There Are No Socialists Any More (Not Even Obama)

We all accept a mixed economy.

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Before we all head into holiday bliss, let’s indulge some more in everyone’s favorite subject: socialism!

Stanley Kurtz and Jonah Goldberg both responded to my post yesterday in which I argued that Barack isn’t, and never was, a socialist, even if he considered himself one at some point.

[ See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Kurtz says I dodged his narrative of Fabian gradualism when I pointed out that mainstream Western politicians, even conservatives, accept a mixed economy. Actually, it wasn’t my dodge--it was Jonah’s original hedge (“most European socialists do believe in a mixed economy and all that”). I just happened to think it was a pretty wide hedge--wide enough to drive a truck through.

Writes Kurtz:

There is a huge difference between an economy in which the government controls 5 percent and an economy where the government runs 95 percent of the show. Both might be technically “mixed,” yet in reality they represent qualitatively different social and cultural worlds.

Sure, I’d grant that. I’d also grant that 95 percent of the universe is dark matter. So what? We live in the visible universe, and in our corner of it, not even self-described socialists want to control anything close to 95 percent of the show.

[ See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the economy.]

Which brings me to Jonah’s response, in which he chides that, under my strict definition of socialism, Lenin wouldn’t even count, given his New Economic Policy concessions to small-scale capitalism.

To that I’d say this: Socialism doesn’t work! Even a thoroughgoing socialist like Lenin could see that. And so, in response to widespread famine, military mutinies, strikes in cities, and strife within his own Vanguard Party, he eased up a bit. Reality bites. I very much doubt the guy’s heart was in it.

The world has changed a great deal since the 1920s, and socialists have changed with it--to the point where, I would argue, there aren’t any real socialists left. Socialism is kind of like a pop music genre. The Rolling Stones called themselves a rhythm-and-blues outfit in the early-’60s; today we mean something vastly different when we speak of “R&B.”

And so it is with socialism.

The lever points of Western democratic politics are taxation and social insurance: how much of the former to finance the latter. Western Europe has chosen a more generous model, but it differs in degree, not in kind, from that of the United States.

[ See 2010: The Year in Cartoons.]

It’s important to recall, too, that increasingly generous levels of social insurance can coexist with increasing levels of economic freedom. Think of the U.S. economy after the enactment of Medicare: Who would dispute that in many respects--in the financial sector, most obviously, but also in telecommunications and transportation--both our economy and society at large aren’t freer?

Let me stress: I’m not arguing for a European social-welfare model here. To the extent that anyone cares what I think, I opposed  Obamacare; I don’t think it will deliver the outcomes that Obama and Democrats claim it will.

But I am in substantial sympathy with the first generation of neoconservatives, whom I would characterize, in their initial phase, as anti-anti-statists. They were at peace, as Irving Kristol said, with the New Deal. They just wanted it to work better.

Such a meliorist-reformist fusion gave us the 1996 welfare reform law, which changed the deeply destructive incentives of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Even Barack Obama has acknowledged that the reform worked better than he thought it would.

Would Jonah and Stanley call Contract with America-era Republicans socialists because they didn’t eliminate the program altogether?

Of course not.

Like I said: We all accept a mixed economy.