In a brilliant article adapted from his recent book, Kevin D. Williamson, deputy managing editor of the National Review treats modern socialism; the article, Socialism Is Back, is definitely worth the read.
He reviews the traditional notions of socialism as “a system of social organization that advocates the vesting of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution in the community as a whole.” But he argues that “ownership and control” in the modern era should be “ownership or control.” In essence “control” makes “ownership” unnecessary. He uses Fannie and Freddie so called private corporations as current and deadly example; despite the ostensible private ownership, there was no doubt that control was vested in Congress.
Williamson argues for two further criteria in the definition of socialism: “the public provision of non-public goods” and the use of “central planning” to implement that provisioning. Public goods for economists are “non-rivalrous in their consumption and non-excludable in their distribution.” Private goods are the opposite, rivalrous and excludable; my cell phone is mine and I can stop you from using it. By the way cell phones are provided to welfare recipients!
The “central planning” criterion he adds is the one Friedrich Hayek railed against. This is what distinguishes the garden variety welfare state from one that can be called socialist. In effect, “socialism is not redistribution…socialism is central planning.” The plan is everything. Its presence “and the empowerment of the planners is to socialism what the Eucharists is to Christians and what Mosaic Law is to Jews.” If the plan conflicts with its purported goal, say redistribution of wealth to the poor, the plan will prevail. In effect, the plan exists for the sake of the planners.
“Socialism’s main defect is the inability of political decision-makers to make rational decisions without the information provided by prices generated by marketplace transactions. The repression associated with socialist regimes is in most cases a reaction to the failure of The Plan. As Mises’s colleague F. A. Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom, central planners frustrated by their inability to mold the economic world to their will inevitably are tempted to run roughshod over the rights and interests of the individuals they purport to serve. Sometimes this takes the relatively innocuous form of high-handed officials in the Canadian public-health service denying a procedure or timely access to care; sometimes it takes one of the diverse forms explored with such horrific vigor by Kim Jong Il. Hayek’s diagnosis, which is widely misunderstood and exaggerated, is not perfect, but he was correct that there is a path that connects the many stops on the road to serfdom. But we need not travel to exotic lands to experience socialism firsthand. Any American public school will do.”
He argues that the aim of public education is and has always been to standardize students so as to better fit into the plan; conformity is the order of the day. Examples of political speeches to students to this effect abound, urging them to take up the nation’s challenges like health care. No political party has a monopoly on this approach. Obama is merely the current national advocate just as Bush was in his term.
“The public schools constitute one of the most popular instantiations of socialism in American life, though Social Security and government-funded transportation systems no doubt rank nearly as high. But popular with whom? Certainly the educators and administrators who run the system are largely pleased with it, as they should be; the noncompetitive nature of government-run education provides them with salaries and benefits far exceeding what they plausibly could earn in the private sector.”….”Public schools fail for the same reason that all socialist enterprises fail: lack of information. In marketplace transactions, prices communicate critical information about who is producing what, who is consuming what, and what it is that producers and consumers want and need.”
I have not done justice to the quality of Williamson’s work in this brief outline summary and therefore urge a reading of the complete article, his book and indeed a subscription to the National Review. I do think that we need to revive the federal structure this country was founded upon. In other words make the “central planning” dramatically less central! This and an emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, pushing the satisfaction of social needs to the lowest competent level, will more than justify the term American Exceptionalism.