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Posted at 2:36 PM ET, 01/20/2011

So pretty much everyone is a socialist?

By Stephen Stromberg

Kevin D. Williamson nastily dismisses my criticism of his definition of socialism over at The Corner. One wonders why he had to resort to snark in claiming that I misapprehended his point -- probably to distract from the fact that he manipulates mine.

Williamson's avowed goal -- a good one, I say -- is to give the terms "socialism" and "socialist" meaning when conservatives use them, to make their use rigorous and productive. But the definition he concocts is still almost uselessly broad.

Essentially, he argues, socialism is government involvement (including regulation) in furnishing any good that private actors might potentially provide to some people at some time. How much government involvement? It's unclear. He adds that socialism is such government action with reference to some "PLAN." What kind of "PLAN"? Also unclear. Every time the government does anything, policymakers have a goal in mind; does that mean they have a "PLAN"? Williamson implies that's so, rendering this a meaningless criterion. So, then, socialism is too much government involvement in almost anything, the government substituting its will for the results of private activity.

So why isn't every government a socialist one? Williamson gives himself an escape clause:

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.

Williamson claims that this passage is "my beef" with his work. But, in fact, I called this his best point -- it keeps his musings tethered to reason. I wished he had expanded more on that passage. How do we use our judgment? How, under his scheme, do we separate a regulated market economy from a socialist one? He goes back to saying that socialist policies have a "PLAN." But -- again -- every time the government regulates anything, it's imposing a goal on private activity that the market isn't valuing to the extent the government thinks the market should -- such as requiring that drugs are thoroughly tested before being sold. How does this criterion distinguish socialist regulations from non-socialist ones? Williamson also instructs us that socialist policies fail. And those of a mere liberal welfare state can't?

My real beef with Williamson's discussion is that it doesn't accomplish the very goal it claimed to have: To give a useful definition of the terminology. Instead, it gives at least implicit license to those who use the words as nebulous political epithets. Once you argue that the government should do more of almost anything, opponents can use Williamson's work to insist that you are revealing your socialism -- and Williamson's response gives me little reason to think that he didn't mean to do this.

I had hoped Williamson would clarify his discussion of central planning -- is this really just any time the government sets and promotes any goal? -- and what manner of regulation he would really consider "socialist" -- how much control does the state have to exert? Instead, he patronizingly restates his argument. So much for rigorous and productive.

None of this, by the way, is to argue that government regulation is always good or desirable. It's not. But we should have that debate on sensible terms.

By Stephen Stromberg  | January 20, 2011; 2:36 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

Kevin Williamson's work has really gone downhill since the end of Dawson's Creek. On the other hand, Stromberg's work has gone downhill ever since his plans were foiled by James Bond.

Posted by: AlexRemington | January 20, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you Stephen.

Posted by: glenn113 | January 20, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Democracy:
Everything is allowed, as long as it isn't forbidden by law.

Socialism/Communism: Everything is forbidden as long as it isn't permitted by law.

Posted by: Pomali | January 20, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Democracy: Everything is permitted as long as it isn't forbidden.
Socialism: Everything is forbidden as long as it isn't permitted.

Posted by: Pomali | January 20, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Considering that all governments are formed because citizens are unable to govern themselves and rely on broad government for fairness aren't all governments socialist, so it's but a matter of degrees?
Aren't problems created in society when few gain too much government influence and haven't escalating costs of mounting political campaigns allowed monied few to gain such influence?
We have a great form of government but have allowed those escalating campaign costs to corrupt the process and such demands reform.

Posted by: reenie10 | January 20, 2011 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Pomali @ January 20, 2011 3:19 PM: Your definitions are inaccurate. For 'socialism' you defined 'dictatorship'. Unfortuantely for you there are some extremely democratic socialist countries. Why, they even manage to provide health care for their entire population, and do not even get the courts to arbitrarily rule who won an election!

Posted by: AMviennaVA | January 20, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I pretty much am in 100% agreement with Stephen, but.... Arguing over what should or should not be labeled socialism is pretty much akin to arguing over how many angels will fit on the head of a pin. There is no basis by which any agreement will ever be reached. These labels are the last refuge of the intellectually lazy in any case, and are just a way to divert the conversation down dead end passages when the user has no factual arguments to support the case they are trying to make.

Posted by: truthwillout | January 20, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Stromberg writes:

"Essentially, he argues, socialism is government involvement (including regulation) in furnishing any good that private actors might potentially provide to some people at some time."

Williamson does not state that or imply that. In fact Williamson states in his blog post that one component of socialism is "the public provision of non-public goods." Stromberg failed to recognize that important distinction. It's important because even though some people such as Williamson might advocate for a smaller central govt, those people will also usually recognize that there are bona fide public goods that a central govt should provide.

Posted by: Fitz157 | January 20, 2011 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Put your organ away, Stromberg. A urination contest over what the correct term for Democratic policies during the last 2 years is not necessary.

There was an election in November with the results clearly demonstrating that the U.S. electorate is deeply concerned about the size and scope of government and rejecting the Democrats governing policies.

Posted by: pilsener | January 20, 2011 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Opinionators voicing opinions about opinionator's opinion? Next, we'll have polls about pollsters doing polls about polls.

The world is larger than your personal universe.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | January 20, 2011 7:02 PM | Report abuse

pilsener writes:
There was an election in November with the results clearly demonstrating that the U.S. electorate is deeply concerned about the size and scope of government and rejecting the Democrats governing policies.

By the same criteria then I assume pilsener would agree that the election in November 2008 demonstrated that the electorate rejected the Republicans' governing policies? What makes them think they can impose those policies on the electorate again?

And by that logic, does the last presidential election demonstrate that the electorate rejected the white man's governing policies? I guess we'll always be governed by black men, women or other minorities from this point on. I could live with that!

Posted by: sambam | January 20, 2011 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Samban - the white man's governing policies??? Where the does that come from?

Why do you want to inject race into the discussion?

Posted by: pilsener | January 20, 2011 9:02 PM | Report abuse

pilsener, I was just taking your inane argument to its logical conclusion.

Election results can be read to mean almost anything. Saying that the Republicans' loose usage of the word Socialism cannot be challenged because the last election proved that Democratic policies have been rejected is as meaningless as saying the election of a black man proves that white presidents are incompetent and can't govern.

Posted by: sambam | January 20, 2011 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Posted at 2:36 PM ET, 01/20/2011
So pretty much everyone is a socialist?
By Stephen Stromberg

Aside from the fact that any point that is a point can't be manipulated, the answer to your question is no, only the one's you know. Why don't you just out with it. Tell us what you want to be perceived as Stephen. It's the inconsistency of illiberalism that drives your critics. On the one hand the Democrats have used Targets, and Crosshairs as a Campaign technique forever, but the minute a incompetent law enforcement officer fails to follow through on a clearly dangerous individual, provide adequate security for a member of Congress in his jurisdiction, rains down *ell one everybody but himself, y'all let him off with a pass and fall Wright into the Progressively Progressive Brink, railing and wailing like a pack of stuck piglets about a Patriot Lady from the North Country, as if she is the problem, when you know, we all know you know, she has less to do with it all than your mamma. So stop trying to sell sewage it's lemonade on the sidewalk, and stick to the facts, dude.

sambam, get thee back to the belfrey, won't your fiends at the cuckoo nest be missing you now you've flown over here, respectfully, of course?

Posted by: RichNomore | January 20, 2011 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Ok Stromberg, you're not a socialiast..your a "progressive," and you're a Beria, Dzerjinski, Yeshov, Stalin loving Red. Fair enough. let's quit the dancing around and call what you want to achieve what it is....apparchinik nomenclatura central government control over a free people

Stromy baby...have a nice day.

Posted by: wjc1va | January 20, 2011 10:04 PM | Report abuse

RichNomore, I would venture to guess that anyone who would write a meaningless, meandering 8-line sentence that can't be decoded by a qualified cryptographer is a few cards short of a full deck. You know, glass houses and all that ...

Posted by: sambam | January 20, 2011 10:48 PM | Report abuse

To Sambam:

I wish you a long & prosperous life. But your posts here make little sense, display no logic, and ignore readily available facts, so I will ignore you going forward.

Posted by: pilsener | January 20, 2011 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Here is what Williamson means: It's socialism if a Democrat does something. It's not socialism if a Republican does the same thing, because the Republican doesn't really want to do it the same way a Democrat wants to do it.
In short, all Democrats are socialists and everything they want is socialist, all Republicans aren't.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | January 21, 2011 12:29 AM | Report abuse

sambam, why do you say, "I guess we'll always be governed by black men, women or other minorities from this point on. I could live with that!"?

Why would you find it acceptable if we were always governed from now on only by black men, women, or other minorities? Why would you think it's a good think to disallow the participation of 40% of the population (white men) from now on, "always"? Is it not "uncivil" to express it in such a gloating, taunting manner, to say nothing of racist and sexist?

As far as Pomali's quote about socialism and democracy -- well, we have PresBo's own words from several years back, when he was quoted as expressing his frustration with the fact that the Constitution was basically a set of negative pronouncements; i.e., stating what the government can't do, with liberty being the default for those things unnamed.

Posted by: RedderThanEver | January 21, 2011 6:43 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Stromberg, you write, "Williamson's avowed goal ... is to give the terms 'socialism' and 'socialist' meaning when conservatives use them."

Why does the concept need to be redefined for one group of speakers when unbiased reference sources provide another definition for all?

Socialism is:

(The Free Dictionary)

"Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy."

(Miriam-Webster)

"Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods."

(Dictionary.com)

"A theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole."

These three online references largely agree with one another but differ significantly from Mr. Williamson, who's an editor for a rightist journal. He's not a pioneering scholar of political science.

Posted by: stephendclark | January 21, 2011 6:51 AM | Report abuse

@stephendclark gets it exactly right.

Mr. Williamson wants to redefine the word so he can use it for whatever he doesn't like. He claims "There are questions of degree, and questions of judgment, and the answers to those questions will vary from case to case." This is another way of saying "I know it when I see it."

In fact, public schools DO meet even the dictionary definition of socialism. Yet society has made an essentially irrevocable judgment that they are desirable, and even Mr. Williamson is unwilling to call them socialist because, in his world, socialist=bad, and schools=good, so schools cannot = socialist.

On the other hand, the Obama health care reform, and financial regulation, and stimulus package, all fall short of any reasonable definition of socialism, yet Mr. Williamson calls them so. Why? Simply because he doesn't like them. "Socialism" is his, and the right's, all purpose word for government activity they don't like.

They should not be taken seriously by anyone.

Posted by: Meridian1 | January 21, 2011 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Communism: No one gets to vote for the guy that runs the place.

Socialism: Everyone gets to vote for a single candidate to run the place.

Posted by: ej_smug | January 21, 2011 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Stromberg's attempt to blur distinctions isn't "sensible"-- it's puerile affectation, masquerading as intellect.

If you live in a fantasy world where government delivers efficient, cost-effective services without unintended consequences, then you likely won't appreciate Williamson's insights.

But if you live on planet Earth, then there's much to be gained from Williamson's observations-- particularly for average folks who don't waste their lives reading the entrails of Marxist political theory.

Williamson cuts through the verbal clutter of chattering Leftist orthodoxies in the same way Professor Thomas Sowell injects common sense into discussions of economics.

He defines socialism as a continuum on the political spectrum (rather than the "any-only-every-all" framework Stromberg hopes to pantomime) and explains its attraction to delusional Leftists in ways that naw at their OCD tics. These are heretical thought-crimes of clarity that Stromberg's psyche can't abide.

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | January 21, 2011 8:45 AM | Report abuse

I always thought socialism was a govt 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.' I'm pretty sure King George thought the colonial rebels were socialists.

Posted by: minstrelmike | January 21, 2011 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Socialism is defined. Efforts to redefine it so right wingers can pin an insult on the President is not a precedent we should endorse. Avoiding confusion in today's media environment is difficult enough; Republicans need to find another tactic.

Posted by: withersb | January 21, 2011 10:11 AM | Report abuse

@Fitz157: "Williamson does not state that or imply that. In fact Williamson states in his blog post that one component of socialism is "the public provision of non-public goods." Stromberg failed to recognize that important distinction. It's important because even though some people such as Williamson might advocate for a smaller central govt, those people will also usually recognize that there are bona fide public goods that a central govt should provide."

Stromberg recognized this "distinction" for what it is, meaningless. Who decides if the proposed Government action is one of the "bona fide public goods that a central govt should provide," you? Am I a socialist because I think universal health care is something that should be provided as a bona fide public good and you disagree? Are you a socialist if you think that a new military weapon system is a bona fide public good and I disagree? The standard you propose, a bona fide public good which the government should provide, is similar to Justice Stewart's "I know it when I see it" explanation of pornography. It may be a good catch line, but it is a lousy definition, and it is even worse as a definition of socialism.

Posted by: wvanpup | January 21, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

"I always thought socialism was a govt 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.' I'm pretty sure King George thought the colonial rebels were socialists."

You would be incorrect in thinking that. What you are talking about is Liberalism. Of course Modern Liberals have pretty much abandoned all pretense of being truely liberal.

In any case, Socialism is about Colectivism. The idea that people don't have value as individuals but only have value when part of a collective group.

So, while the founders fought for individual natural rights socialists fight for non-existant collective rights.

Posted by: BradG | January 21, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

This argument reminds of me of the expression "the blind leading the blind and landing in a ditch." Why is there an argument about a definition that can be found in any poli sci 101 text book?

For those who (and this would appear to be everyone writing articles or posting comments) are unaware of the actual definition here it is;

Socialist societies have 3 major charactoristics;

1. Elimination of private property
2. Command and control economy
3. State controlled religion.

Usages of the word socialism outside of that definition is incorrect and the most likely usage is for the purpsoe of slander.

Posted by: kchses1 | January 21, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

[wvanpup whined: "Am I a socialist because I think universal health care is something that should be provided as a bona fide public good?"]

A: Yes. There is no constitutional grounds for universal health care-- thus, the multiple legal objections from the several states.

[wvanpup whined: "Are you a socialist if you think that a new military weapon system is a bona fide public good"]

A. No. America’s common defense is the primary responsibility of the Federal government— a responsibility that in the end makes it possible for us safely to enjoy our liberty from tyranny.

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | January 21, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Kaddafi

Providing for the general welfare is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government as well. It says so right after it says provide for the common defense in that constitution.

How do you feel about the interstate system? Its not totally in the constitution unless you count it under the "To establish Post Offices and Post Roads" clause. Depending on how you define public and private good, it could be an instance of the public sector providing a private good.

Just curious though, how do you feel about the Right to Travel. Do we have one? If so, why not?

Posted by: ELA5 | January 21, 2011 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Socialism: "Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources. A socialist society is a social structure organized on the basis of relatively equal power-relations, self-management, dispersed decision-making (adhocracy) and a reduction or elimination of hierarchical and bureaucratic forms of administration and governance; the extent of which varies in different types of socialism. This ranges from the establishment of cooperative management structures in the economy to the abolition of all hierarchical structures in favor of free association."

Simple definition. Thing to remember is "allocation of resources" by the government not by the infidividual's contribution to earning the resources; i.e. hardworking individual is responsibile for a government managed production company yet he shares the fruit of his labor with those in the company who do nothing. Commonly called, redistribution of wealth in today's parlance. And "cooperative management structures in the economy" today commonyly referred to as "inmates running the asylum". The government owned auto industry where the government, management, and production (unions) sit in a room and decide what model of car is going to be built and sold next year...you can eventually get rid of that pesky management because you really do not need them. So I hoped this helped the next time you hear that the Healthcare bill includes a government "board" to "help" you decide what insurance company will give you what services irregardless of what is really avaialble, or they talk of an increase in your income tax that will be used in another state to provide for a new house in New Orleans because the current owner simply can't afford a replacement, had no insurance, is healthy and trained but isn't working because he won't reloccate to where jobs are available. And one last fact, history has proven it doesn't work. Even Euro-Socialism is killing Europe slowly as its "give me programs" cause the individuals to get comfortable in guranteed lifetime jobs producing nothing.

Posted by: staterighter | January 21, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

[ELA5: "Providing for the general welfare is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government as well."]

See: "ObamaCare and the General Welfare Clause"
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703581204576033862848034544.html

*tendentious*

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | January 21, 2011 4:21 PM | Report abuse

My idea of Socialism came after reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The first circle" which was an excellent read. I came to a conclusion that Socialism and Communism could be compared to the worst abuses of the French Revolution, that the systems ran against the current of the human condition to better themselves and the prospects for their progeny and ultimately lead to impoverishment of the majority and aggrandizement of the ruling elites which then had to be periodically stood up to at some point and purged in a continuous cycle of revolution. Didn't appeal to me then and nothing has changed my mind since.

Posted by: almorganiv | January 21, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

No there's a handful of true Americans left.
www.freedomlibertypatriots.com

Posted by: RickInme | January 21, 2011 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Most analysis goes wrong in the very first step. "Commonly called, redistribution of wealth in today's parlance. (reffering to gov't allocation of resources." This is simply a wrong equivalence. The two are not related. Allocation of resources refers to the allocation of "production resources towards the creation of a product" not the redistribution of wealth once it is produced and profit from it is realized. To equate these two is silly and ignorant.

Posted by: kchses1 | January 21, 2011 5:47 PM | Report abuse

In response to my question of whether I am "a socialist because I think universal health care is something that should be provided as a bona fide public good," KaddafiDelendaEst makes the idiotic statement that I am a socialist because "There is no constitutional grounds for universal health care." I must assume from his answer that support of anything that is unconstitutional makes one a socialist (if that is not what he meant, I invite him to clarify). I am sure that will come as a big surprise to the segregationist Southerners who supported their unconstitutional separate but equal schools.

KaddafiDelendaEst then misquotes me by saying I said "Are you a socialist if you think that a new military weapon system is a bona fide public good" and leaving out the "and I disagree." He also takes it out of its proper context, which was a response to something from Fitz157 saying that one component of socialism is the public provision of non-public goods, but then qualifying that definition by recognizing that there are bona fide public goods that a central govt should provide. Presumably, fulfilling a bona fide public good is not socialism. Of course, Fitz157 did not say who defines what constitutes a bona fide public good. It appears that HE gets to define it, so anyone who supports something that HE thinks is not for a bona fide public good is a socialist.

Having failed to understand the purpose of my question (not surprising considering the idiocy of his posts) KaddafiDelendaEst then further equates socialism and unconstitutionality by saying that supporting a new weapon system, regardless of how unnecessary it might be, is not socialism because providing for America’s common defense is a Constitutional responsibility of the Federal Government.

So, it is socialism if it is unconstitutional, and it is socialism if it does not fulfill a bona fide public good. Nothing in there about socialism as an economic model of who owns the means of production. This is a definition?

Posted by: wvanpup | January 21, 2011 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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