Saturday, February 20, 2016

When Is a Socialist Not a Socialist?

When Barack Obama was running for President, the Republican Right branded him a “Socialist.”  They have also branded Obamacare as “socialized medicine.”  These claims were so ridiculous that neither Obama nor anyone else ever took the time to set the American people straight on the meaning of these words and the lie they spoke as applied.  Thus for many, the terms stuck.

Now, because of Bernie Sander’s run for the nomination, and his self-identification as a Socialist or what he sometimes refers to as a Democratic Socialist, it is critically important for the American people (and Sanders!) to understand what these words mean before even starting to think about which candidate they prefer.

First, the meaning of Socialism:  “A system of society in which the major means of production are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.”  This definition is from Webster’s and is basically identical with other sources.  

Why government ownership?  The theory is that government is the desired owner because it represents all of the people rather than just a few and so decisions about production and distribution will be made in a way which better meets the needs of the broader society.  Capitalism, on the other hand, where the means of production are owned and controlled by private companies or individuals, makes its decisions on what is produced and how it is distributed based solely on what is in the best interests of the company and its owners/shareholders.

Neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders has ever called for industries, for the means of production, to be owned by or controlled by the government.  Therefore, neither of them are Socialists nor do they advocate Socialism.  

Yes, I know that Sanders identifies himself as a Socialist at times, but he’s not.  I have the feeling he just likes the sound of the word, that it confirms he’s for the people and against big money, and it sets him apart.

The term “Democratic Socialism” is still Socialism as defined above, but the system of government is democratic, that is, representative.  So again, neither Obama or Sanders are or advocate Democratic Socialism.

Well what is Sanders then?  Sanders, like the European countries he often refers to, is a Social Democrat.  I know the semantics may seem confusing, but the differences are important.  

“Social Democracy” refers to a political democracy in which a capitalist system of ownership and production is regulated by the state to make it more reflect the public good and the state helps those who need help with various forms of aid, such as public aid, Medicare, Social Security, etc.  Webster’s also defines it as a state that combines both capitalist and socialist practices. 

So guess what?  The United States is a social democracy, certainly since the Depression.  Only the most radical right-wing Republicans want a purely capitalist state where there is no government regulation (and also no government aid to industry) and no government help for those in need.

The difference between today’s mainstream Republicans (radical has become mainstream for them), Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders are really differences of degree, albeit great, along a continuum from little government social involvement … that is action to promote the public rather than private good … to significant government action to promote the public good.

Hillary wants more government action to help those in need, but does not want to disturb the capitalist model.  Sanders is willing to disturb the capitalist model where necessary to provide for the public good, for example, universal health insurance.  Likewise, Hillary is less willing to closely regulate the financial industry while Sanders wants rather strict regulation of that industry.  

The example of health insurance is perhaps the easiest way of clarifying the distinctions.  In the strictly capitalist model, health insurance is provided by private for-profit insurance companies and is bought by individuals or companies on behalf of employees.  The government is not involved at all.  There would be no such thing as Medicare or Medicaid.  

Even Radical Republicans don’t dare go that far.  They would prefer to remove the government from any programmatic involvement and rely on private insurers, but still provide funding through some type of voucher or income tax credit program.  Which would provide more profits for private insurers.

Bernie Sanders wants universal health care with the government being the single payer, easiest to understand as expanded Medicare for everyone.  This is the system that is in place in most European countries and Canada.  This could fairly be called socialized medical insurance, but the medical delivery system otherwise remains as is.  People can in most cases opt out of this system and choose private care if they so choose.

What Hillary wants is Obamacare.  This is a system that still uses private insurers and so it cannot be called socialized medical insurance because the insurance is not provided by the government.  But the government both regulates and provides subsidies so that those who cannot afford the insurance can still obtain it.  It’s better than what we had before, but it’s a clunky system and there are lots of shortcomings just from my own personal experience.

Bottom line.  The whole “Socialist” or “Democratic Socialist” harangue is a red herring.  
It would be helpful if Sanders started getting his terminology correct and made the point expressed in this post that most everyone regardless of political party is on the same continuum, just at different points of the spectrum.  We are a social democracy, even if not a very progressive one.

This does not lessen the differences between the parties or candidates.  But it does remove scare terminology from the debate and instead places the question clearly where it should be … how much help should the government provide its citizens, directly or indirectly?  Is health care a basic right that everyone should have?