The socialism misnomer and human decency
For the past year, I have puzzled over the expressions against socialism that I have seen in commentary, on signs displayed around town, and in gatherings of supporters of our most recent former president. Being against socialism in the United States is akin to opposing smallpox. In my 77 years, I have never met anyone who is in favor of either.
Socialism is an economic system based on public ownership of the means of production. I haven't seen that kind of economic system work well in the few places it has been tried. There is no significant, organized political movement in the US that is promoting a socialist state, though there may be a few folks here and there who like the idea.
What the vocally anti-socialism crowd seem to be against is any government that offers programs and benefits for its citizens, especially programs for people whom they dislike. Of course, they probably support those communal programs that they participate in. There are many programs that make our lives better, including building streets and highways, water systems, waste water disposal; police departments, fire departments, parks and playgrounds; Social Security, Medicare; support for the disabled, elderly, and poor; health care, public schools, adult education; pandemic, disaster, and economic relief; medical and other research into new ways to benefit society, and on and on.
Such efforts and programs as these exist to fulfill the purposes that were stated in the Preamble to our Constitution: "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .."
Indeed, the main purpose of government is to do together what cannot be done easily, feasibly, or beneficially by all members of our society on their own. Such efforts are not socialism, but social and economic benefits for everyone who needs and wants them. They help not only individuals and families, but businesses and corporations that fall on hard times because of uncontrollable economic forces and decision-making mistakes. They demonstrate at the community, state, and national levels that spirit manifest in the practice of barn-raising, when the community pitched in together to help erect a barn for a local farm family.
The people together pay for these efforts through taxes, which are probably what is at the core of objections to such programs, or at least those programs that do not directly benefit the person who opposes them. These programs, however, do not fit into any definition of socialism with which I am familiar. If a person opposes such programs, the honest way to discuss them is not through name-calling. Using a word like socialism and assigning it a pejorative meaning and connotation is not speaking about the programs factually and fairly. Name-calling is not a substitute for logic and rationality. President Harry S. Truman explained his view of socialism vilification in remarks at Syracuse, New York, on October 10, 1952:
Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.
Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called social security.
Socialism is what they called farm price supports.
Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
When [my opponent] inscribes the slogan "Down With Socialism" on the banner of his "great crusade," that is really not what he means at all.
What he really means is "Down with Progress--down with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal," and "down with Harry Truman's fair Deal." That's all he means.
In the nearly 70 years since those words were spoken, not much has changed in our political dialogue. We would all benefit if that changed, and our political dialogue was more honest and accurate. That could lead to greater human decency in our society.
Some of us believe, as James Haught, a long-time newspaper editor, has written, "Every government program that reduces poverty, improves health, prevents violence, upgrades nutrition, guarantees human rights, betters education, secures housing, assures equality, cures disease, enforces fairness, etc., is a step in the process" toward greater human decency. And they might help us find what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”