Even if Stanley Kurtz is right, Barack Obama is not, and was never, a socialist.
By which I mean, Barack Obama wasn’t a socialist even if, as a young man, he thought he was.
At Slate, Dave Weigel reviews Kurtz’s Radical in Chief, which makes a case that Obama’s intellectual roots are determinedly socialist, and concludes this of the president:
He's a liberal, but he knows who he needs to impress and what they care about. He figured out early on what soothed Hyde Park socialists, and later he figured out how to win over Springfield and Washington Republicans. He's not an unblinking, unrepentant socialist. He's a liberal political hack. He's just been good at knowing how much everyone else likes to obsess over labels.
Jonah Goldberg responds in good faith, asking, “What’s the difference?”: “Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a ‘socialist’? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?”
Contrary to the newfangled No Labels crowd, I think labels are important, and worth debating, even if such debates tend to be of academic interest to most people with better things to do, such as jobs. So here goes:
Are Obama and Pelosi and co. no different from Continental social democrats--and are social democrats “socialists”?
In his Commentary essay on this question, Jonah offers the “vague guideline” that socialism is an “assertive statism applied in the larger cause of ‘equality,’ usually through redistributive economic policies that involve a bias toward taking an intrusive and domineering role in the workings of the private sector.”
My bar for socialism is higher; under such a system, there can be no “private sector.” No private property. No profits. Both the means of production and its fruits, such as they are, belong to the state. Progressive taxation and a welfare state do not a socialist state make.
By this standard, social democrats aren’t socialist. The young Barack Obama certainly was not. But Jonah cautions that “most European socialists do believe in a mixed economy and all that.” [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Yet even by this relaxed standard, there’s a problem: Everyone, including conservatives, believes in a mixed economy!
And if they say they don’t, they’re delusional.
Take the debate over Democrats and their penchant for “industrial policy”: the idea that government experts should “pick winners” by promoting or propping up industries it happens to favor.
It all sounds vaguely socialistic--except when you realize that America does it, too, and has done it since the ... let’s see here ... since the late-18th century!
Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration trade official, writes in his latest book that George Washington, under the influence of Alexander Hamilton, promised the Delaware Society for Promoting Domestic Manufactures “to demonstrate the sincerity of my opinion by the uniformity of my practice, in giving preference to the produce and fabrics of America.”
If mere mercantilism does not constitute “industrial policy,” what about the federal investment in the Cumberland Road in 1806? The Erie Canal in 1825? Land grants (according to Prestowitz) totaling 21 million acres in the promotion of the Transcontinental Railroad? The granting of another 5.8 million acres of federal land in 1862 for new colleges? The formation after World War I of the Radio Corporation of America (better known as RCA), in which the U.S. Navy was a 20 percent shareholder?
Are these not examples of industrial policy?
If you take away the goal of egalitarianism, socialism, in Jonah’s broad sense, becomes inoffensive to just about everyone not named Ron Paul or Robert Nozick.
In conclusion, I’ll say this: If Obama is a socialist, then so am I. And so are you.