In the United States, talking about socialism is notoriously difficult work. The word itself had all but vanished from U.S. politics until the 2008 presidential election, when it was returned to service as a club with which to bludgeon Barack Obama.
Thinking clearly about socialism requires first brushing aside the most inane forms of rhetoric, which seek to link all expressions of socialist ideology to the historical legacy of the Soviet Union. In Western Europe, where socialist parties have overseen decades of democracy, peace, and economic growth, such silliness doesn’t even get off the ground. But the curious history of American Exceptionalism with respect to socialism is well known to historians and political scientists. Was it our birth as a post-monarchical democracy, an open frontier, or the waves of Red Scare repression that shunted socialism to the backwaters of national political discourse? Whatever the cause, the U.S. emerged in the twentieth century as the only highly developed country without a self-identified socialist party capable of winning national elections.
Socialism is most often identified with a belief in equality and it is clear from the historical record that this is by no means a new impulse in political life. Aristotle’s Politics briefly notes the efforts of an Ancient Greek ruler to reduce social conflict by equalizing the possession of wealth. Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516) imagined an island society in which private property has been abolished: the Utopians wear identical clothing and have no locks on the doors of their homes, which they trade regularly to avoid feelings of jealousy. Next to some dim, black-and-white images of the former Soviet Union, this is our most common representation of socialism: a drab, regimented commune, in which individual freedom has been sacrificed in the name of equality. There may be some who imagine Western Europe in these terms, but apart from the superheated rhetoric of Fox News, the comparison is difficult to sustain. In Western Europe, modern socialist parties expanded the provision of public goods (health care, education, unemployment insurance) and tightened the regulation of private industry, but seemed uninterested in issuing citizens with identical gray jumpsuits.
What, then, does socialism stand for? If equality were its only concern, providing public goods, rather than limiting the production and distribution of all goods, would seem the more costly and difficult route. Far easier to level everyone down than to lift the working class up. But equality for its own sake is not socialism’s core value. Rather, what has animated modern socialist politics is the ideal of equal freedom.
Freedom, of course, is precisely what Right-wing politicians argue would disappear with the advance of socialism. Classical liberals or “libertarians” make the case that freedom is maximized by keeping government and law out of the individual’s way. Providing health care to those who are unable to afford it might sound like a noble cause, but it would compromise the freedom of property-owning individuals to use their property in whatever ways they see fit.
Yet, in arguing for the importance of individual choice, libertarians fail to distinguish themselves from modern socialists. This is unquestionably the most common misunderstanding of socialist political thought. With the sole exception of Moore and his dreary Utopians, every socialist political philosopher stresses the value of subjective preferences and individually chosen pursuits. The socialists, however, pose a question that the classical liberals or libertarians ignore: How do the conditions in which we live and work affect the choices we are able to make? Material resources are the preconditions of free choice. The person who lacks a bicycle is not free to ride one. The person who cannot afford to go to college is significantly less free to make real choices about the pursuit of a career. The person who is unable to afford medical care – or is driven into bankruptcy by its cost – is less free to pursue his or her own good in his or her own way.
For the socialist tradition, providing citizens with public goods is a way of ensuring that in a world filled with various forms of inequality, everyone will be able to enjoy some important forms of real freedom. In this sense, every public school, public road, and public fire department is a socialist institution. Without them, education, transportation, and fire protection would be rationed by market forces; available only to those wealthy enough to pay the going rate. Very few socialists have ever maintained that all goods should be distributed as public goods (again, Moore is virtually the lone exception). Instead, modern socialists have argued for the robust provision of infrastructural goods: education, transportation, health care. In terms of freedom, these have important multiplier effects: a healthy, well-educated person is better able to make free choices than is a sickly illiterate. Public goods do not stifle private economic activity; they facilitate it.
This last point is useful in guarding against the false premise that we must choose between mutually exclusive alternatives: socialist public goods or capitalist markets. Capitalism and socialism are not sealed, stand-alone systems, but principles regarding the ownership and use of productive resources. No highly developed economy in the world today is organized exclusively by one or the other. Everywhere you care to look, publicly educated workers are employed in privately owned businesses. Privately owned trucks transport goods on publicly owned roads. Publicly maintained water supplies flow out of privately owned faucets.
Perhaps we don’t need the term “socialism” to talk about such things. Words, after all, can overly simplify complex matters. Yet, as long as those who argue in favor of publicly provided education or heath care or unemployment insurance fear being marked with the Scarlet ‘S’, they expose a crucial weakness they would do better without.