What, exactly, is socialism?

I am in a debate with a person that seems to be making the argument that any interference by a government into a market economy is socialism by definition. I think they have really taken the whole market driven economy vs. planned economy to heart. I am just wondering how common this view is and thought I would open up the discussion with the smart people here for their take.

So, is all regulation socialism?

  • Sin taxes? Is a government or society trying to discourage behavior through taxation socialism?
  • Pigovian Taxes and Subsidies? Are vaccine subsidies socialist? Carbon taxes? Is any government tax or subsidy aimed at either correcting negative externalities or boosting positive externalities socialist in nature?
  • Protection of resources? Is limiting resource extraction, say by mandating sustainable fishing practices, socialism?
  • Regulating Pollution? Is the clean air act socialist?
  • Banking regulations and direct market regulation? Was the attempt to regulate CDOs after the great recession or the Sherman Antitrust act socialist?
  • Laws eradicating slavery? Socialist?
  • Licensing requirements? Is requiring a surgeon be board certified socialist? What about food safety standards?

I mean I guess I can see how somebody could make this argument, but is this a common take? It seems to me that this definition of socialism is so broad that it is almost meaningless. Everything is socialism and everybody is a socialist!

Is this why my uncle thinks all the democrats are socialists?

What about our socialist brethren to the north (Sam, are you still here), do you believe that every government action is socialist?

My observation is that, among U.S. conservatives, it usually comes down to “government intervention that I don’t like, and/or benefits people other than me is ‘socialist.’”

My father (who’s 89, and a liberal) was having a similar conversation with one of his (also retired) friends the other day. Said friend was complaining about “Democrats are all socialists, and socialism is bad!” My father replied, “So, then, you don’t want your Social Security check? You don’t want your Medicare? You don’t want clean air and clean water?” The friend stammered about “oh, oh, that’s not what I mean…”

My use of “socialism” is anchored in the theories of Karl Marx and those of his followers.

It’s about redistribution post facto of the consequences of the market system (which I tend to think of as sticking inadequate Band-Aids on a huge problem). It also tends to insist that only material inequality counts as relevant inequality, which I strongly disagree with. Unequal authority is a much bigger issue for me.

I think of socialism in terms of things that are owned by / run by the government either in a not for profit way or, if for profit, that the profits are used to benefit the people as a whole rather than a small group. For the US, the military is probably the best example of a socialist institution.

ETA: Since the OP focuses on regulation, I think of regulation as being on an orthogonal axis to socialism / capitalism. IMHO the level of regulation has more to do with a weak (libertarian) vs. strong (whatever the opposite of libertarianism is) government rather than socialism or capitalism.

The ordinary definition of socialism is collective ownership of the means of production. There can be socialist systems where the collective owner is not the government, for instance, a worker cooperative operating in an otherwise capitalist economy. When applied to government, it tends to mean that the government runs the industry in question. Elementary and secondary education is socialized in most of the world, as is the maintenance of most transportation infrastructure. Health care is fully socialized in the UK, while other countries have systems that have some components of government assistance for those that are unable to afford market rates, which is technically not socialism, but gets lumped in with it.

Where it gets tricky is when people have different ideas of the meaning of “collective ownership.” Take for example the Venezuelan national oil company, where those reaping the profits aren’t the ordinary citizens. They are labeled as socialist even though de facto they look more like a corrupt kleptocracy.

Where it also gets tricky is the management of collective decision-making amongst us collective owners of the means of production. If 500 million of us own the United States wheatfields and oyster beds and cattle herds and the ranges upon which they graze, that’s cool and groovy, but when it comes time to make decisions that affect those resources, exactly how do the 500 million of us engage in decision-making?

An ideology that says “if you’ve got the same portion of the material resources as anyone else, you are equal, period, end of story” doesn’t have any grounds for complaining if the decisions are made by a tiny enclave that declares itself to be The Party of The People.

There are now so many definitions and uses of various ‘isms’ (Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Fascism) that the words have lost a lot of their original meaning. This makes sense since the original definitions came about during the agrarian era / early part of the industrial revolution, when the world was very different. You are never going to get agreement on what they all mean in a modern context.

That said, I will foolishly give some definitions:

Capitalism: A system in which the means of production are held by private owners, and the organization of society is primarily due to monetary signalling in a free market. Regulations in capitalism are minimal, and basically ensure civil and property rights and the proper functioning of markets. You could argue that modern capitalism will include a minimal safety net as well.

Social Democracy: A capitalist society with a large government consuming up to 50% of the income resulting from market activities. Regulations extend beyond the functioning of markets to include aocial justice, redistribution to an extent, and other issues citizens vote for. But capitalism and markets are still the primary organizing force of human activity.

Socialism: A mixed system comprising markets but also government intervention in otherwise well functioning markets for its own purposes. Nationalization of industry may occur, industrial planning by government may supercede markets, labor unions generally play a large role in the economy, and private property rights are limited.

Communism: The means of production are owned and controlled by the state. Markets are replaced by state planners. Human rights are curtailed when they conflict with government action. The gap between rich and poor is structurally minimized through state fiat, so the powerful and important are rewarded in non-monetary ways.

Fascism: The means of production are retained by private interests, but thoroughly controlled by the government to bend them to the government’s ends. Markets and pricing still exist, but only when they do not conflict woth state diktats. Fascism is also usually associated with nationalism, but not always racism. Fascist regimes can have all kinds of social programs much like Socialism, but they will be geared towards making the state stronger, as the improvement of the state is the goal of Fascism and everything os subservient to that.

There are all kinds of modern variants on all of these. ‘State Capacity Capitalism’, ‘International Socialism’, whatever the hell the WEF is trying to do (international Fascism? Transhumanist socialism?), etc.

None of these terms are exact, and have limited usefulness in describing today’s world. Their primary function today appears to be allowing partisans to use them to call each other names.

One of the best examples I’ve heard came from a rather liberal leaning local politician who was elected (by some fluke) to represent her very conservative district.

She said, “a fire truck is socialist. Think about it. None of us can afford to buy a fire truck to protect our own home, so we all pay a little bit and share it as the need arises.”

I’d quibble with some of the specifics in your definitions, but I agree with this. IMHO a big part of the problem with the name calling is that those who do so aren’t really interested in a debate about the merits of one -ism vs. another. They just want their side (mainly the wealthy and powerful people on their side) to maintain their hold power. They thus point out the worst examples of whatever they oppose and the best examples of whatever they support, while ignoring the complexities of their actual reality.

They are also describing a society that has never existed and can never exist. The Soviet Union had plenty of ‘rich’ people. They just got ‘paid’ through perks, use of state homes and limousines, access to goods no one else could get, etc.

A manager of a large factory in America might buy a home in Tahoe and a nice luxury car. In the Soviet Union, that manager would earn almost the same as his lowliest employee, but would have access to the Dacha on the Black Sea held for the manager of that factory, a car with a driver, access to the GUM department store where goods for rich people could be had at state prices - but only the select fe could even get in the doors, etc. Perks instead of cash, amounting to the same thing.

The only other way to get people to work for the goals of others is the Stalin way - send government agents to factories and farms to haul out the weakest performers and shoot them. That method has ‘limitations’. So, they began to look to reward rather than punishment to motivate people.

As the saying goes, in a Capitalist country the rich become powerful. In a Communist country, the powerful become rich.

Only a dirty Communist would say that.

Kidding. I agree 100%.

Note to self: “Do not engage. That way lies madness. No one cares that you literally study this for a living. Check out a thread on food.”

Defining socialism as ‘sharing’ is defining the term into meaninglessness. But it’s the kind of ‘just so’ definition that peoole inclined to like socialism really want to use. “Don’t like socialism? I guess you want people’s houses to burn down!”

Every public corporation exists because many, many people invested in it. But no one would claim that public corporations are an example of socialism because they represent something large that no one person can afford, so people come together to fund it collectively.

All economies have mechanisms for allowing peoole to pool resources, share outcomes, etc. It’s a necessary part of being a social species. It’s also one reason why these terms are so slippery: Often the difference is a matter of degree and not kind.

Going from capitalism to socialism or fascism involves fuzzy boundaries. Add a law or tax to a capitalist country, and it’s still capitalist. But if you keep adding them, at some point you will no longer have capitalism. But the exact transition from one to the other may not be defined by any single law pr tax you added along the way.

As an analogy, if you take a bite out of an apple, it’s still an apple. But if you keep taking bites, at some point it’s an apple core, not an apple. But there was no one bite that caused the transition. It was fuzzy.

The same is true for fascism and socialism. Communism, on the other hand, probably requires a revolution. And a lot of dead people.

With a nice bottle of wine for thanksgiving. :wink:

With the caveat that, left to its own devices, capitalism results in the complete failure of the functioning of markets. “Just enough regulations to ensure proper functioning of markets” ends up being a lot more regulations than the people who complain about “socialism” want.

Proponents of “the markets” also tend to ignore that the government is also a player in the markets. If UPS and FedEx can’t compete with the USPS on a level playing field, because the USPS is so much more efficient, is that capitalism?

What you are describing is a mixed economy.

The rest of your comments are political opinion, and I’m trying to stick to definitions. Suffice it to say that I would almost certainly disagree about how much regulation is required to prevent capitalism from ‘collapsing’, but that’s a discussion we have had many times.

Obligatory clip of Richard Wolff explaining what people who don’t understand socialism think socialism is;

Excellent clip. IMHO what he’s getting at is that some of the people who are against socialism tend to see “the government” and “the people” as two different entities with different interests, goals, ideas about how society should be structured, etc.

The government should most certainly be “us, in the plural”, and any and all complaints about “the government” in the abstract (as opposed to in the particular instance) need to be reminded of that often, and loudly.

Be that as it may, we do indeed seem to be stuck with a sort of governing class, and they don’t consult us about much. The government I worry the most about is my own. I haven’t seen sufficient progress in my lifetime towards a more egalitarian way of participating in the decision-making.