Obama is a socialist, right?
In the National Review, Kevin Williamson discusses the right's use of the term "socialist," and he dismisses those who protest that "that 'socialist' is being used as a mere smear word, empty of other content." But in 4,000 words, he doesn't really show that using the term in American politics can be much more than a semantic mugging of opponents.
He gets a little technical, but his definition of socialism comes down to something like this: It is state direction of otherwise private activity (the provision of non-public goods), such as education, using central planning. And in America, he argues, "regulation acts as a proxy for direct state ownership."
How far-reaching does the regulation have to be for it to qualify as socialist? Williamson doesn't say, allowing his readers to speculate with little encumbrance. And why, indeed, don't we call nearly every government ever a socialist one? Williamson does address this question:
As a practical matter, all modern governments engage in some public provision of non-public goods. That does not mean that every government is, in a meaningful sense, socialist, or that it would make sense to describe every government that maintains a public school or a public highway as socialist. There are questions of degree, and questions of judgment, and the answers to those questions will vary from case to case.
So you know a socialist when you see one?
Williamson provides a little more guidance: He insists that reverence for centralized state control can sort out the socialists from the non-socialists. But federal regulation is by definition centrally administered. Wait -- Williamson says -- it's centralized control in accordance with "THE PLAN" that is the hallmark of socialism. What "PLAN"? Williamson seems to say that "THE PLAN" is any time the state sets goals. In counseling school children to learn about science and math so they can help cure cancer and AIDS, Obama claims "a right of eminent domain over the lives of American children," "standardizing" them to serve the purposes of "THE PLAN," Williamson says. The implication is almost uselessly broad: Anyone who favors regulation with a purpose -- as opposed to regulation that is totally arbitrary? -- favors socialism. Maybe he means something else, but that's the argument he makes.
I admire Williamson's desire to develop a more limited and useful definition of socialism. But in doing so, he barely limits to what and to whom the word can conceivably apply. Williamson ends by instructing his readers to see socialism everywhere, a long-standing feature of American government, not just this White House. But he should have expanded on his better point, instead: There is a difference between a system in which there are socialized features and a socialist system. So, you can say that Obama favors some policies that could be thought of as socialist, as do most Americans. But can you claim that a centrist Democratic president -- who signed a Heritage Foundation-inspired health-care law, who expressed regret that the government stepped in to save the auto industry, and who just instructed his government to roll back federal regulation -- really favors a socialist system?
A similar sort of intellectual acrobatics underpinned Christine O'Donnell's claim that having an inheritance tax of any sort is a tenet of Marxism. Which is to say, I'm not convinced that this terminology clarifies the debate. These are still slippery epithets that encourage argument about semantics rather than substance. So, argue about whether Obama favors too much state control over industry, whether the stimulus was a down-payment on that, and so forth. But don't pretend as though the right's invocation of "socialist" is a clear, useful or even fair application of the term most of the time.
| January 19, 2011; 4:33 PM ET
Categories: Stromberg | Tags: Stephen Stromberg
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