill-conceived interpretation to what socialism “means to you,” it will not change the truth. Socialism looks appealing on paper for some but has been a disaster in application. To call yourself a socialist in any way, you must embrace two facts.

Fact 1: All social classes are eliminated. There are no rich or poor people, there must be absolute parity. Economic equality is the main pillar of true socialism, whether it happens by force or voluntarily. Economic equality cannot be achieved without force eventually being applied. Human nature being what it is, and always will be, some people will be “more equal than others.” Sheep always need a master, and there will always be someone willing to guide the herd.

Fact 2: To achieve parity, the means of production must be owned and controlled by the government. Not the many governments, and not in partnership with business. One centralized government. Governments are made of people, and again some people will be “more” equal than others.

If you look throughout the history of mankind, since Karl Marx first introduced the founding principles that would become the foundation of socialism, pure socialism as it was intended has rarely been achieved, and when it has, it has been a disaster.

For those of you who like the new warm and fuzzy definition of socialism that replaces the word “government” with “social/society” or “community,” you are fooling yourself if you believe that will change the final destination. The construct of socialism will always lead to totalitarianism, because to control the means of the economy, you must control the people.

Democratic-socialism is nothing more than the voluntarily surrender of “self-ownership,” and abandonment of the Harm Principle. Hyphenate anyway you want, socialism begins with the false understanding that equality will be achieved, regardless of human nature. However, the additional application of force for those who choose not to “voluntarily” acquiesce to the collective will be applied to achieve a fluid understanding of equality.

There is one last misconception that pollutes our understanding of what socialism is, which requires some clarification. Many who speak about socialism often point to the Scandinavian countries as a model of socialism. The Scandinavian nations are not socialist, but they practice economic and social policies known as the Nordic model, or what some economists would refer to as a welfare state (the word welfare having a much different understanding than how we refer to it in this country).

The Nordic model is based on a culture that has existed for centuries within Scandinavian nations. The economic and social tenets of the Nordic model include a comprehensive welfare state, workforce unionization and collective bargaining supported at the national level. But the foundation of the Nordic model is based on free market capitalism.

Our lack of economic knowledge makes a debate on the topic futile. We are arguing from a position of ignorance. Most people have their own definition of socialism. Words matter, whether you believe in any of the defined economic and social systems, or if you envision something much different. Knowing what we really mean makes for a better conversation.

Most people who gravitate toward what they believe socialism is do so because they really don’t know what socialism is by design and in practice. When you ask these people what they want from the economy, they will usually say they seek an economy that works for everyone, is fair and equally applied. However, deep down the truth is what they really want is an economy that works for them. That is a far more honest answer than “I am a socialist.”

In my next column I will discuss capitalism.

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