October 22, 2012

What parts of the American state are Socialist?

After the American Century         

One often hears American commentators, especially on the Right, complain about socialism in the same hysterical tone that people once denounced communism.

So let us look at this question of socialism in a common-sense way. There are some well-functioning parts of American society like the public library system and the fire departments that are actually socialistic. In each case a service is provided to everyone in the community, using tax dollars to pay the costs. Garbage removal is another example of something that is often organized by the state and provided to all citizens. The reasons for this are not hard to understand. All benefit if fires are put out and garbage does not rot in the streets. All citizens benefit when libraries provide books and information to everyone.

There are other obvious examples. The public schools are socialistic, providing and requiring education for all citizens. This is good for society as a whole, because educated people are able to contribute more skills and ideas, and highly educated societies tend to be more prosperous than less educated ones, all other things (such as natural resources) being equal. Indeed, a well educated country with few natural resources such as Singapore, is often more prosperous and has a lower crime rate than a poorly educated nation awash in resources, such as Nigeria.

When one begins to think along these lines, it is obvious that the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted all citizens to be literate and numerate, and that they believed an educated citizenry would be better able to choose leaders and to propose good ideas to their legislatures. Benjamin Franklin helped to found a great public library in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson's enormous personal library became the basis for the US Library of Congress, which may be used by all citizens. During the nineteenth century cities and towns all over the nation created public libraries that today are bastions of education, freedom of thought, and competitiveness.

The question becomes that of where to draw the line. How many services have such a beneficial effect on society that they really should be provided to citizens out of national self-interest?  Here are some examples that seem to be obviously a good investment:

A national weather service. Why? Citizens will not be caught by surprise by a tornado or ice storm, agriculture will be better conducted, and the country will have more lead time for national disasters.

A national park system. Why? Preserves for all citizens sublime and beautiful landscapes and historically important sites, such as battlefields, Native American ruins, and buildings, such as the homes of former Presidents. Americans invented the idea of having national parks, and preserved such places as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon for future generations.

A good road system. In theory, major roads might be privately owned, with tolls imposed for using them. But the US rejected that practice, with most roads open to all with no fee. Interestingly, Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that infrastructure such as roads were best left in the hands of the state. So even the patron saint of Capitalism accepted a bit of socialism, in this restricted sense.

It is fair to say that most Americans agree that these and some other government institutions are worthwhile, even if, in many respects, they might be understood to be socialistic. It is just that few Americans think of them in this way, because they have been around for a century or more. They are part of a Normal Rockwell vision of America.

The question is not whether the US state, local, and federal governments should supply any services, but rather how many. Health care remains in private hands, for example, even under Obamacare. Private insurance companies and private health providers remain at the heart of it. The government's role is to regulate, not to provide, services. The care-givers remain the same as before Obamacare was passed. This system is by no stretch of the imagination a socialistic one. Rather, the state requires that people be covered, just as it requires drivers to have a car that has been inspected and insured. Neither of these things is socialistic. To see what a socialized medical system looks like, go to Scandinavia, Germany, or France.

The US medical system produces terrific doctors who continue to make important advances in diagnosis, treatment and cure.  But while the individual care providers are excellent, the system is not. Per person, the US medical system costs almost double what Northern Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Swedes, etc.)  pay for medical care. Yet on average Europeans are living longer - years longer - than Americans. It is simply silly to say that the US has nothing to learn from other countries in this area.

Rather than pretend that "socialism" is foreign to the United States, it would be useful to have a dialogue about where the limits of socialism ought to be. Should university tuition be paid for by the state (perhaps to be paid back later by graduates, once they have a job?)  Norwegians, Danes, and Germans pay no tuition, which helps to level the playing field and gives all talent a chance to develop. The Scandinavians and the Germans may have a better chance than Americans to move up in the world. US economic mobility is not what is used to be, and that is because the nation is less, not more, socialistic than it was when the great land grant colleges like the Universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, and the like were set up during the nineteenth century.

Too often American politicians talk about socialism as if it were some terrible foreign disease. It is not. Socialism is as American as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Whether it is a good idea has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. It is a good idea to have a national center for disease control, for example, but it might not be a good idea pay for cosmetic surgery with tax dollars. It is a good socialistic idea to make knowledge widely and freely available on the Internet, for example from the Library of Congress. But it is almost surely not a good idea to give every citizen their own automobile. National Public Radio seems to me a good idea, but here there is room for debate about whether its rather modest costs ought to be paid for through taxes or individual contributions. Case by case, the United States needs to consider how best to remain healthy, educated, and competitive. In some cases, socialism is a good idea. In others, not. Think about that the next time you see the firemen rushing by to put out a blaze.