Don’t you just love how words and labels take on a life of their own in the ideological debate that helps shape public policy. The give-and-take of real debate is important — as it helps us find a middle ground upon which to govern — but the word play often gets comical.
My, uhhmm, favorite in this current political climate is the claim that we are becoming a socialist country. The fear is that the trifecta of bank bailouts, red-ink stimulus packages and corporate handouts is sending us down the path of no return, and that soon the government will own even more private corporations. Now, as the politicians try to find a way to provide health care for every citizen, the cry is getting even more common.
As a New York Times writer put it a couple of months ago, “socialism” has replaced “liberal” as the “go-to” slur among conservatives who love to hear themselves talk.
It’s not just at the national scene that this accusation is getting tossed around. At the Tea Parties protesting higher taxes it was claimed that the country is changing, but in the wrong way. As the different groups around North Carolina protested spending at the local level, you could read about accusations that even county governments were becoming socialistic, whatever that means.
“Once the government owns GM,” a man was saying the other day in the locker room at the gym, “there’s no turning back. We’ll have to buy more private companies because no one else is going to want to buy them.”
And that’s really the crux of this new front in the ideological war. In this country, particularly since FDR and the New Deal era, government has taken a strong role in addressing our social problems. Most of these programs were aimed at the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. Those of different political stripes argued over how to administer the programs and how much should be spent, but there was general agreement that the less fortunate deserved government help.
But now it’s not just the needy we are helping. No, this time we step in and help rich bankers and U.S. autoworkers making $60,000 per year, all in the name of saving the economy. Before blasting Obama about all this, let’s remember that it was the previous administration that jumped into the fray by approving the initial bank bailout.
Then along came Obama and the tab to the banks grew, along with the approval to help the auto industry and the larger package of stimulus spending. And now, there’s a chance this government largesse will extend to California and maybe another state or two who are drowning in red ink.
But just what defines socialism, if that is indeed where we are headed? According to Newsweek, European democracies spend on average 47.1 percent of their country’s gross domestic product, while in the U.S. the figure is 39.1 percent. I don’t know what an economist would say, but it seems we still have a ways to go in a strict economic sense before we resemble those governments we love to hate in Europe.
The argument — whether one is conservative or liberal — should not be about labels. Those labels — like “socialism” — make arguing the nuances of important policy more difficult, kind of like demonizing the opponent rather than matching wits against them. What we should be worrying about is just how much government intervention is necessary, and what is the wisest way to spend our depleting federal and state resources.
Way back in March, President Obama had this to say during an interview on this subject: “By the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. The fact that we’ve had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.”
Both the private sector and the government failed us in this crisis. Now as a country we have to find some middle ground between the wealth production that comes with a freewheeling private sector and unfettered capitalism, and the proper role for government oversight and stiff bureaucratic regulations.
The government has a role in helping us out of this mess. How large a role is still being debated, but that intervention has nothing to do with socialism.
It won’t be easy, but I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll become a socialist country in the process.