by Jon Margolis
Despite the whining from the left side of the blogosphere (the preceding clause is not entirely redundant), The New York Times was quite justified in asking President Barack Obama that “socialist question” during an interview earlier this month.
It isn’t as though the question emerged unbidden from the brow of the Times reporter. The question wasn’t just, “By the way, are you by any chance a socialist?” It was: “The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?”
Considering that among those “some people” were Republican members of Congress, it was the right question to ask. OK, it could have been done more artfully. Perhaps had the reporter said, “Since a whole bunch of Republicans have called you a socialist, I feel impelled to ask you whether you are,” everyone would have understood.
But essentially that’s what he did say, though admittedly prefacing it with the sentence about the spending priorities did muddle things a bit.
Defending that question, though, should by no means be interpreted as defending in general the way reporters, commentators, bloggers and talk-radio shouters have dealt with this whole socialism business. They have dealt with it poorly, simply by not being sufficiently conservative.
The conservatism referred to here has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with language, about which all writers should be conservative. They should be careful about words. No, it’s more than that; they should be careful about each word, using it only to express what it actually means, the more precisely the better.
“Socialism” has a very precise meaning. In my American Heritage dictionary (third edition), it means “a social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively.”
In practice, “collectively” usually has meant “by the government.” But not always. Either way, socialism is an economic system in which most goods and services are produced, distributed and sold by something other than for-profit firms or individuals. Such a system usually requires (though in theory it need not) using some kind of planning mechanism, rather than the market, to make most decisions about what gets produced and in what quantities.
By that definition – and it is, conservatively speaking, the only acceptable definition – almost nobody is a socialist. Nobody in America, at least, and precious few in Europe, including the leaders of the political parties over there that still use the name. Spain right now is governed by its Socialist Party. It is not trying to socialize the Spanish economy, no more than the Socialist government of France in the 1990s tried to socialize France. On both sides of the Atlantic, socialism is increasingly regarded as an idea whose time has come and gone.
OK, in this country maybe a few old guys who still remember the words to “The Banks Are Made of Marble” really consider themselves socialists, as do a handful of college professors (but probably not in the economics department; more likely cultural anthropology or some such). But in or even near the political mainstream, including the left side of that mainstream, no one is a socialist.
Certainly not Barack Obama, and none of the politicians and opinion- mongers to his left, either. Not Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold or Barney Frank. Not Paul Krugman, Dean Baker or J. Bradford DeLong. Not Bob Herbert or E.J. Dionne or David Corn. Not even Bernie Sanders, one of my very own senators, who once called himself a socialist and still refuses to renounce the label.
But he isn’t a socialist. He’s not for obliterating – or even substantively diminishing – the private sector. He does not favor central planning. He won’t run away from the socialist label, he says, because he approaches “politics primarily through economic perspectives (and wants) to see a more egalitarian society.” Not by having the government take over businesses, but by steps such as universal health care, a higher minimum wage and more Pell Grants so lower-income kids can go to college.
There is a precise term for this political outlook. Perhaps there are a few. None of them is “socialist.” Were Sanders a Democrat instead of an independent, it would be accurate to call him a very (or even an ultra-) liberal Democrat. He could be called an egalitarian. Or a term until recently heard much more in Europe but now increasingly used on this side of the Atlantic: social democrat. That’s what those European “Socialist” parties really preach (and, where in power, practice) now.
To a conservative, a social democrat might be the functional equivalent of a socialist. Fine. That’s an opinion open for a debate. Let the debate begin. A reporter, however, ought to maintain the distinction because … well, because all distinctions should be maintained.
That’s the essence of intellectual conservatism. Call each person, place, thing, action, policy, trend, idea or ideology only what it is. Nothing else.
To do otherwise is not simply to be un-conservative. It is to be wrong. A spruce tree may look rather like a fir tree, to which it is in fact related (they are both of the family pinaceae). But a writer who calls a spruce a fir or vice versa is incorrect. A gazelle may look like a pronghorn antelope, or at least look related. It is not. The pronghorn (of the Antilocapridae family) isn’t really an antelope at all. The gazelle (a Bovidae) is. So confusing the two of them is also incorrect.
But it isn’t any more incorrect because the two species are unrelated. Getting the spruce and the fir mixed up is just as wrong. That’s why it doesn’t make any difference whether socialism and social democracy are related, as the conservatives say, or poles apart, as both the social democrats and the (remaining few) socialists insist. That’s part of the debate. Whoever wins it, when reporters and editors confuse the two, they’re simply wrong.
As were reporter Sarah Lyall and The New York Times Monday in their story about the Swedish government declining to come to the aid of the Saab automobile company. The relatively conservative (for Sweden) government, the story says, is not following “the old socialist model.”
But Sweden was never socialist. It has had less public ownership than many other European countries. In a financial emergency in the 1990s, Sweden did nationalize many of its banks. But that was a temporary measure, and the banks were re-privatized.
Sweden is unquestionably more of a social democracy than the United States or even most of the rest of western Europe. That may or may not be a good idea. It is not socialism. It is understandable and perhaps even acceptable for ideologues to confuse the two ideologies, whether they do it inadvertently or deliberately. It is not acceptable when journalists make the same mistake.
There is one more mistake – a delusion, really – that infects this discussion, at least in the United States. Balancing the disinclination to recognize that effectively no one is a socialist is a similar disinclination to accept the reality that everyone is a social democrat.
Even the people who insist they are not. I have a distinct memory from a few years ago of listening to then-Rep. Tom DeLay fulminate against the very idea of a welfare estate before proclaiming, in either the same or the very next breath, his devotion to Social Security.
The single major component of the welfare state, which for better or for worse (or both) is here to stay. The point here is not to ridicule DeLay; the confusion he revealed was more typical than unusual. It is to illustrate how American politicians – unchallenged by American journalists – persist in deluding themselves.
The more sophisticated observers, conservative as well as liberal, do seem to accept the reality that we, too, have a social democracy, though they won’t come right out and say so. Instead, the liberals hope that we do, and the conservatives fear that we will, become more social democratic.
Not to worry, said New York Times columnist David Brooks. “The United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise.”
So it was. So it is. So is, say, the Netherlands, a commercial Republic before the United States was a gleam in Thomas Jefferson’s eye. Arguably the world’s first capitalist economy, the Netherlands was the site of the first stock exchange and perhaps the first asset bubble collapse, the tulip mania of 1636-1637. Some folks simply don’t want to acknowledge that a country can be a commercial republic and still have universal health insurance.
At its extreme, this Euro-phobia expresses the horror that if Barack Obama has his way, the United States is in danger of becoming – sacre bleu – more like France.
Gee, do you think that means we’ll eat better?
Using whatever words you want, let Jon Margolis know what you think about his words.