Over the past year, “socialism” has become the new political buzzword. It inspires even more red-faced, drooling fits of rage on the right wing than abortion does, and our national discourse has been completely hijacked by demagogues screaming the new “s” word.
On Wednesday, I read Vincent Patsy’s column which warned of all the “socialism” brewing in America (The Price of Socialism, 11/11/2009). Patsy rightly points out that true socialism occurs when the state owns and controls the means of production, but I have yet to hear a real, unexaggerated example of this occurring within American borders. The column lumps together all government action as an evil, distortive and brutal force.
Free markets do a lot of good. They allocate resources and set prices in a far more effective and rational manner than command economies. But it astounds me that people believe that any and all forms of government action are “socialist” and evil. The Food and Drug Administration is a form of “government intervention” in the economy that keeps consumers safe from dangerous products. Free market purists try to make the case that the market would be better than regulators at protecting consumers — but how can that be when the goal of a firm is only to maximize its profit? We wouldn’t even know about the majority of the deplorable practices government inspections uncover if it weren’t for the FDA. But the magic of the market will protect us from cyanide found in our fruit, right?
In 1999, Congress decided to follow the “unfettered market” dogma of the time and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. This law separated banks that take deposits from consumers from those that traded financial instruments like credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. For 66 years, the U.S. benefited from a relatively stable commercial banking industry. The money you put in your checking account was not leveraged for investments in risky assets in order to please shareholders. Since 1999, that evil “government intervention” safeguard has been removed, and the economy nearly collapsed in the fall of 2007. There were many factors involved, but had we recognized the limitations of free markets, Citigroup and Bank of America would never have been allowed to touch the toxic assets referred to so often in the media.
The new “s” word recently sprung up most violently in response to Obama’s “socialist” health care reform plan. Town hall meetings that were supposed to give citizens a chance to be heard became forums for rhetorical lunacy. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” was my personal favorite. According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in August, 39 percent of those polled said “the government should stay out of Medicare.” Thirty-nine percent of Americans think the single largest government program in the country shouldn’t be ruined by government involvement. What?
If you’re going to debate public policy, at least know what you’re talking about. Socialism is not what happens every time the government intervenes in order to protect consumers or stabilize the economy. You can disagree with the bailouts or health care reform for very sound economic reasons, but the argument that the government is engaged in a deliberate campaign to take over the economy one industry at a time is ridiculous. This country has had an irrational history of fear of socialism stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century, and it is time for us to eradicate idiocy from the political dialogue. Obama has been branded a socialist, a communist and even a fascist in the same breath. And yet all these ideologies conflict.
America is changing. It is finally starting to fulfill its promise of opportunity for everyone, not just rich white men. The political right is afraid of losing its terror grip on Middle America and will say whatever sticks to make people afraid of a progressive agenda. This is about fear of change, and conservatism, by its very definition, is aversion to change. The only thing self-proclaimed conservatives seem to stand for is the reluctance to embrace the change that occurs with the march of time.
Dear readers, if someone tries to tell you that we’re on the way to becoming the Soviet Union, kindly smack them upside the head and explain to them that sometimes it is necessary for the government to reinforce, not eliminate, markets in order to save capitalism from itself.
Alex Schiff is an LSA freshman.