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America isn’t ‘experimenting’ with socialism, it’s immersed in it

“Socialism” is under siege once again, with the oft-heard refrain that it’s downright un-American to associate with any plan or program or, it seems, any offhand statement of anything branded “socialistic.”  

And, goes the extension, if one supports something tagged as “socialism,” then surely they must be a Socialist.


Which leads to the friendly chitchat the other day after a round of golf on a splendid autumn day.  We were sitting in the Braemar pub, and the conversation in this political season easily turned to The Bailout, and the prospect that the U.S. government would take equity stake in several of America’s largest banks in exchange for billions of taxpayer dollars to undo the cascading financial meltdown.

“What it comes down to,” Gary said as he lamented the mess, “is that it’s socialism, and that’s not good.”

A surefire argument stopper
Gary isn’t alone in fearing that awful something, and lashing out against it. Whether it be The Bailout or the “distribution of wealth” or the other guy’s health-care plan, a surefire way to dismiss an argument is to charge that it’s “socialistic.”   

So, Gary was asked, what exactly does “socialism” mean? 

“Well,” he said, “It’s anytime the government gets involved, and I know that I don’t like it.”  

Gary’s group plays golf most Fridays at a municipal golf course which — Gary still denies — is engaging in pure “socialism.” The course is owned and managed by the city, and by any fair meaning of the term it’s a socialistic place.     

Look it up: by definition, “socialism” is when the “collective” (government) controls the means of production, in this case a service. 

Public roads, public parking lot …
Golfers drive on public roads to get to the course and they park in a public parking lot; the roads and the lot are socialistic.  People drive on highways and freeways and they cross bridges, and if they discover their house is on fire they call the fire department — whose trucks are sometimes escorted by the local police. The public owns all these services, and all of it is socialism. Park in a ramp near the Target Center and attend a concert, and you participate in socialism. It’s public ownership of the means of production, including service. 

Take the light rail to the airport (both publicly owned and operated) and your plane is directed on a route by federal air-traffic controllers. It’s all socialized. You fly to Phoenix and take a sip of water and the water is courtesy of the Central Arizona Project that pipes Colorado River water all the way across the desert; it’s all built, owned and delivered by the federal government and that’s — you guessed it, socialism. In fact, water supplied to Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Las Vegas — to name a few — all comes from water projects run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and that’s socialism. Water delivered to the fields of California’s Central Valley that grow our fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat is socialism. 

Water supplied in virtually every city is drawn by public facilities, made safe by public treatment plants and distributed in public underground pipes. And the sewage that drains from your residence goes into public sewer pipe to a public treatment plant. It’s all socialism.   

What about hunting and skiing?
Go hunting in a wildlife management area run by state or federal government and the ground on which you trod is brought to you by socialism; heck, in many places, the government even provides a parking area for hunters. 

Go skiing in Colorado and electricity that runs the lifts is from the Rural Electrification Association (REA), and that’s a socialistic program to deliver power to America’s rural areas. If you’re like me and grew up in a town that had its own municipal power plant, your home was lit by socialism. Go gambling in Las Vegas and all those lights are lit by power from the Hoover Dam and the dancing water displays come from the federally owned Lake Mead reservoir behind that federally built and owned dam. Socialism. 

The Metrodome, the Xcel Energy Center, the new TCF Stadium at the University of Minnesota, the new Target baseball park surrounded by acres of public parking ramps; it’s all socialism.   Your mail is delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (socialism) and your kids go to public schools (socialism).  Your parents get a check from Social Security (socialism) and health care from Medicare or Medicaid (socialism). 

Rooted in the institutions of Europe
America is most certainly not “experimenting” with socialism, as one candidate on the presidential ticket likes to emphasize. America is immersed in socialism, and our comfort with the concept is firmly rooted in the socialistic institutions that run most of Europe: its trains, its planes, its national power systems, and its health-care systems that consistently deliver better care at less cost than America’s insurance-run system. 

None of this is to suggest that socialism is superior to capitalism that’s predominating in the United States. And none of this is to suggest that just because we play on socialistic public golf courses that we’re Socialists (capital “S” as in the party). And, of course, none of this is to suggest that “socialism” and “capitalism” are mutually exclusive — take the example of a local businessman playing golf at the Chaska Town Course and afterward talking business with an associate who operates a rural facility that gets its electricity from the Bureau of Reclamation in Bismarck. 

But it is to remind that, as a Republican neighbor suggested at last summer’s neighborhood picnic, Americans actively accept that there are some things that democratically elected government can do better — not all things, mind you, but more things than most could imagine.  Call it what you will, but more often than not it is socialism when the collective (government) controls the means of production.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Brady on 10/29/2008 - 10:37 am.

    Each time I hear the “socialism” objection being raised in a political argument, it leads me to believe that we need another Godwin’s Law for this term. Thus, by invoking the “S-word” you have conceded the argument.

  2. Submitted by Norman Norman on 10/29/2008 - 11:08 am.

    America needs to wake up to the fact that we are not Communists. We do live in a democracy supported by capitalism and our brand of socialism. In reality, all the countries on the face of the earth have some form of socially supported institutions. If we were to privatize America we would put the power over the many in the hands of a few. What would you call that?

    Ironically, we fear the world we have created and its benefits: Social Security, Medicare, public schools, interstates, fresh water systems, public health systems, public parks, stop signs, public courts, laws, modern communication systems, safe foods, train systems, you name, we are a society. And a damn good one too. But, when people fear themselves they fear everything they hold dear: life.

  3. Submitted by John Clawson on 10/29/2008 - 11:17 am.

    Nice column and nice exposition.

    This country began its dabbling with socialism from Day 1 when the new Congress decfided it was in the Nation’s/peoples’ interest for the new government of the United States to participate in the building of canals and roads to help further the business/commercial interests of the new country. Tolls were collected, certainly, in many cases, but business did not have to lay out money beforehand for construction costs. “Big Government” did all that.

    Once, when I was in the Legislature, I was invited to make some comments at the annual meeting of the electric COOPERATIVE in my district. I started by saluting Minnesota’s own special brand of socialism, the COOPERATIVE movement, which was born in Minnesota. And don’t forget the COOPERATIVE grain elevators, the COOPERATIVE creameries, and the COOPERATIVE electrive generation and distribution systems.

    Anyway, when I started equating the electric coop with socialism I thought the chief exec of the company and their lobbyist would have a heart attack!!

    People, like your friend at the country club are reading from partisan talking points, and not thinking–critically or otherwise. Thanks for making the point clearly and well.

  4. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 10/29/2008 - 02:28 pm.

    Good article!

    I wonder what Joe the Plumber thinks about this?

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/29/2008 - 03:41 pm.

    Rather than a socialistic (completely government-owned and operated economic system) or a purely capitalistic system (no government or governmental services or regulation, no taxes, none of the things we have decided “government does better”), we are fortunate enough to have a mixed economy.

    As Fred Block points out in an essay called “The Thing Economy and the Care Economy,” capitalism’s great contribution is the creation of wealth and its greatest weakness is its tendency to concentrate it at the top.

    A good society recognizes that all of us share in the work of wealth-building by supporting the development of the educated, healthy workers needed by industry and the infrastructure, police and fire protection, the arts and other amenities that make life worth living. In other words, the common good is a common responsibility.

    And a good society expects the creators of wealth to contribute financially to that common good as it expects those lower on the income scale to do their part.

  6. Submitted by Anne Keroff on 10/29/2008 - 07:39 pm.

    While I agree with Mr. Way’s basic premise that the United States is no longer a purely capitalistic society, he clearly misunderstands the phrase “controlling the means of production.” The means of production are the things that it takes to produce goods. So, if the United States government owned all the iron mines in the nation, it could be said that we had “socialized” the iron mining industry. (Interestingly, Harry Truman tried to seize the steel industry during his term in office to prevent a steelworker’s strike from crippling our war efforts in Korea. The Supreme Court declared this action unconstitutional.) Most economists would agree that government providing some services, such as fire and police protection is not “socialism” but rather a more efficient way to deliver these things. In fact, roads, police and fire services, and national defense are generally regarded as “public goods” i.e. things that everyone receives an equal benefit from. Government providing these types types of services is not socialism, it is common sense.

  7. Submitted by Mary Warner on 10/29/2008 - 09:23 pm.

    There must be something in the air because I just blogged about this very topic:

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