Had a nice chat with my father over the weekend. He’d been watching some History Channel show about the rise of the Nazis. He mentioned that one of the first things Hitler did after gaining power was to abolish unions. This of course got me thinking about how recently many pundits on the Right have been talking about how socialism is bad, because Hitler and Stalin both called themselves Socialists. Both, though coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, were anything but socialist. It brought to mind how often we use political terms that we don’t fully understand, vilifying some and praising others, without bothering to think about what the words we’re speaking actually mean or the implications of those words.
“Socialism” for instance has been vilified to the point where just mentioning that some plan or other by the government is socialist is enough to reject it out of hand. But what does it actually mean for something to be socialist? Socialism is nothing more than collective ownership. Think the Green Bay Packers. Or owner-operated businesses. Or non-profit organizations. That’s all it is, although the concept tends to get extended out to include the so-called “Social Contract”. While people think of Communism as Socialism taken to an extreme, the two are quite different. In Communism, the government owns all the businesses, in Socialism the workers own the businesses. And this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Give the workers a stake in the company and some say in how the business is run.
The other word that gets thrown around a lot is our preferred economic system, Capitalism. We as a culture have deified Capitalism to the point of making it the de-facto national religion. You start to wonder which “God” the “In God we Trust” on our money refers to. But really, Capitalism is simply the idea of private ownership of business for the sake of generating profit. There’s nothing really wrong with that, the people who take the risk in opening a new business reap the rewards. However, a problem does come up when companies grow overly large and start to crowd out other businesses. Unfettered Capitalism leads inexorably to monopolies and robber barons. And lately, our culture has become completely enamored with unfettered Capitalism.
These two terms get completely misconstrued by everyone lately, and it annoys me to no end. Capitalism is an economic system, not a goal. The goal should be that everyone in America has a fair chance at wealth and happiness. Not a guarantee, but a chance. Those who do work hard should be rewarded. Unfettered Capitalism does not give that chance, and neither does Socialism. The best bet we have is fettered Capitalism. Capitalism with some controls to prevent the excesses that threaten our social framework. That’s what all the anti-trust policies put into place were there for after the great depression: To prevent monopolies from unfairly using their influence to stifle innovation and competition.
We need a dash of Socialism to prevent Capitalism from running amok. Whether that comes in the form of Unions, collective bargaining, or The People in the guise of our elected representatives in the government putting the hammer down on out-of-control excess and greed. Of course, that would require that the people we elect to represent us are actually working for us and not the excessive and greedy. But that is entirely up to the people who elect the representatives.