Stop me if you’ve seen this one.
Person A posts something vaguely “lefty” on social media. Person B suggests that if Person A likes it so much well then why don’t they just move to Venezuela. Now, obviously, that’s meant as a slur. Venezuela is a dump right now. You wouldn’t want to move to Venezuela. And because they have a socialist government, the implication is somehow that anything vaguely lefty is “socialism”.
This lovely, disingenuous argument is an internet staple — rebut a statement via some ridiculous tangent. Bonus points the further away that tangent is from the issue at hand. It’s like stupid tu quoque.
Statement: “Steinhoff cost poor South Africans a lot of money.”
Stupid rebuttal: “But the ANC is corrupt!” (We’ve equated thieving with unrelated thieving now.)
An even more stupid rebuttal: “Well enjoy voting for corrupt thieves!” (We’ve gone the extra mile now and said you’re also an active voter for said thieving.)
See? Easy. The further you can go from the original point but feel like you’re winning, the better. And very few tangents are as rich and fertile as yelling “socialist” at something.
See, socialism has actual meaning — who owns the good old “means of production”; raw materials, factories, and machines used to make goods. Socialists think factories, banks, and farms should belong to the government. Roy Cardato, a senior economist, says that “historically, the foundation of every socialist economy has been the nationalization of key industries. This was, of course, the case for dictatorial regimes in Cuba, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, etc.”
The fact is in order to be a socialist one must be concerned with who owns the means, and if it’s not the state, how it can be made to be the state.
Capitalists like owning things. And they want to be allowed to run those things for a profit. It’s a very simple idea. They like property rights, and being able to start a business, and generally, this is most of the developed world. It has proved an overwhelmingly positive force, globally. All of the important human development metrics say so. We live longer. We’re less likely to die as children, or in childbirth. We’re taller. We’re more educated. We have more skills. More people can be fed, and housed, and clothed, with less effort.
Global poverty levels have gone from more than 90% in 1820 to less than 10% today, even though the population increased seven times during that period. Even Marx said capitalism “has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”
Here is where it gets tricky. Believe it or not, some capitalists don’t mind a social policy or two. I get it — both social policy and socialism have the word “social” in them. It can be confusing, but I have faith that if you think long and hard you will realise they’re not the same thing.
For example, thinking child labour is bad, doesn’t mean you also think the state should nationalise mines. Wanting paid paternity leave doesn’t mean you also think no one should own their own home. See the ridiculous little tangents I mentioned earlier? And this brings me neatly to a third group in our little discussion — they most likely to yell “socialist!” thinking this wins them an argument. They’re also capitalists, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to call them what they really are. Dicks.
Here’s why it matters: socialism is a political system that has caused huge harm and misery to humanity. It’s a loaded word. It rightfully evokes images of starvation and abuse and murder. A social policy intends to try and help someone. The Dicks know this, and they also know that pretending they are the same thing is a great way to silence and stifle debate. They have weaponised the lie to the point where it’s now a widely-used political ploy — intellectually bankrupt and deliberately argued in bad faith.
But don’t just take my word for it. Let Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and libertarian, tell you: “The trick — and “trick” is the right word — involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings (of socialism), and hoping that people don’t notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine!”
The thing is, there are real socialists around. They wear red overalls. Gucci suits. Dash of €500 Eau de Hypocrisé behind the ears. Their plans are real, socialist plans. Take ownership of everything. Hand control over to themselves. Their dreams are wrecked economy dreams. We know their plan and how it turns out. Capitalists who think the state providing a meal to kids who would otherwise go to school hungry are not the same thing.
Recently a New York Times debate forum asked a global audience about this modern-day misrepresentation. This was a young Norwegian woman’s answer: “I cannot help but laugh sometimes. It seems like the word “socialism” has become a swear word. In Norway, we just re-elected a “socialist” government. That does not mean that we live in a communist state. We have fully-fledged capitalism over here, and we are just about the richest country in the world, per capita.”
Norway and other Nordic countries have historically always been heavy on social policy. They also “outscore the United States and most everywhere else in the security of property rights, ease of starting a business and openness to trade”, according to the Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. The foundation says since its inception in 1995, the index evaluates government policies and economic conditions in an annual cross-country analysis and has tracked the progress of economic freedom around the globe and measured the real impact of advancing economic liberty. All of a capitalist’s favourite things, then.
Remember social policy does not a socialist state make. Social policy can, however, make for good capitalism. It seems people are more willing to take entrepreneurial risks when there is some security guarantee behind them. Doesn’t that seem completely logical?
The Harvard Business Review said this about a bunch of new research: “Expanding benefit programs helps spur new business creation … when governments provide citizens with economic security, they embolden them to take more risks … a robust social safety net encourages more people to attempt the high-wire act of entrepreneurship.”
Until recently in France, for example, a person drawing unemployment insurance would terminate their benefits if they started a business. Now, risk-wise it’s much safer to not start a venture and guarantee yourself enough money for food. Realising this, the French government revisited the rule so that a person could keep drawing benefits for a limited time while they tried to get their business off the ground. The result? A 25% increase in new firm creation.
Now, more entrepreneurs, taking more risks, leading to more small businesses employing more people to make more money, sounds like a pretty good capitalist idea to me. And yet many of the policies and systems that help create an environment that is so good for capitalism are things the Dicks would call socialist, and rail against, even when they’re clearly not. It is high time we stopped tolerating it. The next time you see a loaded “what are you, some kind of socialist?” comment thrown around to stifle debate, remind yourself of what that person really is. A Dick.