The Colors of Socialism

By Pitney, John | Reason, June 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Colors of Socialism


Pitney, John, Reason


Big government, in green, gray, baby blue, and khaki

No more May Day worker rallies. No more sing-alongs of "The Internationale." No more pin-up pictures of John Reed and Emma Goldman. Old-fashioned red socialism has faded into memory, except in such distant outposts as North Korea and Santa Cruz, California.

Yet socialist ideals survive in new guises. In the 1990s, the rhetoric of class struggle has given way to the language of sustainable growth and economic justice. Leftists still speak of anger and vengeance, but nowadays they are just as likely to talk about compassion and sensitivity. Joe Hill, meet Barney the Dinosaur.

Socialists and socialist wannabes haven't really changed their goals - they've just changed their colors. When you look to the left, you won't see red. Instead, you'll see a spectrum of greens, grays, baby blues, and khakis. At first glance, these shades of ideology all seem different. But beneath the surface, they all pay devotion to the same master: a more powerful government. What follows is a brief spectroscopic analysis of our varied modern socialisms.

Green Socialism. Everybody likes clean air and lush landscapes. If you want to sell statism, you might want to wrap it in green. In 1996, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader gained 651,771 votes (outpolling the Libertarian Party's Harry Browne), and a handful of Greens won local offices. The party's national program (www.greens.org/usa) puts its philosophy forthrightly: "Concepts of ownership are provisional and temporary, to be employed in the context of stewardship and of social and ecological responsibility." While claiming to disown Soviet economics, the Greens also spurn competitive capitalism "because it creates a dynamic of endless growth that is incompatible with ecological sustainability and that fosters greed and domination in society."

The Greens support public ownership of major industries, a guaranteed minimum income, a mandatory maximum wage, and free health care "under democratic public ownership and control." They occasionally praise decentralization, but all their talk of public control suggests that their model is not the United States under the Articles of Confederation, but Yugoslavia under Tito.

The Green Party program might be too bold for mass consumption, but paler versions are flourishing. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Vice President Al Gore says that capitalism's blindness to ecology is "the single most powerful force behind what seem to be irrational decisions about the global environment." Gore proposes a worldwide accounting system "that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies, and larger, macroeconomic choices by nations." He foresees treaties embodying "the regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement mechanisms, sharing arrangements, incentives, penalties, and mutual obligations necessary to make the overall plan a success."

Throughout the book, Gore keeps repeating that he believes in free markets. Right. And Strom Thurmond believes in term limits.

Gray Socialism. The American tradition of individualism holds that able-bodied workers should take care of themselves. Decades ago, supporters of the welfare state realized that they could bypass this resistance by focusing benefits on the elderly, a group with whom everybody sympathizes. Programs for old people, in turn, would create constituencies for more of the same, by creating both a bureaucracy eager to perpetuate itself and citizen pressure groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons raring for more. Social Security thus begat Medicare and SSI.

Large-scale programs for the aged, however, end up affecting everybody. Social Security numbers, which began as a tool for tracking wages, now enable various government agencies to keep an eye on all of us, all the time.

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