“If there’s anything that terrifies North Dakota Republicans, it’s socialism,” my friend Tony Bender writes in a recent column
His is the latest salvo in a debate in our state, raging in letters to the editor and comments sections and blog posts like this one, over the efficacy of socialism. Though a prerequisite to that debate should probably be another over the definition of what does and does not constitute socialism.
Because I’m not sure how many of the people touting socialism today know what the term means.
As I pointed out in my most recent print column, some modern advocates of socialism say that snow plows and firefighters are socialism. Others argue that North Dakota’s state-owned bank and grain elevator are socialism.
That’s not socialism. Law enforcement is a necessary part of having laws. Are all societies with laws socialist societies? The state bank and state mill, while unique government services in American history, are still just government services. While many conservatives such as myself have never been fans of these institutions – we see them as government overreach, and yes at times we’ve used the “s” word to describe them – to call them socialism is simply inaccurate.
Because private banks, and private mills, have never been illegal in North Dakota.
Yet the promoters of socialism don’t want to hear that. They insist we’re already socialists, and so critics socialism should just shut up already.
Roger Haglund, in a letter to the Fargo Forum today, denounces my criticism of socialism as a misunderstanding of what socialism is. He then goes on to say that democratic socialists want something…that’s very much like what we already have (emphasis mine):
In its pure form, socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production such as the ND State Bank. However, the “democratic socialism” advocated by progressive politicians today is not Marxism as Rob Port implies. It is a reaction to the fact that the laissez-faire economic system promoted by Republicans over the past four decades has resulted in no real worker pay increase in 40 years and a transfer of most wealth and power to the top 1 percent.
Democratic socialists want a return to the mixed economy where the government imposes some regulations on free market capitalism to limit the concentration of power and achieve social balance. The mixed economy in the decades after World War II was responsible for building the middle class in America and progressives want to return to that model. The only solution Republicans offer the struggling middle class and poor is more tax cuts for the rich and obviously that hasn’t worked.
The Democratic Socialists who have made so many headlines of late, who actually quote Marx quite often in their various postings and publications, might be surprised to hear that they aren’t promoting Marxism.
But I digress.
Isn’t a “mixed economy where the government imposes some regulations on free market capitalism” what we already have? You can’t even cut hair in North Dakota without a government license. People who make food at home for sale to the public must comply with a bevy of regulations including labeling requirements. Our major industries – from agriculture to energy, from health care to banking – are all heavily regulated.
While we can have a debate over just how regulated any given thing should be, I’m generally fine with all of this. I want to live in a civilized, generally peaceful society. That means laws, and law enforcement.
That’s not socialism.
Mr. Haglund says he fears a “concentration of power” in the free market.
Why is concentration of power in government any better?
Which brings me back to Bender’s column. Why should only Republicans fear socialism, which is not snow plows or even government milling services, but rather the state wielding powers far beyond what our government has now?
Shouldn’t Democrats be afraid of that too?
After all, to hear them tell it, we’ve currently got an authoritarian in the White House. Democrats, and some Republicans, are currently opposing President Trump’s attempt to bypass Congress on the issue of border security by declaring a national emergency. These critics give us dire warnings about the precedent that sort of expansion of executive would set.
Our socialist friends want to give the state more power, even as they complain about how our government is in the thrall of “dark money” and other nefarious actors who are at odds with the interests of the people.
They’re left telling us about all the new powers they’d like our very corrupt, very out-of-touch government to have.
What’s unlikely to cure the abuses of our dysfunctional government is making it larger.
I very much want to have a debate with our progressive friends, and all Americans, about what the appropriate size and scope of government should be. But a debate over socialism shouldn’t be much of a debate at all.