Washington Post junior poobah Stephen Stromberg takes issue with my definition of socialism. His beef? Life being complicated and politics being inexact, I write that “there are questions of degree, and questions of judgment, and the answers to those questions will vary from case to case.” Judgment and a sense of proportion: I can see how my definition would vex him.
He insists that reverence for centralized state control can sort out the socialists from the non-socialists. But federal regulation is by definition centrally administered. Wait — Williamson says — it’s centralized control in accordance with “THE PLAN” that is the hallmark of socialism. What “PLAN”? Williamson seems to say that “THE PLAN” is any time the state sets goals. In counseling school children to learn about science and math so they can help cure cancer and AIDS, Obama claims “a right of eminent domain over the lives of American children . . . .”
Which Obama does. Read the speech.
Of course, not all state goals underpin socialism. Fighting a war, for instance, is not an act of socialism. Neither is enforcing the law or containing an epidemic. Neither is the provision of public goods, the reasonably specific definition of which I communicate in the piece. (And in the book from which it is derived.)
Socialism, as I argued, has two components: A. central planning and B. the public provision of non-public goods. To argue that A without B is not necessarily socialism, that B without A is not necessarily socialism, is to argue . . . exactly my point. Which Stromberg does not quite seem to grasp.
I admire Williamson’s desire to develop a more limited and useful definition of socialism. But in doing so, he barely limits to what and to whom the word can conceivably apply.
And thus the need for good judgment, mentioned above. Round and round he goes, adding:
There is a difference between a system in which there are socialized features and a socialist system.
Which is a not especially good restatement of my point:
Pockets of socialism found within largely liberal countries can be evaluated — as socialism — regardless of the fact that they are operating within a largely non-socialist context.
If Stromberg were paying attention, he might have understood that my argument about central planning is that it substitutes incumbents’ political preferences for the real preferences of consumers and producers as revealed in marketplace transactions, which is why U.S. public schools, for instance, fail in the same ways as Venezuelan state-run enterprises, and why socialist enterprises in very different cultures with very different political institutions tend to exhibit similar failures. (Which you can learn all about!)
Politics is not geometry, and there is a good deal of overlap between the category of socialism and the category of government overreach (also the category of general stupidity.) And while where a country is on the socialism–capitalism continuum is an important factor, which direction it is moving is almost as important: The United States is socializing, and thereby becoming sclerotic and dysfunctional. India, to take an example, is still much, much more socialist than is the United States, but it is desocializing, and reaping the benefits of doing so.
I hereby resolve to make my next book easy enough for Washington Post bloggers to understand.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.