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Bruce Bartlett on the strawman of socialism

August 18, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

The ideology that Republicans love to hate is woven through the fabric of the country.

By Bruce Bartlett
The New Republic, August 17, 2020

The essence of the Republican attack is to lie about the nature of socialism, grossly exaggerating its negative excesses while completely ignoring its positive effects. When they are forced to concede that some socialistic government programs–such as disease prevention or temporarily higher unemployment benefits–may be valuable, they will nevertheless insist that it must be resisted because it’s the first step on the slippery slope to totalitarianism.

Republicans assert, endlessly, that the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek proved that the welfare state leads inevitably to socialism and tyranny in his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. While Hayek’s theory may have been plausible in the midst of World War II, all the evidence since then thoroughly contradicts it. There is no evidence whatsoever that welfare states morph into total state control of the economy and produce a concomitant loss of freedom and prosperity. There is not a single case of this happening anywhere. Nor is there anything in Hayek’s theory to explain why socialism collapsed in the Soviet Union or why privatization rolled it back in places like Britain.

One myth that permeates the right-wing attack on socialism is that America was founded as a sort of libertarian paradise based on the free market ideas of Adam Smith. However, this perspective is very much at odds with the actual views of Smith and the Founding Fathers.

Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense underpinned the ideology of the American Revolution, was a virtual socialist. His most radical work, Agrarian Justice, proposed the revolutionary idea of a wealth tax to fund payments to citizens reaching maturity, a precursor to today’s idea of a basic income.

James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, agreed that providing income to the indigent was a core government function.

Of course, Alexander Hamilton was definitely a big government kind of guy, advocating direct government aid to industry, extensive public works, and a strong central government.

Even the sainted Thomas Jefferson, the most libertarian of the Founding Fathers, expanded government far beyond its constitutional limits when he made the Louisiana Purchase.

Since they’re unable to run against the actual expansion of the American welfare state, GOP propagandists retreat into fantasy. Always missing from the Republican critique is any clear definition of socialism. This is intentional. Republicans know that the term “socialism” is unpopular with many Americans—although a growing percentage embrace it. Republicans also know that numerous programs they view as socialistic are nevertheless very popular with voters. President Harry Truman often made this point in his speeches. He said in 1952: “Socialism is a scare word [Republicans] 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.”

In truth, Republicans aren’t opposed to socialism per se but only socialism that benefits poor people and minorities. Socialism for farmers and industrialists is just fine as far as they are concerned.

According to the dictionary, socialism means that the government owns all the means of production, and Republicans are right that this system doesn’t work very well. But absolutely no one is advocating that. Today’s advocates of “socialism” merely want a somewhat expanded welfare state or even just a government that actually works. Republicans are running against a strawman, though history tells us that has never stopped them before.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

One thing is certain, just because someone labels a public program that would ensure that everyone would have affordable access to all essential health care services “socialism” is clearly no reason to dismiss it. That would be about as stupid as trying to impair the function of the postal service because it represents socialism. Maybe there are people who think like that, but we can’t let them think and act for the majority of us. Socialism is a perfectly good word that has a very positive meaning in that it refers to all of us joining together for the common good. Why would anyone be opposed to that?

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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