Civility Watchdog: The “Socialist” Accusation

by on August 13th, 2010
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Recently, there have been several instances of in which Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been called a “socialist”. It’s the sort of thing that has also frequently been said about President Barack Obama.

The biggest problem with the “socialist” accusation is that it’s so ill-defined. What does it mean to call someone a socialist, and why is it bad to be one?

Let’s try a few definitions. If, by “socialist” you mean “communist”, then Warren and Obama are not socialists, because nothing they’ve espoused approaches communism. They haven’t proposed the nationalization of any industries (in fact, Obama and the Democrats bailed out car-makers GM and Chrysler, only to return them to private ownership), they haven’t proposed single-party rule, they haven’t outlawed religion, etc. They’ve supported greater government intervention in the economy, yes, but nothing on the scale of a communist, Marxist, command economy.

Defined as communism, socialism is definitely bad, but Obama and Warren don’t fit that description. It’s an exaggeration — a derisive caricature — to call Obama a socialist (just like it’s exaggeration and derisive caricature for Obama to say that Republicans are social Darwinists who don’t believe in helping people).

If, however, “socialism” is more broadly defined as supporting government intervention in the economy and redistribution (i.e., taking money from some people and spending it on others), then absolutely, Obama and Warren are socialists. However, so is just about everyone, because everyone supports at least some government intervention in the economy, if only in the form of police and fire departments, a court system that rules on and enforces contracts, etc. And it’s almost impossible for government to do any taxing and spending without some people getting more from government than they paid in, while others paying more into government than they get out of it.

For example. the public schools are an example of redistribution: children are getting services that they didn’t pay for. Even if you don’t support the public school system, and would rather have school vouchers, it’s still redistribution, meaning you’re supporting socialism. So, by this definition, it’s true that Obama and Warren are socialists, but being a socialist is no longer obviously objectionable.

Now, it’s true that Obama, Warren, and other Democrats support more government intervention and redistribution than most Republicans and conservatives do. But everyone supports some government intervention and redistribution. What level of counts as socialist? Where is the dividing line between a socialist amount of government intervention and redistribution and a non-socialist amount.

The people who resort to the “socialist” epithet typically don’t define the term or clarify this distinction. That is, they tag people with the negative, communist connotations of the term “socialist” without defending why those connotations should apply to people who clearly aren’t communists. Nor do they explain why those negative connotations shouldn’t equally apply to everyone, given that everyone is in favor of at least some government intervention and redistribution.

The next time someone uses the term “socialist” as an epithet, ask them to define the term, explain why it is a bad thing to be socialist, and illustrate how the term only applies to some people and not to everyone.


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