What Do You Mean by Socialism?

It seems like you can’t have a political discussion without someone using the word socialism, sometimes affectionately and sometimes disparagingly. At least with words like Hitler and Nazi, you know the intent.

Socialism is a defined as a political/economic system in which the means of production (machinery, tools, and factories used to produce goods for society) are owned and controlled by a democratically-run state but private-property is allowed. In contrast, communism, implies that all property is owned by the state. In capitalism the means of production are owned by private interests rather than by the state, and they are operated to generate profit for the owner. But what do Americans think socialism is?

Gallup conducted polls in 1949 and 2018 asking what respondents understood socialism to be. The results are shown in the following table. In 1949, about three-fifths of Americans thought of socialism as the dictionary definition of government ownership. One-fifth thought it referred more to equality. By 2018, three-tenths thought of socialism in terms of equality and another tenth thought of it in terms of social services. Only two-tenths thought of socialism in terms of government ownership. Three-tenths had some other unique understanding.

When the word socialism comes up in a political discussion today, its meaning is rarely clear. Sometimes, it refers to the dictionary definition, although not as often as one might suppose. Sometimes it just refers to government control. And sometimes, it takes on a more modern definition of democratic socialism or social democracy.

In democratic socialism, government ownership is much more limited than in traditional socialism. Democratic-socialist governments also aim to benefit the populace rather than the state. In social democracies, ownership is mainly private but government regulates the owners. Resources accrued through taxation are used to benefit the populace. Social democracies develop by reforming the harsher aspects of capitalism.

In the U.S., democratic socialism is limited. The government owns the postal Service (USPS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Amtrak, the National Parks, and a variety of other non-government entities. But these entities are operated for the benefits of the populace rather than the state as they would be in a traditional socialist government.

Social democracy, on the other hand, manifests itself as government support for two beneficiaries—people and business. Corporate socialism includes: direct payments to businesses; tax breaks; data and scientific research; management of broadcast, transportation, and national resources; maintenance of roads, waterways, and ports; foreign-trade agreements, tariffs, and regulation of imports; and protection for intellectual properties and foreign operations. People socialism includes: Social Security; Medicare/Medicaid; federal anti-poverty programs; public education; public transportation; local law enforcement and emergency services; public parks and libraries; nonprofit corporations, and many more examples.

In 1949, half of Americans believed that some aspects of the government were socialistic. In 2018, only two-fifths believed that despite there being many more social programs. The public perception of socialism in the U.S. has been greatly influenced by opinions expressed by politicians and partisan organizations.

“Republicans, who are overwhelmingly negative about socialism, tend to skew toward seeing socialism as government control of the economy and in derogatory terms, while Democrats, a majority of whom are positive about socialism, are more likely to view it as government provision of services.” – Frank Newport, Ph.D., Gallup, Inc.

So if you are going to talk about SOCIALISM, whether good or bad, be sure you explain exactly what you mean by the word. You might save yourself from getting some nasty replies.

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