Eighty years ago, in 1937, the government of Franklin Roosevelt proposed the program of social security. When the secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, was testifying about the proposal to Congress, Senator Thomas Gore asked him, “Isn’t this socialism?” “Oh, no,” said Perkins, to which Gore sarcastically responded, “Isn’t this a teeny weeny bit of socialism?”
We are today faced with exactly the same question, but this time it is about the prospects for universal health care. The fundamental objection to universal health care, even in its present diluted form which we call Obamacare, is that it is socialism, defined roughly as Big Brother or even Communism. Think, for instance, of Trump calling Bernie Sanders his “Commie friend.”
Is it socialism? Well, that depends a great deal on how you define socialism. If by socialism you mean government ownership of all property, then it clearly is not. However, if by socialism you mean government payment for a service provided to all people, then it certainly is. But then, so is the government payment for defense, the government payment for infrastructure like roads and bridges, the government payment for education and libraries, and the government payment for the administration of the government. Under this definition, for instance, the government’s payment for the salary of Paul Ryan is socialism.
What we pay for through government, which is to say what we pay for as a group rather than merely as individuals, pretty much defines who we are as a people. Those who condemn governmental payment for social services and clamor only for less taxation are proclaiming a morality of self-interest. Their goal is a world in which each fends for himself or herself, and government exists only to prevent chaos. This view has been gaining ascendancy for years now, and has come to be personified in the views of Paul Ryan. It has been with us before, and it has led to the same disasters toward which it is bringing us today.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt pulled us out of a decades long, unabated plunge into the morality of self-interest. Its most blatant promoters had dragged our population into get-rich schemes that ended in the near total collapse of the economy, and left that population in pure misery. In his second inaugural address, having begun to lift the country from massive unemployment, Roosevelt said, “We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.”
That tolerance somehow crept slowly back into our world, abetted by our own touch of larceny, a hope that perhaps we too could gain the luxuries of a great fortune. But is that who we really are? Do we really, in our hearts, want personal fortune at the possible cost of widespread misery? I think not.
President Obama, when accused of socialism for wanting universal health care, stated, “As long as there are nine million children in the United States with no health insurance, it is a betrayal of our ideals that we hold as Americans. It is not who we are.”
So who are we? We are Americans, not because we are capable of making individual fortunes, but because we hold, as self-evident truth, that all human beings have certain inalienable rights. We are Americans because we are committed to the rights of other people. As President Roosevelt put it, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”