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Socialism Is Back
From the January 24, 2010, issue of NR


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Kevin D. Williamson
‘Socialism” is a word that has vexed thoughtful conservatives since 2008, along with the related terms “Marxist,” “radical,” and the whole nomenclature of leftish extremism. In his painstakingly documented book Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, Stanley Kurtz dwells at great and profitable length on the president’s connections, and his coterie’s connections, with avowedly socialist and radical organizations. Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, and other observers have with varying degrees of rigor pursued related lines of inquiry, locating affinities between Obama’s clique, along with mainstream Democrats more broadly, and the sinister fringe. The Left’s response to these investigations has ranged from the insane (e.g., Lewis Diuguid arguing in the Kansas City Star that “socialist” is a codeword for “black”) to the inane, protesting that “socialist” is being used as a mere smear word, empty of other content. The Left knows whereof it speaks, having spent half of the 20th century describing its critics as “fascists,” with no regard for the meaning of that word. (Goldberg’s deft reversal in Liberal Fascism, reconnecting contemporary progressivism with its pre-war authoritarian models, took away that rhetorical toy and thereby produced a symphony of delicious caterwauling from left-wing critics, one or two of whom may even have read the book.)
 
“Americans have no clue what socialism is,” declared the noted political philosopher Bill Maher during a seminar with the equally cerebral Larry King. Rep. Anthony Weiner used almost precisely the same words, thundering at a critic: “You don’t know what socialism means.” Conservatives should pay some careful attention to the formal meaning of socialism, because it is vital that we recognize it, understand it — and contain it. While Mr. Kurtz is right to worry about the radicalism of President Obama and his lieutenants, it is not “the untold story of American socialism” that most threatens our nation, but the told story. It is not hidden socialism that presently undermines our institutions, weakens our economy, and fritters away both present and future prosperity, but unhidden socialism. A sharpened definition of socialism, made more precise and reflecting the conditions of the 21st century rather than those of the 19th, is a necessary tool for understanding our current political crisis, and what follows are some notes toward a more relevant definition of socialism.
 
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The current Random House Dictionary definition of “socialism” is serviceable but dated: “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.” (Land? Clearly, this was written back in ye olde days, when real estate was an asset, not a liability.) Political entrepreneurs are no less creatures of innovation than are market entrepreneurs, and so it is necessary to take issue with one conjunction in this definition: It should read “ownership or control” rather than “ownership and control.” As we have seen in the cases of enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is entirely possible for government economic planners to intervene deeply (and, in this familiar case, catastrophically) in the economy while maintaining private economic forms, such as government-chartered for-profit corporations. The government did not own Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which are nominally private, shareholder-owned corporations; but it most certainly did control them, and created them to implement an economic policy. Likewise, the identification of “the community as a whole” with “the state” is no longer intellectually defensible, the work of the public-choice economists having very thoroughly established that governments do not reliably act on behalf of the communities they purport to represent.

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A more complete definition of socialism incorporates two criteria: The first is that socialism entails the public provision of non-public goods. The second is the use of central planning to implement that policy.

 

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