Last month in a speech to a Wisconsin audience, Vice President Mike Pence said that Joe Biden had aligned himself with “socialist Bernie Sanders” and the left wing of the Democratic Party. The term “socialist” is often used as a negative in political debates, but what does “socialist” or “socialism” mean?
A dictionary definition of socialism is: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods; a system of society or group living in which there is no private property; a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)
According to the dictionary definition above, socialism in practice replaces private enterprise with government ownership of business, but Sanders, a self-declared “democratic socialist,” supports capitalism and promotes social services, especially better health care for all and a strong education program. Sanders’ view is that people should be willing to pay for these social programs through their taxes, and all residents should pay their fair share. To do so, the current tax system should be revised.
As Sanders has used the term “socialist,” the emphasis is on “social,” which is defined in the dictionary as “relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society.” The concept of “social” is people interacting with and supporting other people. We “socialize” with people in the work place, in restaurants and bars, and in our homes. We attend a variety of social events in a variety of venues. We may characterize an outgoing person as social. We communicate with others on social media. These are all positive activities.
The world’s dominant religions focus on positive interactions of humans — people caring for each other. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all urge love toward one another. In Christianity, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments — love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
Love and care of neighbor is also found in the Preamble to the United States Constitution: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The very essence of the Preamble presumes a collective — social — responsibility for the welfare of people in our country now and for future generations.
The United States has many programs that benefit residents. Social Security is a socialist concept that was signed into law in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide retirement benefits for workers, and it was later expanded to provide income for people with disabilities.
Medicare, begun in 1966, provides health insurance to approximately 60 million Americans, most of whom are over age 65. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, campaigning for the presidency this year, proposed an expansion of Medicare to all Americans.
Among the services that our federal government provides are our national defense, postal services, food support for the needy through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — often called the “Food Stamp Program”), unemployment compensation, and during the current pandemic the government spent more than two trillion dollars to bolster business as well as individuals who lost their jobs and families that needed financial support.
Other social services supported by local government include police, fire departments, public schools, roads and highways, hunting and driver licenses, trash collection, and more.
The balance required to support both private enterprise and social welfare is difficult to achieve. It is our observation that many elected leaders in state and federal government are more concerned about support of the economy and private enterprise than support of such human concerns as universal health care, addressing the needs families and individuals, and reversing the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country.
In addition, this country balances love and care for our neighbor with individual rights and freedom. Helping others in society is a choice that takes us outside ourselves; otherwise we are selfish — individual rights taken to the extreme.
This country strives to balance capitalism — private enterprise — with social/human interests and needs. Throughout the history of the United States we have seen this struggle occurring, and we see it now. We must have a strong economy in order for people to earn a living wage, for private enterprise to flourish, and for our tax system to provide needed social services.
The terms “socialist” and “socialism” are not negative terms applied in government when social needs and concerns are balanced with capitalism and free enterprise. We need to elect people who are aware of that balance.