Friday, October 1, 2010

The Pernicious Right-Wing Claim

Two weeks ago I published a lengthy blog article rebutting the pernicious right-wing claim that Barack Obama and/or American liberals in general are socialist.

Since then, I have heard many complaints from people who felt that the editorial was too long. To address this, I offered the following explanation in my introduction to a second posting of that piece:

I felt that - in light of the vociferousness with which right-wingers accuse Obama, the Democratic Party, and liberals in general of being socialistic - I had to be as thorough as possible in logically deconstructing this erroneous charge, even if doing so forced me to err on the side of verbosity."

This, unfortunately, wasn't enough. Too many people insisted that, regardless of whether the points I raised were valid or otherwise, my essay simply contained more text than they were willing to digest in a single sitting.

As a result, I am now posting an abridged version. More specifically, I am posting an excerpt from the original piece, one that deals solely with demonstrating why the assertion that Obama and/or liberals are socialistic is factually inaccurate. If you want to read about why I was prompted to pen that article in the first place, how American statesmen like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln had views that would be misconstrued as "socialistic" today, and how the nature of how this erroneous charge is both dangerous to American liberty and detrimental to the intelligence of our national dialogue, feel free to read the entirety of my original article:

Now for the main attraction...

It ("the conflation of the economic policies of Barack Obama and of liberals with those of Karl Marx") is factually incorrect. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama's policies, the simple truth is that they are not socialistic.

For further proof, we can refer to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of socialism:

noun \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

It is important to note that this doesn't say that ANY government intervention in economic matters - be it in providing goods and services or in regulating major industries - constitutes socialism. If that was the case, we would have been a socialist state long before Barack Obama or even Franklin Roosevelt ever ascended to the White House. After all, the government does offer a "public option" in education via free schooling for children (an idea prominently advocated by Thomas Jefferson) and state colleges (supported, with an initial lack of success, by John Quincy Adams); regulates the food we eat and the medicines we take to make sure they are clean and safe (passed with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt); imposes an eight-hour workday (with the bill that set the precedent for this having been signed into law by Woodrow Wilson); prohibits the use of child labor (also passed into law the first time under Woodrow Wilson, although a Supreme Court decision overturning it required a second passage under Franklin Roosevelt); and bans the formation of corporate "trusts" that stifled competition (thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson).

There is much that the earlier list doesn't take into account. For example, there are public firefighters and police officers (both of which were initially only provided by private corporations until the obvious dangers and inefficiencies of that system became too flagrant and dangerous to ignore), the Securities and Exchange Commission (which was created after the Great Depression to prevent a repetition of the fiscal chicanery that contributed to the Stock Market crash, and which was effective until weakened by Ronald Reagan and his successors), and Medicare and Medicaid (pushed into being by President Lyndon Johnson and adamantly defended even by Republicans today, despite claims that it was "socialistic" back when LBJ and other liberals supported it). Expensive economic stimulus packages also have a long and distinguished history, from the massive national economic mobilization ordered by Franklin Roosevelt during World War Two (which caused unemployment to drop from 14% in 1940 to less than 2% in 1943) to the Interstate Highway Act pushed through by President Dwight Eisenhower, which contributed greatly to the economic prosperity of the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, if it wasn't for government regulation of the economy through civil rights legislation, it would still be legal for private businesses to refuse employment or refuse customer service on the basis of race, religion, and gender (indeed, many conservatives opposed legislation that wanted to prohibit this form of discrimination precisely because they felt the effect it would have on private enterprise was "socialistic").

In short, an elementary understanding of both the history of this country and the workings of today's government makes it very clear that spending money to end a recession, imposing regulations so as to guarantee fair play or prevent injustices, and advocating government involvement in providing goods and services are not socialistic. The reality is that "socialism" refers only to an extreme perspective in economic policy, one which argues that EVERYTHING in the economy should be controlled by the government. In the same vein, there are fundamentalist libertarians at the opposite extreme of that same spectrum who argue that NOTHING besides the military should be provided by the state. Fortunately, the vast majority of political figures and private citizens agree that the ideal lies somewhere between these two simplistic absolutes.

Of course, there are bound to be fierce disagreements as to the exact location of that happy medium, and not only is that acceptable, it's healthy and necessary. There is nothing at all illegitimate about conservatives who claim that too much government regulation can inhibit economic growth, that having the government provide certain goods and services can stifle creativity and hinder efficiency, that welfare programs to help the poor and assist the unemployed find work provides a disincentive for individual initiative, or that economic stimulus to end the recession is too expensive to be fiscally safe. While liberals may disagree with these arguments, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about their use by the right-wing in political debate, and if we are confident in the correctness of our position (which we should be), there is no reason to object when we are expected to rebut them.

That said, there IS something intellectually (to say nothing of morally) dishonest about claiming that advocates of financial and business regulation, labor rights, a public option in health care, unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare, minimum wage increases, programs to put people back to work, aggressive economic stimulus spending or other liberal economic policies are bringing us toward socialism. Just as it would be inaccurate to claim that someone who supports less government economic intervention is advocating fundamentalist libertarianism (unless he or she is saying that the government should have absolutely no involvement in the economy), so too is it inaccurate to claim that someone who supports more government economic intervention is advocating socialism (unless he or she is saying that the government should have complete control over the economy). As such, since there is no evidence that Barack Obama, his advisors, or the vast majority of American liberals want a complete state takeover of the economy (kooky conspiracy theories to the contrary notwithstanding), the claim that any of them are socialistic is just factually wrong.

To quote the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

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