In these days, when reasoned discussion has given way to name calling, one of the most popular names thrown around is “socialist.” The word is meant by those who hurl it something equivalent to “Communist”, and it carries with it thinly veiled innuendos of military control and a general suppression of individual human rights. Most of all it suggests that you are not a real American unless you are a laissez-faire capitalist.
There are many errors in this kind of thinking (if, indeed, we can call it thinking). The greatest of those errors, however, the one that threatens the very existence of American democracy, is to confuse the difference between economic theories and political theories. A friend of mine, a good and bright friend of mine, once said that America is a capitalist country. That statement is absolutely wrong, and it perfectly illustrates the confusion. He was very, fundamentally wrong, probably even more wrong than is Jeff Session’s hideous statement that America is not an idea but a nation state. If America is not an idea, it is nothing, and it is doomed.
So let’s revisit our basic civics. The United States was founded on a set of ideals. They are: a) that all human beings are born equal, and b) every human being has some basic inalienable rights. To be an American is to hold these truths to be undeniable. If you don’t hold these truths to be true, you are not an American. So, anyone reading this who does not hold these truths to be undeniable, please leave the room.
These truths are at the core of what it means to be an American. They define us. They are our political foundation. That being true, all the rest of our issues involve the means of best achieving these ideals. No matter what position I might hold regarding how to run the economy, how to run the military, how to educate our children, how best to provide health care, how best to take care of our elderly, these are all merely discussion among people committed to a common goal on how best to achieve that goal.
So, for instance, here is a question: how can we best promote the inalienable rights of all human beings in the operation of our economy? The various answers to that question constitute what we might call a continuum. Some think that we promote the rights of others best by giving them the greatest possible freedom with respect to what they earn and how they spend or save it. Others think that we promote the rights of others by having everyone contribute to a common fund to pay for common needs. Between those two positions there is an endless variety of proposals. These are, not political positions, but economic positions. The first economic position is called capitalism, and the second economic position is called socialism. So socialism is the combining of private funds into one public fund to provide a benefit for all.
And that is the point. We are all socialists in this sense to some extent. You don’t believe that? Oh yeah? Do you agree with using public funds to operate the military? Do you agree with using public funds to take care of parks and streets? Do you agree with public funds to pay for education or provide basic care for our elderly? If you do, you are a socialist, that is, you are willing to contribute to a common fund to provide for a universal need.
There is, of course, an important rational discussion to be had here. Should we use common funds for health care? Should we spend more or should we spend less on such things as education? These, and many more topics, are good and healthy topics for discussion.
All of that ends when, instead of rational discussion, we choose to hurl names. Even the names themselves lose their meaning. And this is one of the major sins of our times. We don’t think, we just accuse. When we do, we reject even the possibility of rational discussion. And when we do that, we end up abandoning those precious ideals that should identify us.
So anyway, you’re a socialist. What am I?