We Are All Socialists (Except for Most Libertarians)
by Jacob G. Hornberger
Socialism is in the news, especially since Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist. That obviously is okay with Iowa voters because he ended up in a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.
A Des Moines Register poll leading up to the Iowa caucuses revealed that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats describe themselves as socialists while 38 percent describe themselves as capitalists. According to Washington Post columnist Dan Balz, socialists account for 58 percent of Sander’s supporters and about a third of Clinton’s. The Post noted that a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 56 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally said they had a positive view of socialism.
In reality, the percentage of Democrats who are socialists is closer to 100 percent, which is really the same percentage for Republicans. It’s just that the word socialism has long had such bad connotations — think Cuba, the Soviet Union, Chile under Allende, and North Korea — that many red-blooded, patriotic Americans, especially Republicans and conservatives, have always wanted to consider themselves “capitalists” and supporters of “free enterprise,” even while embracing the same socialist programs that their compatriots who aren’t embarrassed about being considered socialists embrace.
The truth was expressed in the title of an article that appeared in the February 6, 2009, issue of Newsweek: “We Are All Socialists Now” by Joe Meacham. The author pointed out that while conservatives rail against socialist programs endorsed by liberals, such food stamps and aid to the arts, it was under a conservative Republican administration that the banking and mortgage industries were effectively nationalized. Meacham also pointed out that it was a conservative GOP administration that “enacted the largest expansion of the welfare state in 30 years: prescription drugs for the elderly.”
In the perfect socialist model, the state owns the means of production, but what lots of Americans have never wanted to confront is that the welfare-state way of life, which Americans adopted in the 1930s, is a variation of socialism. Under the welfare state, the state owns the results of production — i.e., the income and wealth of people. Under the graduated income tax (which is one of the ten planks of the Communist Manifesto), the state decides how much of people’s income they are going to be permitted to keep. The rest is retained by the state and is given to other people, presumably on the basis of need but in actuality on the basis of political connections and influence. The forcible taking of people’s money in order to give it to others is the embodiment of the Marxian concept of “from each according to ability (or income) to each according to need (or connections and influence).
There isn’t a Democrat or Republican alive who doesn’t believe in the welfare state. Consider Social Security. It’s the crown jewel of the welfare state. It’s no different from food stamps, a socialist program that well-heeled conservatives love to condemn. They are both socialist programs. They both involve forcibly taking money from people to whom it belongs (the young and productive) and giving it to people to whom it does not belong (seniors).
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Social Security exists in Cuba, North Korea, China, Vietnam, and other communist countries. That’s because they believe in socialism too.
The difference, however, is that people in communist countries realize that Social Security is a socialist program, one that they’re really proud of. Americans, on the other hand, go through all sorts of contortions to convince themselves and others that Social Security is actually capitalist or free enterprise here in the United States. Here, they say, there’s a retirement fund that the people “put their money into” during their working years. When they retire, they say, they’re just getting their money back.
It’s a classic case of the life of the lie, the life of self-deception, the life that refuses to acknowledge to one’s self that he has become a dreaded socialist.
It’s the same with Medicare and Medicaid. They are both classic socialist programs, ones based on forcibly taking money from one group of people in order to give it to other people. You’ll never hear of any Democrat or any Republican calling for the repeal of these two socialist programs. Oh sure, you’ll see Republicans and conservatives arguing over whether the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) should be abolished, but they will fight you tooth and nail if you suggest that Medicare and Medicaid should also be abolished.
One of the socialist programs that Castro is most proud of in Cuba is public schooling (the other is national health care). Like here in the United States, public schooling is provided by the government and it’s “free.” It would be difficult to find a better example of a socialist program than public schooling. Its funding is based on forcibly taking money from people, even if they don’t have children, and using it to fund the “education” of children in society. The textbooks, both here in the United States and in Cuba, are selected and approved by the state. The educational decision-making is based on “central planning,” a socialist concept that involves government officials planning, in a top-down command-and-control fashion, the educational decisions of thousands or even millions of children. To get a good grasp of public schooling, think of the army, which as libertarian economist Milton Friedman pointed out in a 1989 article in the New York Times, is another institution based on socialist principles.
Every Democrat fervently believes in public schooling. So does every Republican. At most (but not always), Republicans will call for an end to federal involvement in education, but they will never call for a total free-market in education at the state and local level. They are just too committed to a public (i.e., socialist) educational system.
I wish I could have titled this article “We Are All Socialists (Except for Libertarians)” rather than “We Are All Socialists (Except for Most Libertarians). Unfortunately, however, there are some libertarians who are socialists too — or at least they call for or support socialist programs. The best example is school vouchers. This is a government program in which the state forcibly takes money from people, including those who don’t have children, in order to fund the private education of children who wish to get out of the state’s socialist system. In other words, the funding for vouchers — from each according to ability, to each according to need — is the same as it is for public schooling.
In the very first year of FFF’s existence, I wrote an article in the September 1990 issue of our monthly journal Future of Freedom (which at that time was called Freedom Daily) entitled “Letting Go of Socialism,” in which I pointed out what I am pointing out in this article — that the American people are wedded to socialism, even if they didn’t want to admit it. I pointed to public schooling as a model of socialism, just as I have in this article.
I also pointed out an uncomfortable truth about some libertarians: “But the real tragedy is that so many freedom devotees in America also won’t let go of socialism. All too often, their answer to the problem involves a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently. They want competition in public schools, vouchers, and other schemes which have the ultimate effect of leaving the socialist system intact, reformed, and more efficient.”
This generated a critical response from the Milton Friedman, who stated the following in an article entitled “Say No to Intolerance,” which appeared in the July 1991 of Liberty magazine:
In the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily, for September 1990 — again, a group that is doing good work and is making an impact — Jacob Hornberger wrote, “What is the answer to socialism in public schools? Freedom.” Correct. But how do we get from here to there? Is that somebody else’s problem? Is that a purely practical problem that we can dismiss? The ultimate goal we would like to get to is a society in which people are responsible for themselves and for their children’s schooling. And in which you do not have a governmental system.
But am I a statist, as I have been labeled by a number of libertarians, because some thirty years ago I suggested the use of educational vouchers as a way of easing the transition? Is that, and I quote Hornberger again, “simply a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently”? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you can simply say what the ideal is. This is what I mean by the utopian strand in libertarianism. You cannot simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.
Maybe Friedman would have felt better with being described as “a libertarian who favors socialism or socialist programs.”
Friedman attempted to justify his embrace of this socialist program by asserting that vouchers provided a transition to total educational liberty. Really? Notice the import of his argument: that the way to achieve liberty is through socialism. That sure seems to me like a strange way to achieve freedom and the free market.Friedman obviously to recognize that the freedom way to achieve educational liberty is simply by repealing school compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes and separating school and state entirely, just as our ancestors separated church and state.
Moreover, as we all know today — twenty-five years after he criticized my article — Friedman has been proven wrong on his voucher justification. School vouchers do not lead to the demise of public schooling and to educational liberty. They instead expand the role of the state in education, especially by making both families and private schools dependent on the voucher dole.
Nonetheless, there are still some libertarians who endorse vouchers and, even worse, justify them on the ground that they will improve the public schools. So, here we the spectacle of libertarians endorsing one socialist program on the ground that it will improve another socialist program.