Saturday, November 22, 2008

What is Socialism? Is Barack Obama Socialist?

White House photo by Eric Draper

Using the four definitions of socialism provided below, even a cursory glance at Barack Obama cannot fail to yield the conclusion that his political framework for viewing the proper role of government in society is socialism. There can be little argument that Barack Obama is a socialist. But Republicans like John McCain and George W. Bush would do well not to apply this term as one of derision- they are socialists too. More on that later. The following list of definitions includes corresponding explanations as to why Obama fits each of them.

Socialism has been variously defined as:

  • Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy. [1]

Any Americans paying attention during the 2008 Presidential Campaign or to any of Obama's rhetoric in the aftermath of his electoral victory should be able to recall that the solutions he is proposing take for granted that it is the proper role of a centralized government to plan and control the economy in order to strengthen and improve it. Can anyone argue that Obama, McCain, Bush, and most contemporary politicians have not assumed it as their proper role to plan and control the economy? Just read the economics issue page at Mr. Obama's website. It is filled to overflowing with "tax this... subsidize that... invest here... fix that."

You may object that the definition above implies total government ownership of property and the means of production, and that Barack Obama does not advocate this. If you do so object, then I must ask what it means for us to own our property. When a government can control, appropriate, distribute, and dispose of a very significant amount of its citizens' property without their individual consent, is it not the operating premise that government owns everything and that you use your property only with government's tacit consent, and only as long as government doesn't presently wish to revoke your rights to this or that portion of your property? In such a society government presumes to be lord of all and the law of the land is "render unto Caesar whatever he says is his."

  • The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved. [1]

This definition is another, quicker answer to such an objection as that above. The word "socialism" does not necessarily imply explicit, total ownership of property by the state, but a society in transition from capitalism to communism, an economy increasingly controlled and governed by the laws and policies of the state. An entirely controlled economy would be more like true communism in action, an entirely free and uncontrolled one would be more like capitalism. The much-pined-for "middle ground" of a mixed market economy with the productive power of capitalism, but also plenty of government controls and intervention, is more akin to socialism. Obama and his political allies on "the American Left" are not alone in supporting such a state of affairs.

  • An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists. [2]

Here is another definition which serves as an excellent rebuttal to any objections that Barack Obama is not a socialist because he does not support an explicit and total government takeover of all the major industries and means of production in America. This definition really helps to clarify the nuances behind the meanings of the words "socialism" and "communism." Again, a quick reference to Obama's issue pages shows that he is categorically a socialist. It is not only in terms of policy, but in his broader approach to the role of government that Obama is clearly a socialist. For him, change means for government to change things. Fixing the economy means for government to fix the economy. Leading means leading from the Capitol Building and the White House. To Obama and most other politicians, a necessary precondition for prosperity is direct government involvement in the workings of the economy, as opposed to government acting only to maintain a civil society (i.e. one free of aggression).

  • A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor. [3]

Imagine conducting this survey:

Circle yes or no: Does the following statement accurately describe Barack Obama's message and self-portrayal?

A social reformer who seeks to fundamentally reconstruct American society to create a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor.

How many of the respondents do you imagine would circle "yes?" It's practically the bite-sized version of Barack Obama's entire campaign platform. And the key means of this reconstruction of American society that Obama envisions is government control and manipulation of the wealth and property created by its citizens. Can there really be any argument over Obama's socialist agenda? I don't think so because it is categorically true, it's a necessary conclusion based off of our definition of the word "socialist." It's also true that George W. Bush and John McCain are socialists. The three of them are more alike than they are different in their view of government, as few of their passionate supporters as there are who would be willing to admit it.

Now if you want, you can argue that it's not a bad thing to be a socialist. That's a great discussion to have, and I will say up front that one of the main focuses of this blog is why socialism is a bad thing, it's just not the focus of this particular essay. For that, allow me to refer you to the following:

Barack Obama's Victory and the Nature of Change
What is Capitalism? The Nature and Advantages of the Free Market
Libertarian Books: The Humble Libertarian's Recommended Reading


End Notes:

1. socialism. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/socialism

2. socialism. (n.d.). The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/socialism

3. socialism. (n.d.). Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/socialism

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More on the Moral Impotence of Democracy

I read this quote today in John Locke's Essays on The Law of Nature and it reminded me of my election day thoughts:


'The voice of the people is the voice of God.' Surely, we have been taught a most unhappy lesson how doubtful, how fallacious this maxim is, how productive of evils, and with how much party spirit and with what cruel intent this ill-omened proverb has been flung wide lately among the common people. Indeed if we should listen to this voice as if it were the herald of a divine law, we should hardly believe that there was any God at all. For is there anything so abominable, so wicked, so contrary to all right and law, which the general consent, or rather conspiracy, of a senseless crowd would not at some time advocate?


Democracy, when it is seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end of liberty, becomes little more than the rule of a mindless mob. The mob that Locke dismisses in the above quote as a possible source of natural law is also entirely incapable of ruling with the unfettered power we seem not to mind investing in the electoral process today. The fact that most people want something is not a justification of its being law. It's that simple.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Irony: Bush Defends Capitalism


No, it's not an Onion story or some other parody- it's real news:

President George W. Bush today urged leaders of the world's biggest economies not to abandon free- market capitalism as they seek an escape from the financial crisis, calling it the "best system'' for delivering growth.

It'd be like Arthur Andersen defending sound accounting principles and squeaky clean business ethics practices. Here's a man who has spent eight years poo-pooing all over the free market, expanding government power, spending, influence, and intervention in our lives to unprecedented levels in United States history, and who recently signed the $700 billion finance industry bailout bill... and he's speaking on behalf of free market capitalism? Get real!

This is either an example of political posturing or he's being earnest. If it's political posturing, then I'm not too shocked- he's just lying like most politicians do (but that is still rather brazen). If he's being earnest, then I'm actually a little surprised. That would mean that even the President of the United States of America has no clue what capitalism really is or what free markets really look like. The level of ignorance regarding economics is really that bad- a depressing thought. We've got work to do!

I also want to add that I'm a little irritated at President Bush over this. Speaking out in defense of capitalism might give people the impression that Bush's policies are representative of it, which will make them abhor capitalism, when what they really abhor is Bush's mixed-market, quasi-socialistic, economic interventionism. This is just one more thing to confuse an already very confused electorate about what free market capitalism really is. Putting his name on anything is not a good way for George W. Bush to sell it these days. Crap.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Regrets as Bush leaves office

This article confused me. Bush has apparently come to regret saying certain things he said during his presidency. But why exactly he regrets it I’m not sure. Bush says he wishes he hadn't said “There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on.” Bush regrets these words. But he doesn’t seem to regret acting in ways consistent with these words. He wishes he hadn’t talked like some sort of trigger happy cowboy. But what about acting like one?

But enough with Bush’s regrets. I want to talk about mine for a second. I can’t judge what’s going on in Bush’s head, but I know what happened in my own. I was wrong too, and I want to talk about why. You see, when 9/11 happened I was a typical “conservative Christian.” I was a walking stereotype. And I supported the war. No, I didn’t vote for Bush. I was too young, so I did worse. I supported him as obnoxiously as I possibly could. I spent all my time yelling at those “liberals” who just didn’t get it. I talked constantly about politics. I made crazy statements about how Christians like me must be out of their minds if they weren’t conservatives.

And now I regret it.

And I don’t just regret the strong language. I don’t just regret being a jerk. I was wrong and I regret that. But it’s not that I was wrong intellectually that bothers me. What bothers me is that I was morally wrong. My view embodied a deep, abiding lack of love. The government I wanted see was one of hatred and manipulation. I wanted a government that tries to use force to make people get their moral act together here at home and a government that intervenes in foreign affairs to try to make other nations get their political act together. I wanted war. I wanted to fight. I wanted to make people get it together.

But that’s not a civil society. A healthy human society can only be built on love. And love doesn’t manipulate. Love doesn’t demand behavior change at the point of a gun. Love asks. Love persuades. Love prays. Love waits. Love pursues changes of heart and mind, not changes of behavior. Government in a society built on love is one that does nothing but protect people from forceful manipulation by others. As soon as government steps beyond this it becomes the very sort of manipulator that it exists to prevent.

So, as someone who supported Bush when he was elected, and has since grown up, both literally and figuratively, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for more than just banners and words. I’m sorry for trying to change behavior by force, instead of changing hearts with truth.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Barack Obama's Victory and the Nature of Change

Change is what the American electorate have clamored for this election season, and Senator Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States because he was able to convince American voters that he would bring change to America. As far as I know, the wisest and most widely-referenced quotation addressing the issue of change comes from Mahatma Gandhi, who encouraged us to "Be the change you want to see in the world." A true revolutionary who brought lasting change to his country and people, and a compassionate voice of love, peace, and spirituality, Gandhi was and continues to be a model of an exemplary human being. His ideas also reverberate with libertarian attitudes and premises. He once wrote, "The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy. That State is the best governed which is governed the least."


There are few who would disagree that change is necessary in America today, but we must ask ourselves what means are appropriate to affect that change. Is it okay for us to use government to help the poor and less fortunate? Or do we need to find alternatives to government in shaping our country to be a better place? To answer that question we must determine what kind of thing government is and whether its nature makes it an appropriate avenue for the kinds of change we are seeking. The thing that distinguishes government from other human institutions is that it has the sole power to levy force in order to carry out its activities. No other institutions can use force to accomplish their ends. Grabbing someone and detaining them against their will is kidnapping, taking someones property without their explicit voluntary consent is stealing, and killing someone is, with the exception of self-defense, an act of murder or manslaughter. All of these activities are prohibited and not at the disposal of private institutions. When the government carries out these functions to maintain a civil society, however, they are (ideally) legitimate acts referred to as arrest, taxation, and capital punishment, respectively.

Because government has the power of force behind its activities, any question regarding the legitimacy of government action must address the legitimacy of using force to accomplish the end in mind. This is why as a pacifist and believer in non-violence, Gandhi was astute enough to write: "That State is the best governed which is governed the least." Taking care of the poor and providing for their needs is a good and noble end. I can only imagine that few Americans would disagree. Using the force of government to accomplish this end, however, is inappropriate. Because government carries out its activities through the use of force, this is not an act of love, but one of aggression. Well-intentioned though it may be, it is not a humble act of service, but an arrogant act of forcible expropriation from others to accomplish our values. I agree that we should provide for the needs of those who are unable to do so themselves, but I would not be able to live with myself if I voted to take the money of others to accomplish these ends when I have not yet given everything that I can of my own money.

Instead of voting to forcibly accomplish the change we want to see in the world, it is imperative for our own good and for the good of others that we be the change that we want to see in the world. Take as an example, the record-breaking fundraising of the Obama campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, Barack Obama's campaign for President raised $521,869,310 in the 2007-2008 election cycle. His supporters are energized by his promise to make health care available to all Americans. Just imagine what would happen if they had pooled all of this money to accomplish that goal with their own voluntary contributions, rather than using the money to elect someone to make everyone else embrace their vision for change. If that money had been invested and managed by a charitable trust, at a six percent interest rate, it would accrue $31,312,158.60 in interest every year... forever.

Half of that money- fifteen million dollars- could be spent each year to provide health care to deserving families in need. The other half could simply be added to the total to make it larger so that it accrues more interest the next year. Each year the principle and the interest payoffs would grow. It wouldn't take long to accumulate enough wealth to cover a significant number of Americans' health care needs. All the while, that money would be earning interest by supplying credit and investment capital to fuel more economic growth, creating more jobs and wealth for Americans, reducing the number of people who need to draw on this fund for their needs- just more icing on the cake. That is an example of being the change we want to see. That is a way to humbly create change and help others without forcing anybody to participate who doesn't want to (even if they should). If Americans did more things like that, we wouldn't need to elect politicians to change things because we would be changing them ourselves.

We must not force our values on others, especially when we are not consistently living out those values ourselves. We must change ourselves and watch as genuine personal change affects our country for the better instead of voting change into the highest offices of our country and hoping for it to "trickle down." Such behavior does not exemplify true hope and love, but cynicism and authoritarianism. That is why Gandhi was correct to say that, "In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place." Though the majority has voted for Obama and his means of change, I believe the alternative means are morally superior.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day Thoughts

Alexis de Tocqueville said:

Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the need to be directed, as well as the desire to remain free. Since they are unable to blot out either of these hostile feelings, they strive to satisfy both of them together. They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them some respite. They derive consolation from being supervised by thinking they have chosen their own supervisors. Every individual tolerates being tied down because he sees that it is not another man nor a class of people holding the end of the chain, but society itself.

Under this system citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters, and then they return to it.

At the present time, many people fall in with this type of compromise between a despotic administration and the sovereignty of the people and they think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to a national authority. That is not good enough for me. The character of the master is much less important to me than the fact of obedience.


Dear American voter,

Know this: voting has no moral value. Sure, it has practical value. Votes get added up to decide who gets power. But voting does not justify any use of that power. Voting is only a system of choosing leaders. It cannot justify what those leaders do. Democracy is morally impotent. No doubt voting is practically necessary, but when did we delude ourselves into thinking that the practical means of putting someone in power has any power to justify the actions of the people who win?

What will or will not justify actions of rulers is the more fundamental question of what is the proper role or function of government in society, a question we've long since abandoned in favor of discussing the "issues" devoid of any deeper considerations of a grand scheme in which individual issues are all related parts. Voting is perhaps the least important political action you can take. Real change doesn't happen in the ballot box. Real change happens in workplaces, in homes, in classrooms, on the phone, and on the internet. Real change is changing minds and hearts, not changing regimes. Real change happens in conversations that go deeper than individual issues, deeper than pandering sound bites, deeper than the noise of media coverage, and delve into the real questions. Real change takes time. Real political activism isn't holding a sign, putting a bumper sticker on your car, and voting. Real political action is having a conversation with your friends that steps outside of the partisan bickering, leaves behind the petty talk of current events, and asks fundamental questions about government and what it is and should be. Real political action is about talking not yelling, about reaching truth together not making the other side look foolish.

Some folks will stay up all night worrying about who will be elected. I've got more important things to do. I've got classes to attend, blogs to write, music to create, people to talk to, papers to write, a blog to contribute to, and a billion other things to do. I'm too busy with real change to pay attention to election coverage.