Friday, April 22, 2016

No, socialism almost certainly isn't what that anecdote on Facebook wants to scare you to think it is

Recently, a friend of mine posted a story about an economics professor failed his class, because the students gave a misguided understanding of a socialist nation that Obama would bring, and because - as you follow the story - of the professor's own complete lack of understanding of what socialism is (beyond an equivalency between socialism in general and a hyperbolic representation of Stalinism and Maoism). When someone pointed out to him that - as a person so serves in the US military - wasn't he a member of a socialist organization, my friend denied it, pointing out how he is graded and promoted based on his merits, and that isn't how socialism works.

But my friend is wrong; his idea of socialism (and that of the anecdotal - and most likely fictional - professor) is not how socialism works. The US military is a socialist organization, because socialism is a political (and economic) system that says that the society owns and regulates production, distribution, and exchange. And, in the case of the military, this is exactly what the US government does. Specifically, the US military:

1. regulated by the government (socialist!)
2. is operated (ostensibly) for the benefit of the society (socialist!)
3. is paid by taxes drawn from society (socialist!)
4. is not permitted to make decisions based on profit motivation (socialist!)

One could also point out that the Commander in Chief is not a part of the military, but a civilian (who could be a veteran) that is voted by popular vote (well, kind of) of all citizens (and - since there are no slaves and very few nationals that aren't citizens - this is also socialist control, albeit a step removed).

In contrast, a private military of mercenaries might be regulated by government (but historically they haven't had such strong regulations, and often the companies that paid for them insisted upon the right to use their militaries as they saw fit, even in the name of the nation the company represented), is often operated for the benefit of those who pay for it (which is not a society at large), the monies may be drawn from private coffers (or - historically - was given as a cut of booty), and they are allowed to make decisions based on profit motive (although this could be curtailed to an extent by contracts of guaranteed monopolies, such as were given to the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company).

If one understands that "socialism" means many more things than "Marxism" (let alone "Stalinism" and "Maoism"), one can actually start to understand that Lincoln's "government of the people, for the people, by the people" is actually socialism. You will note that the VA - and all the veteran care programs that preceded it - were socialism. You will note that public roads, bridges, and highways are socialism. Police and fire services are socialism. Sewage treatment and drinking water provision are socialism. Even tax breaks based on having a mortgage is socialism.

It is, therefore, possible to have a highly socialist system that isn't based around the presuppositions of what socialism is that the story above describes. Never mind that such anecdotes completely fail to understand what socialism - let alone Marxist socialism - actually is, how modern democratic socialism actually operates (and how communist socialism along the lines of Stalinism and Maoism preferred political propaganda and party-line politics to the ideals of even Marxist socialism), and how much of the modern United States is built heavily upon socialism. (Indeed, the only thing that such stories tend to highlight is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.)

IOW, meritocracy and socialism need not be at odds, despite all the anecdotes and stories like the one above paint socialism as being.

Conversely, one can look at militaries that were not socialist organizations, and if one looks at many militaries across time, one will note that militaries rarely operated on meritocracy, were rarely operated for the benefit of a nation of citizens, and often were associated with private interests that purchased the use of that military to further its own (non civic) ends. Thus were the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company operated, not to mention all the funding of mercenary armies that Venice did from medieval times through to the 18th Century.

Furthermore, simply being a republic or a democratic republic does not mean that meritocracy is the general condition. Look at the history of pretty much every European power prior to 1917: they were (for the most part) democratic (or moving in that direction), but still *heavily* class-based and not-at-all meritocratic. As was much of the United States at the same time (although less so than in Europe, and less so in the military).

In sum, if one thinks that socialism is and can only be *Marxist* socialism, then this would be like saying that "the right to bear arms" is and can only be referring to Revolutionary War-era weaponry. It is, in other words, a comparison that is only seen to be not-at-all ridiculous by people who ony have enough knowledge about the subject to make them sound silly when they make such claims.

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