Socialism? Supersize Us!

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The definition of socialism is infinitely mutable. At different times in different places, the precise manifestation of socialism shows remarkable variety. Today, socialism is generally regarded as an unthreatening term. In a past era, the word had foul connotations after being adopted by the most evil totalitarian regimes in the history of the world: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The self-proclaimed national and international socialists tag-teamed in 1939, invading Poland and igniting the conflagration of World War II.

Probably the most universal characteristic of socialism involves state (sometimes euphemized to “social”) ownership of the means of production. This slogan possessed real power in the age of industrialization, when laborers endured long hours in Dickensian work conditions. Meanwhile nouveau riche capitalists replaced the landed gentry as the economic elite — or, in today’s lingo, the one percent.

As industries paid higher wages and improved working conditions, the utopian appeal of socialism waned. Then, western nations and multinationals began exporting their manufacturing, their means of production, to countries with lower standards of living, few enforceable labor and environmental codes, and jaundiced attitudes toward personal liberty. More attractive still, were China, Vietnam, and other single-party socialist or Marxist dictatorships which brooked no opposition or dissent.

Fortunately, in the United States, socialism has always presented a kinder and gentler face, from Eugene Debs to Norman Thomas to Bernie Sanders. Critics in American politics condemn socialism for its confiscatory taxes, stifling regulations, overbearing government, and more bureaucrats shoving piles of paperwork in front of the citizenry. Its appeal comes from idealistic rhetorical goals of redistributing wealth and income to the poor and needy in society, to those left behind by the free enterprise economic juggernaut. Realistically, mavens of big government have done wonders for politicians, college professors, government bureaucrats, and PBS and NPR hangers-on, while the poverty rate budges grudgingly.

The difference between socialism and the Democrat Party platform is as much one of degree as substance. It’s the line separating “single payer” from some pragmatic variation of state-guaranteed universal health care, as introduced in Massachusetts by so-called Republican Mitt Romney’s draconian individual mandate and epitomized by Obamacare. Now, something eerily similar is being pushed to subsidize colleges and universities sufficiently to afford salaries for superstar scholars like Harvard’s prized Native American poseur Elizabeth Warren.

While not every expansion of government necessitates slouching toward socialism, it does weaken free enterprise and individual responsibility. That’s why the economic plans to stimulate the economy turn out in the long run advantageous for advocates of a state-directed economy, whether socialists or garden-variety Democrats. Step One:  Republicans call for a bailout. Step Two:  Democrats in unison respond, “Supersize us!”

Whatever a $2 trillion government stimulus package involves, it doesn’t have much to do with the free enterprise system or small republican government. In a gift-wrapped bipartisan package like that, there’s not much room for the limited government philosophy of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., or Milton Friedman.

And yet massive bailouts have become the starting point for negotiations between allegedly free-market Republicans and rival big government Democrats over the last 40 years. When the Savings and Loan industry collapsed during the 1980s, the bipartisan response was to put U.S. taxpayers on the hook. In the case of the S&L bailout signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, the total tallied at least $125 billion, small change by today’s standards. 

At the beginning of President George W. Bush’s first term in office, the “compassionate conservative” approved billions to prop up the airline industry in the wake of the 9/11 terrorism attack. By the end of his second term, Bush authorized Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson to beg Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for $800 billion to bail out the banks following a decade of poor asset evaluation and disastrous investments that triggered a financial meltdown. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, popularly known as the bank bailout of 2008, created Paulson’s tainted Troubled Asset Relief Program, a slush fund transferring assets from middle income taxpayers to overpaid Wall Streeters.

The current $2 trillion spending spree aimed at “rescuing” the economy from the coronavirus economic shutdown temporarily turned around the stock market plunge. Yet little noted is the irony of Wall Street investors, once the backbone of laissez faire capitalism and rugged individualism, demanding transfers of wealth from taxpayers every time the economic system malfunctions, whether due to political misjudgment, the business cycle, investor overconfidence, or some unexpected event such as the pandemic. “Government,” the cry goes up, “must do ‘something’.” 

One might think that business lobbyists would demand “something” prioritizing tax cuts and regulatory relief. But such priorities harken back to the musty goals of yesteryear. Jumping aboard the gravy train, big business now routinely lobbies for more government spending and actions to stimulate the economy and, of course, to subsidize special interests and particular industries. 

Because of the symbiotic relations between government and the private sector, we have almost certainly passed the point of no return. The entire relationship is so interconnected and convoluted that no politician could survive saying “no” to the universal call for doing something, now little more than a euphemism for hefty taxpayer-backed expenditures. 

The $2 trillion stimulus is the beginning. With businesses shuttered at the insistence of government, President Donald Trump has little choice but to use federal spending to jumpstart his once-robust economy. But Speaker Pelosi, still calling the shots long after George W. Bush and Hank Paulson have faded away, is demanding more. And more. She’ll end up getting some of it, probably most of it. 

There’s likely no other option. It’s not exactly socialism, certainly not as conceived by Henri de St. Simon or Frederick Engels. Whatever it’s called, it always seems to involve shellacking taxpayers, offshoring the means of production, and expanding the footprint of government.

Assessing the aftermath of World War II, the great historian John Lukacs famously noted: “We are all socialists now, whether we call ourselves that or not.” He most assuredly was not suggesting that we are on the verge of realizing one or another versions of socialist ideology. Instead, he was recognizing the reality that all modern governments are dominated by massive bureaucracies that administer expanding welfare states.

One might say that Lukacs was prophesying the shift from government as the solution of last resort to our knee-jerk reaction to rely upon government first and foremost. So the next time anyone demands another bailout, forget about warnings of creeping socialism. Instead, fall into line and join the chorus:  “Supersize us!”