Opinion

Froma Harrop: The silly debate about socialism

What’s with all this socialism business? A handful of lefty candidates are calling themselves socialists without a single radical socialistic item on their promise lists. They seem to have little idea of what socialism is. And most of the conservatives talking back to them don’t seem to know, either.

Simply put, socialism is a system whereby the state owns the means of production. In capitalism, the means of production are privately owned. Would someone kindly tell us which companies Bernie Sanders would nationalize, starting with Bernie Sanders?

“Spreading the wealth” is not socialism. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries that Sanders habitually holds up as models to emulate are capitalistic powerhouses. They’re not taking the means of production away from the private owners. They’re just taxing wealth and using the proceeds to fund their plush social safety nets.

Most of our retirees would throw a revolution if someone threatened their Medicare benefits. But many have no problem accusing others wanting subsidized health care of committing crimes against capitalism. And yes, Medicare is a taxpayer subsidy, a redistribution of wealth. Payroll taxes and premiums account for only about half its spending. Over 40 percent comes from general revenues, mainly income taxes.

But everyone can rest assured that Medicare is not socialized medicine. The doctors and hospitals work for themselves. Medicare is socialized insurance.

The right likes to mock the left’s calls for “free stuff,” such as free college education, free health care and so forth. My main objection to “free stuff” is calling it “free.” Someone is paying for it.

It does not follow, however, that such proposals as helping students attend a community college or trade school would be a bad thing. Our society decided long ago that education through the 12th grade is a public good. Towns and cities don’t directly bill parents for the third grade. With good jobs requiring ever more complex skills, it makes sense to fold at least some post-high-school training into the category of basic education.

Arguments over big government vs. small government are pretty meaningless. We have what’s called a mixed economy – a system combining private and public enterprise. We ask the government to provide the socially desired goods and services that the private sector won’t.

A privately run company would not deliver a letter to a farmhouse a quarter-mile from the road for the same amount (currently 49 cents) it charges in the city. In 1896, Congress required that what is now the U.S. Postal Service do just that.

Coming full circle back to health care, before Medicare, many older Americans faced unnecessary death and suffering for lack of medical care. For private insurers, covering people with expensive conditions or sure to develop them – at premiums ordinary people could afford – was not deemed a sound business model.

Thus, Medicare was created in 1965, though not before the American Medical Association condemned it as “creeping socialism.” By the way, “Medicare for all” would be no more socialistic than Medicare only for those 65 or older.

On the left, calling oneself a socialist has become something of a pose, and I wish such individuals would desist. For one thing, they’re obviously not socialists. (A mandated $15 minimum wage is not socialism. It’s a labor regulation.) And for another, “socialism” sounds scary to many Americans who would otherwise embrace universal coverage, more money for education and a lot of other changes progressives are calling for.

No one’s been made the commissar of terminology, but I do wish the free market of ideas would better patrol itself. Socialism is not currently on the American political menu. Let us all stop pretending – self-proclaimed socialists and their critics alike – that it is.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.