"Socialism" versus "balance"

Monday, July 25, 2005 at 08:21 AM

Some libertarians and people on the left of our narrow spectrum argue about whether socialism is an economic system or a form of government.

Isn't that a function of how you look at it?  If you say it's an economic system, but you require it by law, it also becomes a political system.  If you say it's a political system, certainly it's purpose is to regulate the economic relationships between people.  The problem is the word "Socialism" itself, which has been demonized in this country over the last century by associating it with Communism.  As with any other deliberate demonization of a concept, the demonization served someone's interests: the super-rich (who also tend to be super-powerful, of course).

Ignoring the word Socialism and connotations it has come to bear in the U.S.,  the concept itself is simply one of balance.  And having balance in your system, regardless of whether the system is economic or political, seems like common sense to me: we should all be protected to the extent reasonably possible from more powerful forces that harm us in some way for their own benefit or reasons.  Many people alive today seem to have forgotten that our country once gave free reign to those with power, money and influence, who used that "freedom" to create conditions that made life a nightmare for many:

*Child labor

*Workers forced to work 100 hours or more each week

*Workers locked into their work areas , sometimes left to burn to death in a fire

*Workers killed and maimed on jobs that could have been made safe for a small amount of money

*Discrimination against Catholics, Jews, Indians, and almost every other minority in the country

*Debtor prisons

*Women and Blacks denied the right to vote

*Unmarried females often left to the care of churches and charities

*Those who reached old age often forced to continue hard physical labor or starve

This principle of balance is explicitly incorporated in our Constitution in several ways, most prominently in the right to equal protection of the laws, the right to due process, the right to just compensation for seizure of property, etc.  It is also implicitly recognized in the power granted Congress to impose taxes to "provide for the ...general Welfare of the United States" in Article I, section 8.

I consider freedom the most important human value, limited only by the principle that you cannot use your freedom to infringe on someone else's freedom or endanger their security.  We hamper people's freedom all the time in order to protect other people's security and preserve public order: I'm not "free" to club you in the head in order to grab a parking spot; no one is "free" to have sex with someone who does not want to have sex with them.

Security means safety from the dangers to our life, health, and continued existence.  In some ways, security is merely complementary to freedom, and definitions of freedom often mention that it means not "constrained by fate, necessity, or circumstances."  You can't really be free if you are significantly insecure, or, at the very least, you can't experience the benefits of freedom if you are insecure.  Infringing to some degree on the "freedom" of the affluent in order to provide some measure of "freedom" to the needy is simply restoring a small degree of balance in a situation where fate, inheritance, or ability have created an imbalance that we, as a society, deem unacceptable.

In my view, the libertarians insist on looking only at one side of a two-sided equation.  They articulate their concerns in terms of freedom, but refer only to their own freedom, without considering  whether others in the same society are free at all.  They do this by equating "freedom" with lack of government regulation, which are two very different concepts.

My own assessment is that this form of libertarianism really took hold in America with the advent of Ronald Reagan, whose basic character was perfectly captured by Rosalyn Carter's comment that the worst thing about him is that he makes people feel good about their worst flaws.  Since then, it has been embraced by the entire network of right wing pundits, politicians, and activists.

What amazes me about America today is that this increased focus on self, and growing disdain for anything "communal" exists alongside a resurgence of supposedly Christian beliefs.  How modern Christians can reconcile that is beyond my non-religious self's abilities, but there is an article in this month's Harper's that attempts to explore it: "The Christian Paradox--How a Faithful Nation gets Jesus Wrong," by Bill McKibben.  I didn't find that the article explained the phenomenon to my satisfaction.  If I had to guess how these two seemingly contradictory phenomena can coexist, I'd go for the simple: people are hypocrites, and have been taught to be hypocrites by the very public figures who supposedly are setting examples for them--see Reagan, above