Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times was titled “Trump versus the Socialist Menace,” and the tag line beneath the title warned that commies were coming for your pick-up truck.
The title alluded to Trump’s most recent effort to generate fear in his base. Krugman reminded us that we’ve seen this movie before, when the horrible threat of Medicare was looming, and the AMA hatched a plan to defeat it.
Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.
Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.
It sure does. It’s fed by America’s bipolar, “either-or” approach to policy and ignorance of economic systems.
In the real world, there are very few countries where either socialism or capitalism characterizes the entire economy. Virtually all democratic nations have a mixed economy, meaning that certain things are socialized (i.e., provided communally, through government and paid for by taxes) and others are left to the market.
The actual question facing policymakers is which approach is appropriate in a given situation.
America already “socializes” police and fire protection. Most cities “socialize” garbage collection. Our streets and sidewalks–and interstate highways–are “socialized.” (In a recent Facebook post, a friend warned that a “socialist snowplow” was coming down his street.)
One way to think about this (although “thinking” is apparently a difficult assignment for many folks) is that government is a mechanism through which societies provide infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is physical–bridges, roads, etc.–and some of it is social. Police and firefighters, Social Security and Medicare and a variety of social welfare programs are part of the social infrastructure.
Market capitalism, properly regulated, is incredibly successful in providing goods and services when buyers and sellers are operating on relatively equal terms. Economists tell us that markets work well when there is 1) a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, and 2) government has ensured a level playing field.
Quite obviously, there are areas of the economy in which markets don’t work. (Utilities come to mind–when did you last take bids from companies wanting to supply your water or sewer?) In those areas, government gets involved, either through stringent regulation or –gasp!–by socializing the service.
It is perfectly reasonable to debate whether a given service or economic area should be left to the market or provided communally–and if the latter, how that should be done. It is both unreasonable and dishonest to pretend that every decision to socialize a service is a step toward totalitarian communism, but as Krugman says, that’s this administration’s rhetoric.
You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.
Ironically, these hysterical descriptions have actually made the word “socialism” less off-putting. Recent polls show a significant number of voters approving of socialism (including a majority of those under 30). They’ve evidently accepted conservative labeling that “describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.””
When words are used as invective, they no longer communicate anything of substance. I think that’s where we are with both capitalism and socialism, and that really impedes rational policymaking.