READER ALERT: Political subjects below. If you think reading this post would endanger your blood pressure, perhaps you could turn on public radio and listen to some music instead.
There are things you ought to know better than to do, and one high on the list is not to enter into a political discussion on Facebook.
But a Facebook acquaintance posted this: “Capitalism is the most fair, right, and opportunity-driven system possible. Anyone who does not support capitalism is either misinformed, prejudiced, jealous, or power-seeking” and followed up with "My question to liberals, and it's a sincere question: Is your belief in liberalism based on not seeing that's it's really socialism in disguise, or is socialism actually okay with you?”
In my most presentable faux naif tone, I started an inquiry into how she understood those terms, socialism and capitalism, having pointed out some time back a point that I took from Harry Golden forty years ago, that the Socialist Party platform of 1912 is pretty much mainstream today.
For my impudence, I got the standard treatment, being labeled a collectivist or a redistributionist, one of the people who “don't really care about gays, blacks, women, old people or kids. They only care about finding ways to redistribute money from the group that earned it to those that don't work.”*
Before long, someone started quoting Ayn Rand. I have leaned over the years that when they begin to quote Ayn Rand at you, it’s time to make sure you have an unobstructed path to the door.**
But really, I had an actual question to pose. I’m not sure what people are talking about when they denounce socialism. If it is President Obama’s health care plan, which leaves profit-making insurance companies intact and assures them of additional profits, then it is a very odd form of socialism. If it is President Obama they are calling a socialist, they should seek out some actual socialists to hear them hoot at the thought.
Is it governmental meddling in industry though regulation of food and drugs? Or the various attempts to regulate the financial industry from the time of Franklin Roosevelt to the present? Or if we’re simply talking about money and the redistribution of it, is it governmental taking of money from those who work to prolong the lives of a lot of old people through Social Security and Medicare? (The latter, you know, are the real threats to the federal budget, not public radio or scientific research.)
For that matter, I’m not at all sure what people mean when they talk about capitalism. I suspect it’s not the mercantilist capitalism of the sixteenth century, though I get doubtful when the protectionists chime in. I wonder if they mean the corporate capitalism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If so, a capitalism so dependent on tax breaks and subsidies from government is a very odd species as well.
The rough equilibrium between left and right that existed from the Eisenhower era of Modern Republicanism, which grudgingly accepted the new Deal and a mixed economy, to the recent past, is apparently gone. The country has come again to a point of debating what the appropriate role of government is in many areas, and that is a healthy debate—or would be if it could be conducted by people who try to explain clearly what they mean and make an effort to understand contrary positions without immediately resorting to mere slogans and name-calling and denunciation.
*Three subsidiary points:
1. Though I am a damned NPR-listening registered Democrat and journalist, I am also a taxpayer and homeowner, respectably married, a mower of grass and ironer of my own shirts, an investor in stocks and bonds though a 401(k) plan, and very nearly as complete a bourgeois as you are likely to find in captivity. (None remain in the wild.)
2. Redistributionist is an ugly term, but it occurs to me that if you attend a church and make an offering, you are partaking in redistributionism, much like those crypto-socialists in the Acts of the Apostles. Better be careful.
3. If I were inclined, though I am not, to respond in kind, I would ask the anti-redistributionist gentleman whether he is the kind of capitalist who thinks that it is impertinent of the government to forbid him to employ ten-year-old children in the mines for twelve hours a day, six days a week—an infringement on his freedom. (He did complain, after all, about children being unproductive.)
**If it is undiluted libertarianism that you’re looking for, let me recommend H.L. Mencken, who knew how to write.