What do Americans mean by “socialism”?
Religion & Liberty Online

What do Americans mean by “socialism”?

Campus Reform, a project of the Leadership Institute, recently interviewed students in Washington, D.C. to get their opinions on socialism. Not surprisingly, most of them were all for it. And also not surprisingly, most of them could not explain what they mean by socialism.

While it’s tempting to mock these students for supporting an economic system they can’t define, I’m not sure those of us on the right side of the political spectrum can do any better.

I remember hearing that Bill Clinton was a socialist, and then Barack Obama came along. Obama was also called a socialist and then a self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders, ran for president. Since all three of these politicians supported different policies what did people mean by saying they were all socialists? Was it nothing more than an all-purpose slur against liberals?

If so, our use of the term as an insult doesn’t seem to be deterring people from identifying with socialism. A poll taken last year found that only one in three millennials has a very unfavorable view of socialism and almost half (45 percent) of younger Americans say they’d likely vote for a presidential candidate that described themselves as “socialist.

But what do they mean by the term? What exactly do we Americans mean when we us the term socialism?

In his article “An Attempt to Define Socialism”, published in The American Economic Review, John Martin says,

Definitions of socialism are almost as numerous as the combatants for and against socialism. Unbelievers claim the same right as believers to define the term, as Mark Twain said people should spell according to the dictates of their own conscience. The results are confusion and misunderstanding, muddy thinking and a woeful working at cross purposes in matters of national importance. So bewildering is the babel of voices that some people deny that socialism can be defined at all.

Martin published this article in 1911. Today, over a hundred years later, it’s still questionable whether “socialism can be defined at all.”

But let’s not give up just yet. Lets’ look at some way that socialism has been defined in modern times.

The Economist magazine seems to agree about the “babel of voices” for their attempt at a definition sounds like a shrug of “who really knows?”:

The exact meaning of socialism is much debated, but in theory it includes some collective ownership of the means of production and a strong emphasis on equality, of some sort.

A “collective ownership of the means of production” does seem to be a common defining feature. As Robert Heilbroner says in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, socialism is “defined as a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.”

That seems a bit too narrow, too pure, since few self-proclaimed socialist governments control all the means of production. So let’s look at what the socialists have to say. The World Socialist movement claims,

Central to the meaning of socialism is common ownership. This means the resources of the world being owned in common by the entire global population. . . . In practice, common ownership will mean everybody having the right to participate in decisions on how global resources will be used. It means nobody being able to take personal control of resources, beyond their own personal possessions.

This is a bit too broad, and sounds more like pure communism. Few Americans would agree this is what they mean by the term.

The Oxford Dictionary of Economics has a definition that seems to come closest to the colloquial usage:

The idea that the economy’s resources should be used in the interests of all its citizens, rather than allowing private owners of land and capital to use them as they see fit.

This definition appears to include what most supporters of “socialism” want from the economic system but leaves out a key element that has been part of the definition for over a hundred years: collective ownership of the means of production. Is that part of the definition still essential?

The reality is that since the fall of the Soviet Empire, most self-proclaimed socialists are not really interested in the state controlling the means of production as long as the wealth that is produced by capital can be redistributed by the government.

This preference is similar to a primary concern of crony capitalism. The crony capitalist wants to use government to privatize profits and socialize risk and losses. In other words, businesses and individuals can “successfully benefit from any and all profits related to their line of business, but avoid losses by having those losses paid for by society.”

What the new socialists want is the reverse. They are generally comfortable with individuals and businesses owning the means of production and (sometimes) privatizing the risks and losses that come with production as long as they can socialize the profits that are created by capital. (Some people, of course, support individual ownership of capital and the socialization of risks and losses and the socialization of (most) profits.)

As self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders has explained,

I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down. I do believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America, companies that create jobs here, rather than companies that are shutting down in America and increasing their profits by exploiting low-wage labor abroad.

While Sanders proposes to provide government assistance to “workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives,” he appears to mostly believe the best approach to social ownership is for government to regulate and redistribute economic profits both to workers and to society in a way that he deems to be “fair.”

While allowing businesses to be privately owned, Sanders’s brand of socialism advocates the use of government regulation and mandatory wealth redistribution to achieve economic equity in society. On the regulation side, this would include determining the minimum level of worker’s pay and benefits (i.e., $15 a hour and mandatory family leave) as well as limits on how much profits companies can earn (“Democratic socialism means that we have government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry…”). Additionally, Sanders proposes increasing taxes, both on individual and on corporations, so that the government has more money for the purposes of redistribution (e.g., he proposes a top rate on individual income of 52 percent). But while he wants government to regulate business, he is not calling for the state to seize direct control of the means of production.

So is Sanders-style “democratic socialism” really socialism? Is socialism without collective ownership of the means of production still “socialism”? I’m not sure it is, which is why I think we need a new term, such as “redistributionism” or “neo-socialism”, to refer to this idealized economic system.

Since no one seems to know what socialism means anyway, maybe it’s time to try out a new word for the latest flavor of failed economics preferred by Americans.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).