You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think
March 22, 2010 10:39 PM   Subscribe

Socialism. I keep hearing this word in regards to our current health care reform. I'm fairly sure most of the people I know don't really know what it actually means (my mother, for example) - I'm not even sure I know anymore. Are there already socialized programs in the US and, if so, please give me examples I can share?
posted by _paegan_ to Law & Government (28 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Social Security

By dollars paid, the U.S. Social Security program is the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget, with 20.8% for social security, compared to 20.5% for discretionary defense and 20.1% for Medicare/Medicaid. Social Security is currently the largest social insurance program in the U.S., constituting 37% of government expenditure and 7% of the gross domestic product and is currently estimated to keep roughly 40% of all Americans age 65 or older out of poverty.
posted by sallybrown at 10:48 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Public schools. People often don't think of them as a socialist program, but they are government run systems that provide educational services free-of-charge. Many people complain about the quality of their public school system, but you could imagine the kinds of problems our society would have if poor citizens could not send their children to school.
posted by demiurge at 11:02 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Any public good paid for out of taxes is socialized. Nobody with a genuine ideological objection to socialism in all forms should allow themselves, for example, to drive on anything but private toll roads.
posted by flabdablet at 11:04 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is just my opinion, but - if one defines socialism as from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, then - no, no there are not. Far from it, and the health care reform doesn't even come close.
posted by chez shoes at 11:09 PM on March 22, 2010

Parking. Most street parking is paid for publicly and freely available for people to use as much as they want.
posted by salvia at 11:12 PM on March 22, 2010

Demiurge has it - the US has one of the most socialised public school programs in the world.
posted by smoke at 11:13 PM on March 22, 2010

Are there already socialized programs in the US

In a sense any and every government program is "socialized," and that includes any and all Federal jobs programs, public works programs, unemployment payment programs, educational programs (Headstart, No Child Left Behind, various student loan, grant and assistance programs), Veterans Administration, etc. Furthermore, and without snark, virtually the entire US banking industry is currently semi-socialized through TARP loans and other ongoing Treasury and Federal Reserve loan "windows." Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. The for-profit insurance behemoth AIG, which recently borrowed another $2.2. billion from the Federal government. Amtrak. The list goes on.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:14 PM on March 22, 2010

"from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,"

You could argue that municipal taxes are, "from each according to ability" based on the market value or size of your property. It pays for fire, police, planning, garbage, libraries, city planning, clean water infrastructure, construction and safety inspections, road construction and repairs....things that you'd rather not trust to the invisible hand of the free market
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:26 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Socialized programs definitely exist at present--off the top of my head, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare. Here's a longer list via the website Amarxica, which is pro-capitalist.

In terms of the pejorative use of the word, many seem to only think of "social interventionism" as socialism (although it is a facet): welfare programs, getting health care to those who are old or poor, etc.--programs that would use their taxpayer dollars for someone else, not them. "Why should my money go to helping lazy Joe Blow and why should my taxes go up to do so? I don't want the government to control me or my money." That, to me, is the thought of those with a limited view of socialism.

But really, the way I view it as a whole--it's more about spreading the good around to all and ensuring a certain quality of life that capitalism seems to guarantee only for those who are financially successful. Yes, you're giving a pretty large percentage of your income to taxes, but you know what? You get valuable services out of it, as the money is then invested into quality schools (and public universities that cost very little to attend), public transportation and infrastructure systems that are well taken care of, public parks, universal healthcare systems that are provided by the government with minimal additional cost, the list goes on and on. These are all things that are somewhat in shambles in America, where everyone thinks of me, me, me and all my tax money instead of opening up a bit and realizing that (hopefully) tax money is going towards the greater good. But since we have so many issues with where our tax money ends up here in the States, that's another frustrating can of worms that conflicts with this idealized vision of applying socialized programs to our American system.

But one last thing. I also see socialism as a way to avoid one of the ills of society that we Americans are experiencing across the board: the quest to fill the voids in our lives by throwing our money down on cheap and replaceable material goods instead of investing in experiences or quality products that are durable and that we value. Those who live in Denmark, for instance, get a pretty sizable chunk of money taken out for taxes. What is left then is mindfully spent or saved--on things that actually matter. From what I experienced, their homes are not filled with "stuff." On the whole, Danes have one of the highest qualities of life worldwide--what an interesting correlation with the tax rate versus us over here crying, "Don't touch my money!" And really, does anyone on the outside really look at American society anymore and think, "Gee that's how I want to live?"

But I'm still young and idealistic, can you tell?
posted by trampoliningisfun at 11:29 PM on March 22, 2010 [8 favorites]

It depends on what kind of socialism you're talking about. If you take conservative talking points at face value and call the current health care reform package "socialist," then socialism means any government regulation of the population and of the free market. You could throw the FDA, the EPA, and the FCC into the same category. But that's absurdly broad -- socialism doesn't simply mean any amount of government control of a system, but rather a completely government-owned and -operated system.

The best example of socialism in the health care debate was the public insurance option. If you want a good example of a similar principal already at work (and an intuitive explanation for why it's a good thing), I'd point to the Post Office.

Opponents of the public option said it would be a bloated and inefficient government program that would run at a loss, that it would only survive if it was subsidized by taxpayer money, and that this unfair support would ensure that private insurers were undercut and would not be able to compete, eventually leading to their dissolution and to a single-payer system. Of course, the real purpose was to force insurers to offer truly competitive rates instead of arbitrarily raising them for the benefit of the entire industry. But that's a different issue.

Anyway, the Post Office is run in a similar manner (legal monopoly rather than taxpayer funded), and is often subject to the same criticisms (inefficient, unprofitable). But this is a good thing. The Post Office is unprofitable because it offers affordable, reliable service to every part of the country, no matter how unpopulated or remote. If a private company like FedEx or UPS took its place, it could become more streamlined and turn a profit. But it would do this by sacrificing equitable service for the whole country. It would focus on the most densely-populated (and thus profitable) areas of the country while leaving the hinterlands with poor, expensive, or nonexistent mail service. Just look at the level of internet access or wireless coverage nationwide -- private industry values what's easy and profitable, not what's good for everyone in the country.

The public option is similar. Private insurance companies are very profitable, but they accomplish this by screwing their customers with high rates and turning down the biggest liabilities (rescission, pre-existing conditions, etc.). A public option would be less profitable, but it would guarantee equitable coverage for everyone who needed it.

I guess it boils down to this: a socialist program is one funded by the government because equitable treatment is more important than efficiency and profitability. In most areas it's better for the free market to satisfy our desires, thus delivering the best results to those who can afford it. But when it comes to essential services like healthcare, infrastructure, and mail service, a publicly-funded, non-profit system is often better.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:09 AM on March 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: The Evils of "Socialism"
Author Unknown

This morning I was awakened by my alarm clock, powered by socialist electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the socialist clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the socialist radio to one of the FCC regulated channels to hear what the socialist National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using socialist satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of socialist US Department of Agriculture inspected food and taking the socialist drugs which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time, as kept accurate by the socialist National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, I get into my socialist National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved automobile and set out to work on the socialist roads build by the socialist local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the socialist Environmental Protection Agency, using socialist legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the socialist US Postal Service and drop the kids off at the socialist public school.

If I get lost, I can use my socialist GPS navigation technology developed by the United States Department of Defense and made available to the public in 1996 by President Bill Clinton who issued a policy directive declaring socialist GPS to be a dual-use military/civilian system to be managed as a national socialist asset.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the socialist workplace regulations imposed by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the socialist USDA, I drive my socialist NHTSA car back home on the socialist DOT roads, to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the socialist state and local building codes and socialist fire marshal's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the socialist local police department.

I then get on my computer and use the socialist Internet which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and browse the socialist World Wide Web using my graphical web browser, both made possible by Al Gore's socialist High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991.

I then post on and Fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.
posted by jannw at 12:50 AM on March 23, 2010 [165 favorites]

"the US has one of the most socialised public school programs in the world."

On what basis?

Genuinely curious as to how this might be determined, 'cos on most metrics I can think of to look at - % of children in public schools, $ spent per child, $ spent per capita, public education as % of GDP or GNI, etc - the US isn't even in the top 10 of OECD countries.
posted by Pinback at 1:37 AM on March 23, 2010

The way I understand it, socialism is basically any government product or service that is available or of benefit to all citizens regardless of class and financed by the government (e.g. through taxes). Examples might be public roads, parks, health care, or natural resources that are produced into stuff that benefits all. Where it becomes a sticky issue is what products and services are "socialised" and how the government obtains the finance. This is traditionally done through the taxing of private income obtained through private agreements (whether individual or corporate) but it is also done when government organisations are run for a profit like many transport networks (i.e. when someone says, "I pay taxes yet a train ticket is that much!?!?!". The more private income is taxed the more work you are essentially doing for the state. An extreme example of this might be communism where everything is government run and owned and there is no such thing as private property or private income. However, in order to run a communist country properly the government must be ruthless to ensure there are no secret private contracts going on and that everything is filtered through the state. The only way to do this is to come down hard on individuals that express such "freedom". This is where the fear of socialism lies.
posted by thesailor at 2:02 AM on March 23, 2010

The distinction between socialism and having socialized programs is one of ideology.

Socialism properly refers to systems of political thought which, essentially, say that government should have control over many of the services used by the population, in order to ensure that such services are provided as fairly as possible to all. Socialism can mean China, or it can mean France - it's all down to how you want to define 'socialism'.

Socialized programs are the services provided to a population by its government. The goverment itself, in a sense, is a socialized program, providing administrative services for the country. The military is a socialized service.

Equating socialized programs with big-S Socialism is just a tactic designed by the far right to stir up the knee-jerk fear many Americans were taught during the Cold War.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:29 AM on March 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

Why don't you have some fun and explain to people that the army is 'socialist'. It is government-run with no particular concern for individual citizens' preferences.
If there was the threat of invasion, we would need to defend the whole country in an organised way. We would not want the wealthy areas being defended by highly trained mercenaries, but simply allow poor neighbourhoods to be taken over by invading forces.
posted by sleepy boy at 3:57 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fire service; policing. (Watch the nutters' heads asplode.)
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:10 AM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

As was mentioned above, socialism itself defines an all-encompassing political philosophy in which the means of production and the rationing of consumption are centrally controlled "for the greater good."

Police protection and Social Security are part of our social contract in which, as a society, we currently deem certain services to be important enough to justify a certain level of taxation according to ability (income level) in order to provide services according to need.

In a true socialist state, however, the government provides all services and employs workers directly in production as needed, resembling cogs in a machine. There would not be need for taxes because the people would receive their food/shelter/clothing from the government in exchange for their labor. In this sense, none of our programs are socialist because police forces buy their cars and guns and armor from private companies and Social Security provides an amount of money (not goods) for retirees to use to purchase goods from private companies.

The use of the world socialism in the health care debate, then, simply muddles the argument. The roads aren't socialist (did the government assign people to make the asphalt and build the steamrollers?) and neither is the health care plan. In this debate, unfortunately, socialism has become a sort of shorthand for "centrally-controlled."

As a society, we have chosen to remove some services from the private domain and place them under central control. Certainly no one wants to have to thumb through the yellow pages to find an ambulance when they have a heart attack, so we pay a portion of our income to maintain 911 systems.

However, just because it is better to inject central control into some systems does not justify doing this for all systems. It is truly a slippery slope to claim that we have to choose from two dichotomies -- all social programs or all free market. A society of all social programs would be a socialist society because a free market would not exist. This, it seems, is the fear of those who use the term in the health care debate -- where do we as a society draw the line in the sand to limit the control of government? Currently we live in a system that is between the extremes of socialist central-control and capitalist anarchy. As we swing in either direction, people will always fear that we will go too far and become that extreme.
posted by nayrb5 at 5:18 AM on March 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

I consider myself a socialist under this particular definition of socialism:

I suggest that we understand socialism negatively as any economic system marked by the abolition (i) of wage labor as the primary mode of economic activity and (ii) of the dominance of society by (a) the minority of people who regularly employ significant numbers of wage laborers and (b) the tiny minority of people who own large quantities of wealth and capital goods. We might understand socialism in positive terms as any economic system marked by (i) wide dispersal of control over the means of production; (ii) worker management as the primary mode of economic activity; together with (iii) the social preeminence of ordinary people, as those who both operate and manage the means of production.

If you define socialism as government regulation towards these ends, then the United States government is not socialist. It does not seek to abolish wage labor as the primary mode of economic activity. It does not seek to abolish the dominance of society by a tiny minority of people who employ those wage laborers or the tiny minority of people who own large quantities of wealth and capital goods. It does not seek to widely disperse control over the means of production. Etc.

There is a competing definition of socialism that defines it as a state-controlled economy. Under this definition, the United States government is socialist. In fact, under this definition, every government is socialist because the sole purpose of government is to regulate economic activity in some form or another.
posted by symbollocks at 5:27 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think "Public schools. People often don't think of them as a socialist program, but they are government run systems that provide educational services free-of-charge" needs to have "supplied by tax monies" replacing "free-of-charge." Nit-picking? Yes. But it's not free. You pay property taxes which go to the public schools. If you own a home, you're paying. If you're renting, that tax is figured into the rent amount.

I do agree that it's socialized, in that the monies are pooled and divvied out by the state governments.
posted by cooker girl at 6:26 AM on March 23, 2010

Socialism has had many different definitions over time and depending on who you ask. I like symbollocks's definition, but I think you could simplify it even further to say socialism is the belief that state power can be used for good. In other words, it's the idea that goodwill (as manifested by a democratic government) is a useful concept, that unbridled selfishness should not, in fact, be the primary (or sole) basis for a society.

As others here have pointed out, "socialism" as understood by millions of Americans is closer to fascism or totalitarianism. My libertarian econ professor uses "socialism", "fascism", and "dictatorship" interchangeably, and sincerely (and quite often snidely) believes that any state power beyond the enforcement of contracts is inherently evil.
posted by ropeladder at 6:29 AM on March 23, 2010

I quite like this explanation of socialism with this as the takeaway: "Socialism does not mean taking away the first kind of private property, e.g. your suit of clothes; it does mean taking away the second kind of private property, e.g. your factory for making suits of clothes. It means taking away private property in the means of production from the few so that there will be much more private property in the means of consumption for the many. That part of the wealth which is produced by workers and taken from them in the form of profits would be theirs, under socialism, to buy more private property, more suits of clothes, more furniture, more food, more tickets to the movies."
posted by youcancallmeal at 6:37 AM on March 23, 2010

socialism is the belief that state power can be used for good

I don't believe that. I don't like the second definition of socialism I mentioned (government = socialism) because it doesn't allow a distinction to be drawn between what government is and what socialism is. And, I assure you, they are separate things. I don't believe government power can be used for good. But I am a socialist because I am in favor of an economic system (the free market) that better (more morally and efficiently) distributes control over the means of production than government (which uses the threat of force -- immoral -- and central control -- inefficient).
             Socialist     Non-Socialist
Pro-State  |             |             |
Anti-State |      Me     |             |
My libertarian econ professor uses "socialism", "fascism", and "dictatorship" interchangeably, and sincerely (and quite often snidely) believes that any state power beyond the enforcement of contracts is inherently evil.

The problem is that he's a hypocrite. In order to enforce contracts the state needs resources, so it must tax under threat of force in order to get those required resources, which it has no right to do. It also needs a military or police force to even begin making threats of force, which it also needs resources for. And on and on.

posted by symbollocks at 6:56 AM on March 23, 2010

As usual, the right is conflating one "socialism" with another.

When the Soviet Union used the word "socialism," it meant "the workers own the means of production." (Which, of course, really meant "the state, governed by the Communist Party" owns the means of production.)

The other meaning is "government takes from the rich to aid the poor." (Which, of course, generally benefits the rich, unless you want to see mobs of sick, starving uneducated people outside your gated community. See how long that situation lasts.)

The US is obviously a capitalist country. But any modern, civilized country takes a lot of money from the people who have it in order to pay for the costs of maintaining a modern society, e.g. roads, hospitals, research, police, fire, schools, universities, in addition to welfare so people don't actually starve to death in our midst.
posted by musofire at 6:57 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

"the US has one of the most socialised public school programs in the world."

Puleeze!. That only goes as far as the town boundary. Most school districts are funded by local real estate taxes. So that means if you live in a wealthy town you have the distinct possibility of better funded schools. Hardly socialist if the town next door is full of slums and public housing...

And why isn't that a violation of "Equal Protection under The Law" is beyond me.
posted by Gungho at 7:22 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

A simplistic answer for conversation sake

Socialism defined according to a simple dictionary
Socialism:An economic system based on state ownership of capital

In short, anything owned by the government (which is thereby owned by the people). People forget the second part.

Examples are a plenty in this thread. Medicare, medicaid etc.

The issue has become one of government stepping into bigger and bigger territories such as health care which is opposed to by the republicans, although I do believe they brought up medicare.

People have confused state ownership with higher taxes at a time of deficit which requires higher taxes which does not seem to happening. (as you can see, it's a smoke screen, you can't see clearly what really is the issue). Glad u asked.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 8:43 AM on March 23, 2010

It's not quite as elegant as jannw's story, but in a similar vein, here's an excerpt from an opinion piece I wrote last summer. The article was called "In Favor of Optional Taxes."

I propose that we simply make taxes optional. Those who want can pay taxes and join what we’ll call ‘The Collaborative Society.’ People who choose to buy-in to the Collaborative Society will pay a percentage of their paycheck each month to be enrolled in a list of social programs which they will never pay more for nor be deprived of. Such social programs would include: group of people to protect the Collaborative Citizens against criminals and hostile foreign nations, a public entity whose sole purpose would be to put out unwanted fires and help mitigate natural disasters, public buildings which house books and other information resources so that everyone in the Collaborative Society has equal and free access to knowledge, and comprehensive healthcare so that everyone who gets sick is taken care. Oh sure, maybe your neighbor gets a bit more of the pie than you because someone set his house on fire and not yours, so he’s receiving the fruit of your labor that helped pay for the fire fighters, or someone tried to murder his family and not yours so he’s reaping the benefits of the police department you helped pay for, or maybe he gets unexpected cancer and you don’t so he’s benefitting from the healthcare that’s being partially funded from your pocket. But then again, any of these things could just as easily have happened to you, so you don’t really mind paying your taxes even though it might not work out equally for everyone in the end. And hey, he’s a damn good neighbor and you value his friendship and his barbeque skills, so you don’t mind if a little of your money paid for the investigation into the would-be murderers of his family. And why would you? After all, he does the same for you. And everybody else chips in too.

Those who don’t want to pay taxes can join what we’ll call the ‘State of Nature Society.’ In this society, there is no collaboration other than giving your money directly to those who give you goods or services. You can simply pay for the service or pay an insurance company to pay it for you. Either way, none of your money goes into any sort of public fund. It’s great because you get to keep every dime you earn and spend it as you see fit and on whom you see fit. Of course, you have to pay a private company to track down the guy that raped and murdered your daughter, which is expensive and puts you into some serious debt. And yeah, so what that your house burns down while you’re swiping your Visa card so that the fire company you hired to come put your house fire out can start work (as is their contract, less your card be denied). And it’s cool that you get a rare disease by no fault of your own and you watch the medical bills pile and pile while your neighbor enjoys a life of health and leisure and luxury. You don’t mind because, hey, shit happens and you just got the short straw. After all, your neighbor didn’t give you the rare disease so why in the hell should he help pay for it? You stop being able to afford the healthcare for your disease because your old and the insurance company you’ve been giving your money to has decided you’re a liability and rescinded your coverage and put you back on your own, which you don’t mind because on your own is just how you feel it should be. You waste away in your house, wishing for a good book to read while you die but you can’t afford to go buy one and there’s no place that will let you borrow one for free. So you wither and die, but happily, because you know that you never asked anything of anybody or gave anything to anybody and that’s just the way it should be. No friends of yours were gonna take your money and give to John so he could hunt down the killer and rapist of his daughter!

It really is that simple. The Optional Tax will give everyone exactly what they want. There are some logistical issues of course, like property and roads. Most roads would be reserved for the Collaborative Society. You’d have to have special permits that identified you as a paying member of the Collaborative in order to be able to use them. The State of Nature citizens could build their own roads with their own money. The really beautiful parts of the country would be saved and protected for the Collaborative Society, because they all agreed to chip-in a little so their children could enjoy the mountains and the deserts of this great country. Some of the State of Nature citizens could have some of the beautiful parts too if one of them was willing to pay for it, but then of course only he could visit it, which for the State of Nature citizens is exactly how they want it. Everyone would have to wear something at all times identifying them as either a Collaborative or a State of Nature citizen, that way when someone is getting mugged or someone is in a car accident the public fire fighters and the public police know whether to help them out or not. Or like when a giant hurricane hits and destroys your town the public emergency services group of the Collaborative society knows who to help out and who to let drown while they fumble through their rolodex looking for the number of the private emergency help company they use (which sadly and much to their surprise outsourced most of their business to India, leaving little help for the State of Nature citizen as he floats along clinging to a broken piece of siding. He’s happy though, because god dammit, it’s his siding.)
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Socialism is not simply a large government program.

Socialism is a government monopoly.

Social Security and Medicare are not government monopolies. They are programs that aid the poor. They do not make up the entirety of income/healthcare for the elderly, nor even the entirety of aid available to poor seniors.

Public schools are also a social service. But so long as private/charter schools are an option for students, it's not a monopoly. It's much closer than Social Security, but still acts as a safety net for those who cannot or do not pay for private school.

The closest to socialism we have?

The US Postal Service. They are a pure government monopoly, and the Supreme Court has dictated that Fed Ex and UPS cannot directly compete with them. So while the package market might be available to these competitors, the mail market is still completely government owned.

Roads also probably fall close, though in rural areas private roads aren't uncommon.
posted by politikitty at 10:32 AM on March 23, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - lulzy answers make team mod cry
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:20 AM on March 23, 2010

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