What Is Socialism?

Image credit: Daria Kochetova

The term socialism has been a popular one this election season, but people are using it in many different ways. Some say most Democrats (including Joe Biden) are socialists. Others disagree and reserve that term for Bernie Sanders. And still others reserve the term for the policies more akin to Cuba and Venezuela. Then there’s the question of whether the Scandinavian countries are socialist, and even Canada gets thrown into the mix. (I have enjoyed reminding conservative friends lately that I grew up in a “socialist” country and that it was a great life!)

The difficulties people have in defining socialism arise, in large part, from not realizing that the they are entangling multiple distinct aspects of government into a single term. They need a framework to categorize the major aspects of government.

To elaborate on what I wrote in that linked post (which you should read first if you haven’t lately), socialism is strictly defined as a system where the “means of production” (i.e., the companies producing the goods and services) are owned socially. Social ownership could mean a few different things, but usually these days we interpret that to mean that the government owns them and runs them.

As an aside, this is where the term “socialized healthcare” comes from–the government owns and runs the health insurance industry, plus or minus the provider organizations as well. I guess if it only owns the health insurance side (e.g., Medicare for All), it can only be considered half-socialized healthcare. And if the government owns the provider organizations as well (like in the U.K.), then it’s fully socialized healthcare.

Anyway, based on that strict definition of socialism, the term only encompasses a single spectrum out of the five–the economic spectrum. It says that the locus of decision making about the use and distribution of resources/goods/services is closer to the centralized end of the spectrum.

But people don’t commonly use that strict definition, and that’s where things get messy.

When I studied socialism in social studies class in my Canadian public high school, the term was used a little bit more broadly to include government ownership of the means of production AND a great degree of wealth redistribution to ensure a relatively high minimum standard of living for all citizens. In other words, the term encompassed two spectra–the economic spectrum and the welfare spectrum.

Using that definition, we appropriately didn’t see Canada as a truly socialistic country: The Canadian and provincial governments only own a few industries’ means of production, and they provide generous but not expansive (socialism-level) welfare programs. That’s why we studied other countries’ governments to learn about socialism.

And now, with this talk of Cuba and Venezuela, people seem to be adding in a third spectrum to their definition: the liberty spectrum. This definition of socialism, then, includes government ownership of the means of production, extensive welfare programs, AND severely limited liberties (i.e., totalitarianism).

There’s no sense in arguing over which definition is correct. People are allowed to use whatever definition they want (thanks, First Amendment!), so debates over definitions of terms get us nowhere. Instead, people need to clarify the definitions of ambiguous terms they are using so the focus can remain on the substance of the conversation rather than the words being used to convey that substance.

So, is President-Elect Joe Biden a socialist?

Well, if your definition of a socialist is someone who will push our government toward more centralized economic decision making (via a mixture of policies that (1) regulate the free market and (2) increase government ownership over some aspects of the economy) and toward more wealth redistribution, then, YES, he is a socialist.

But if your definition of a socialist is someone who will enact extensive central planning, near-total wealth redistribution, and maybe some totalitarianism as well, then he’s nowhere near a socialist. Or, if you think his true policy preferences fit that description and that his policies are calculated to get us to that point, I guess you could say he’s a closet socialist, or maybe a progressive socialist.

Either way, define your terminology and then let’s move on to substantive discussions about the merits and limitations of his policies and alternatives to them.

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