Is Obama a Socialist?

August 3rd, 2010 at 10:09 am David Frum | 51 Comments |

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Is Obama a socialist?

Jonah Goldberg said yes in Commentary two months ago, and now Stanley Kurtz expands the argument at NRO and in a forthcoming book. Much of the conservative world agrees, and so (I can attest) do many, many of the people who do the hard work of running precinct, county, and state Republican parties.

I don’t agree, obviously, which is why I gave space to the pseudonymous “Eugene Debs” to argue the contrary. Yet I do understand the sense of alarm that motivates some conservative to hurl the epithet. President Obama’s plans to make government bigger, tax the rich more, and redistribute more to the non-rich. If not “socialism,” this is certainly a radical change in direction.

So what’s wrong with shouting out? And if some people use some exaggerated language – if they say “socialist” when they mean “big spender” – so what?

Why be squeamish? Compared to some of the epithets being flung at the president from the right – “fascist,” “Marxist” – mere “socialism” seems almost benign. Leave the definitions to the political scientists, we’ve got a runaway administration to stop. If the word “socialist” jolts Americans into opposing, say, cap-and-trade or a single-payer health system, why not use it?

Here’s why:

Conservatives who fume against the president’s supposed socialism are chasing phantoms: railing against dead ideas while failing to notice the actual gathering dangers to economic liberty and American prosperity.

It’s not the red hand of socialism we have to fear. It’s the dead hand of the status quo. An example:

In 2009, the US health economy reached a symbolic tipping point: for the first time, more than 50% of the dollars spent on health were spent by some agency of federal or state government. Sounds like socialism, right? But this tipping point was not driven by President Obama. It was driven by the growth of Medicare – and last I heard, it was President Obama who was proposing slowdowns in Medicare spending, and it was Sarah Palin and the Tea Party activists who were denouncing reductions in Medicare as tantamount to “death panels.”

Another:

The most centrally planned sector of the American economy is energy. The federal and state governments command utilities to buy certain percentages of their electricity from wind and solar, regardless of price. The federal government commands that ethanol be mixed into gasoline, again regardless of price. Governments subsidize favored “green technologies” with grants and tax credits. Meanwhile a non-green technology, the incandescent light bulb, has been banned outright.

“Socialists” did not make this mess. Every one of these distortions was championed by President George W. Bush and remains the declared policy of congressional Republicans.  Republicans have chosen energy command and control because the market-maximizing alternative is an energy tax – and taxes are ideologically taboo.

When conservatives categorize Barack Obama as a socialist, they often cite as proof his campaign season comment to “Joe the Plumber” about spreading the wealth around.

Is income redistribution “socialism”? If so, the angry retirees who thronged town halls last summer to protest any retrenchment in Medicare represent the most powerful socialist constituency in the country – for what is Medicare but “redistribution”?

And in fact, if you listen to the angry right-leaning independents, you hear a very surprising message about the US economy.

When asked: Has government given the middle class short shrift? 70% of Republican-leaning independents say “yes.” In 1997, when Bill Clinton was president, only 55% of Republican-leaning independents answered that question “yes.”

And you know what? It’s not a crazy answer! At the peak of the Bush economic expansion in 2007, the typical American worker earned less (adjusting for inflation) than the typical American worker earned at the peak of the Clinton expansion.

There is an explanation for this disappointment: the rapid increase in health care costs in the 2000s crowded out wage increases. But it’s not “socialist” to feel the disappointment – or to wish to do something about it.

Likewise, it’s not “socialist” to notice that upward mobility seems to have faltered over the past three decades – or that a child born into poverty in Europe is now more likely to escape than a child born into poverty in the United States.

If conservatives decide that only “socialists” care about such issues, they will be excluding themselves from the most important economic concerns of middle-class America.

In a modern democracy, there are things that voters will demand be done one way or another. They will demand that the state provide an education to all young people for example. They will demand that it provide a safety net for the poor. They will demand that it support the retired. They will demand that it protect the environment. And in every country on earth except the United States, they have demanded that sickness not expose people to economic ruin.

Which means that advocates for private markets had better figure out ways to accomplish these goals that do not invite government to mess with the private economy. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives devised and deployed many such ideas. We need to rediscover that same spirit of creativity anew. If we do, we will not need the epithets. If not – the epithets will not help us or anyone else.

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