Politics & Policy

Notes on a Ridiculous Meme

(Dave Bredeson/Dreamstime)
Government equals socialism — to those with no idea what socialism is

A specter is haunting social media — the specter of witless tosh. All the powers of ignorance and bewilderment have entered into an unholy alliance to share it far and wide. It reads:

Socialist programs in the U.S.:

The Department of Agriculture, Amber Alerts, Amtrak, Public Beaches, Public Busing Services, Business Subsidies, The Census Bureau, The CIA, Federal Student Loans, The Court System, Dams, Public Defenders, Disability Insurance, The Department of Energy, The EPA, Farm Subsidies, The FBI, The FCC, The FDA, FEMA, Fire Departments, Food Stamps, Garbage Collection, Health Care, Public Housing, The IRS, Public Landfills, Public Libraries, Medicare, Medicaid, The Military, State and National Monuments, Public Museums, NASA, The National Weather Service, NPR, Public Parks, PBS, The Peace Corps, Police Departments, Prisons and Jails, Public Schools, Secret Service, Sewer Systems, Snow Removal Services, Social Security, Public Street Lighting, The Department of Transportation, USPS, Vaccines, Veteran Health Care, Welfare, The White House, The WIC Program, State Zoos.

The history of this meme is the history of rank stupidity. Tweeting it out yesterday, the documentarian and serial fabulist Michael Moore appended an approving jab of his own. “Outrageous!” Moore wrote in ersatz indignation, “my taxes are redistributed to plow someone else’s street! Socialism!”

Take that, capitalists! You’re all socialists and you don’t even know it!

To paraphrase the timeless Edmund Blackadder, this would all be extremely clever were it not for one tiny little flaw: It’s bollocks. Far from exposing America’s many liberty-conscious conservatives as a bunch of unwitting reds — or illustrating once and for all that the United States’ historical aversion to Fabianism is built, ultimately, upon quicksand — the claim serves primarily to demonstrate that there are far too many people in this country who do not know what the word “socialism” actually means. Per Merriam-Webster, “socialism” is one, or all, of the following:

1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

2

a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

By this definition at least, the vast majority of the programs featured by the meme’s author are not “socialist” at all. Indeed, of the 55 items listed, I can count only a handful that have anything whatsoever to do with the abolition of private property, the nationalization of industry, the central planning of the economy, or “the governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution.” The vast majority are either “public goods” (i.e. “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous” offerings such as the CIA, the FBI, the police, the military, the courts, street lights, public monuments, roads, sewers, etc.); quotidian government operations of the sort that are found in all political and economic systems (the Census Bureau); services that, in practice, can really only be provided or operated by the state (the IRS, the Secret Service, prisons, the White House); services that can feasibly be provided privately but toward which governments are inevitably tempted (NASA, the postal service, garbage collection); or welfare provisions that, while certainly redistributive in nature, are not necessarily “socialistic.”

#share#As for those items that fit the definition well — Amtrak, the Veterans Administration, the public-school system, public libraries, public transportation, state zoos, farm subsidies, PBS, NPR — well, I will leave it up to you to decide whether they help or hinder the case for government power . . . 

By pretending that all government action is socialism and that we are thus haggling only over degrees, the meme’s makers hope to imply that there is a certain hypocrisy at play.

Semantic confusions to one side, the meme represents a lovely example of the lackadaisical manner in which many progressives have come to conflate limited government and anarchy. For better or for worse, there are only a small handful of Murray Rothbards and Ayn Rands among us, which is why our contemporary debate revolves not around whether the state should exist at all but around how big it should be, how it should be structured, and into which areas it should seek to intrude. By pretending that all government action is socialism and that we are thus haggling only over degrees, the meme’s makers hope to imply that there is a certain hypocrisy at play. “Given that you support roads and the sewage system,” this line of argument goes, “one has to wonder why you oppose nationalizing the health-care system, as has been done in Britain.”

This, of course, is an extraordinarily silly non sequitur, akin to proposing that because the authors of the Declaration of Independence conceded that government was necessary, they should have felt no real need to limit its power; or to asking somebody who strongly supports single-payer health care whether he wants the government to seize Apple, Google, and Ford. There is no good reason that a voter who is for private medical research should oppose the FDA, nor any solid cause for the man who wants to empower the FCC to hope also to nationalize CBS News. By sewing together ideas that deserve to be separated out, we make ourselves more stupid, less discerning, and decreasingly able to engage in a meaningful debate. Retweet, retweet, retweet!

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