Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Conservatives Crying Wolf

Far too many conservative bloggers casually call Democrats socialists and mischaracterize Democratic programs as socialism. They do this because they have no idea what real socialism is.
To prove they don’t know what they are talking about, here’s a description, from a story, written by Simon Romero, in yesterday’s New York Times showing what a socialist regime would really look like. It’s from a story about the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, and his latest power grab, including his attempt to abolish term limits for his presidency, which would allow him to serve as leader of his country indefinitely. At the same time, he is proposing to alter the Venezuelan Constitution to impose stricter term limits on local governors and mayors to eliminate any challenge from them to his authority. In addition, Chavez is seizing industries, nationalizing them, centralizing his power, and shutting down TV and radio stations critical of him.

Here’s the money quote that perfectly describes his version of state socialism:
Mr. Chávez’s proposals would centralize his control over political institutions even further, potentially weakening opponents...Mr. Chávez’s current term expires in 2012...

“We are entering a new stage implying more intensive state control of society,” said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Oriente University in eastern Venezuela...

...He has nationalized telecommunications, electricity and oil companies; forged a single socialist party for his followers; deepened alliances with countries like Cuba and Iran; and sped the distribution of billions of dollars for local governing entities called communal councils.
There is nothing in the Democratic Party platform or the policies and positions of any mainstream Democratic candidate that remotely resembles this. No Democrat, indeed no organized labor official, proposes to seize corporations from their rightful owners to nationalize them.

There is a debate in America between advocates of a pure market-based economic system and those who want a mixed system that would basically keep the free market intact but would enact legislation to ensure health and safety regulations in the workplace, the right to collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, and discourage outsourcing through tax incentives to companies that stay in the U.S. and hire American workers. This is all part of the larger debate on the role of government in helping the middle class and poor people. But it’s not about taking over industries or income redistribution.

The debate is actually twofold. It’s partly about how much regulation we need to protect health, safety, and wages without placing too onerous a burden on businesses and discouraging economic growth. Get the balance wrong and you either have a drag on the economy as businesses fail or a free for all where people get sick from unsafe products and the middle class sinks into poverty.

And this debate is also about which services we as citizens wish to fund, through taxes, for the common good. Do we, as a society, believe that funding public education, health care, Social Security, street repair, traffic control, police protection, and a myriad of other services have value? Do we want to pay for some of these things and leave others to the individual? Which ones do we fund and which do we leave alone? Those are fair questions for discussion. None of these topics include nationalizing the oil industry or turning healthcare over to government run clinics. Indeed, in America we are more apt to discuss how to privatize services than how to nationalize them. So, the debate is more likely to be about which services, traditionally provided by the government, we should keep and which should be contracted out, not which industries we should seize next.

Another area for debate is which branch of government should provide those services. What is the role of the federal government versus the state and local governments? The traditional conservative approach is to devolve power down to the level closest to the people, while liberals have favored greater involvement at the federal level to provide services to the broadest number of people.

In terms of efficiency, the arguments can go either way. We can gain economies of scale by providing services, like Medicare, at the federal level to the entire nation. On the other hand, money can be saved and duplication of effort eliminated by letting each state and municipality design its own system to meet local needs.

As you can see, there are real policy differences between the parties, but none of them are anti-capitalist or pro-socialist. One party favors a more ideologically pure and robust free market system with more sweeping laissez fair. The other party is more pragmatic and favors some government regulation for health, safety, wage protection and a safety net beneath which nobody would fall. The real argument is how much regulation and service to provide and how to fund it?

It’s important to present the real debate and give voters a true choice. It’s equally important not to misuse labels because once you start throwing around inaccurate accusations, you trivialize the language. The problem with crying wolf is that once you call Hillary Clinton and John Edwards socialists, when Hugo Chavez comes along and really threatens democracy and capitalism, people will no longer heed your warnings because the very word socialist will have ceased to have real meaning.


Catzmaw said...

Thanks for a fine explanation of the argument. We need to spend less time reacting to stupid labels and more time explaining why they don't apply. Tackle the issue head on and stop letting silly sound bites rule the debate.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

thanks Catzmaw