Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Socialism, meaning, and health care

Posted by metaphorical on 2 January 2007

I’ve seen the word “socialism” thrown around quite a bit lately, especially in the context of universal health care systems. I called it a meaningless word the other day, in just that context. I still think that, but it makes me wonder why people throw the word around and what they’re really objecting to.

Let’s start with a couple of oblique datapoints. First, an article from SFgate, “Toddler Found Playing Along Busy Highway”:

The boy, Damon Dyer, was unscathed as at least a half-dozen cars and a tractor-trailer rig swerved into other lanes to avoid him. Temperatures were in the mid 50s as the boy ran around barefooted.

Police said they traced the toddler to an apartment at a nearby complex, where they found his mother, Nancy Dyer asleep in a filthy apartment and his 2-year-old sister eating spaghetti off the floor.

Dyer, 33, was arrested on two counts of child neglect and remained in custody Sunday, officials said.

So the state takes the child away, but it’s not socialism.

Second, a NY Times editorial commemorating the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Nothing in “The Jungle” sticks with the reader quite like what went into the sausages. There was the rotting ham that could no longer be sold as ham. There were the rat droppings, rat poison and whole poisoned rats. Most chilling, there were the unnamed things “in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”

Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” as a labor exposé. He hoped that the book, which was billed as “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of wage slavery,” would lead to improvements for the people to whom he dedicated it, “the workingmen of America.” But readers of “The Jungle” were less appalled by Sinclair’s accounts of horrific working conditions than by what they learned about their food. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he famously declared, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

So the state can require health inspections; the meatpacking companies will grumble, but it’s not socialism.

In each case, demurrals are somehow made. On a mailing list I’m on, one fellow says of the 3-year-old that protection of individual rights is one of the few legitimate purposes of government, especially those of someone too young to protect their rights themselves. As for food inspections, well, a similar justification can probably be made, though most of the injured are adults who can choose to not eat meat. But then why does the same fellow balk at any possible universal health care, no matter how its structured, even if it includes HMOs and choosing doctors?

I think, for many people at least, it really means, I want the state to do some things, and not others, and the ones I want aren’t socialism and the ones that are, are. As I pointed out last time, Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” called it:

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.

Some people use the term socialism to mean, essentially, “unbridled government power to tax, jail, and generally compel behavior.” Certainly, that’s a bad thing. Unbridled power, in the hands of anyone one group or sector of our society, is a very bad thing.

When one company has unbridled power in the marketplace, whether it’s Standard Oil or the Steel Trust or IBM or AT&T or Microsoft, it’s a bad thing. We believe competition is good, and necessary.

When one branch of government has unbridled power, we call it an autocracy, or a dictatorship, or Fascism, and it’s a bad thing. We speak of the separation of powers and believe it’s good and necessary. I don’t know why we don’t call it competitive government, we don’t, but the idea seems exactly the same.

We don’t often think of business and government competing with one another, but there’s no reason not to. Each exercises quite a bit of control over our everyday lives, and we don’t want either to have too much. So we have health inspectors in meatpacking plants, and we open up what was once a national monopoly for package delivery to private firms like UPS.

There are lots of important forces in our lives, and no one of them should gain too much power. Religion obviously exercises quite a bit—it has its hand in dictating mores, in education, and so on. So we require it to be separate from government, and we require it to be separate from business (churches must be non-profit institutions). The press is also very important. We’ve chosen to limit what it can say (libel laws, obscenity laws, and so on); in my opinion, we’d do better to let the press say whatever it wanted but require its corporations to be non-profit.

People want the state to take a child away from a blatantly negligent parent, but they don’t want the state to raise every child. That makes sense. Neither parents nor the state should have unbridled power.

People want the state to call meatpackers to task when the make sausage out of ground-up poisoned rats, but they don’t want the state to make the sausage. That makes sense too.

It’s important, then, that the health care system, whatever it become, retain diversity. A system of national hospitals and clinics, where doctors are all government employees and other government employees decide who gets what surgery when, would lose the diversity we currently enjoy. So let’s not do that. Extending the Medicare system, as the earlier post discussed, preserves that diversity. Now if we can just get people to see it for what it is, we can discuss its merits and demerits— surely it has plenty of both. But if people insist on calling it socialism, we’re not going to get any further than the hapless mother of the child of the New Yorker cartoon who said, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”


4 Responses to “Socialism, meaning, and health care”

  1. Well, here’s what it is according to the Socialist Party USA:

    Socialism is not mere government ownership, a welfare state, or a repressive bureaucracy. Socialism is a new social and economic order in which workers and consumers control production and community residents control their neighborhoods, homes, and schools. The production of society is used for the benefit of all humanity, not for the private profit of a few. Socialism produces a constantly renewed future by not plundering the resources of the earth.
    Under capitalist and “Communist” states, people have little control over fundamental areas of their lives. The capitalist system forces workers to sell their abilities and skills to the few who own the workplaces, profit from these workers’ labor, and use the government to maintain their privileged position. Under “Communist” states, decisions are made by Communist Party officials, the bureaucracy and the military. The inevitable product of each system is a class society with gross inequality of privileges, a draining of the productive wealth and goods of the society into military purposes, environmental pollution, and war in which workers are compelled to fight other workers.
    People across the world need to cast off the systems which oppress them, and build a new world fit for all humanity. Democratic revolutions are needed to dissolve the power now exercised by the few who control great wealth and the government. By revolution we mean a radical and fundamental change in the structure and quality of economic, political, and personal relations. The building of socialism requires widespread understanding and participation, and will not be achieved by an elite working “on behalf of” the people. The working class is in a key and central position to fight back against the ruling capitalist class and its power. The working class is the major force worldwide that can lead the way to a socialist future – to a real radical democracy from below.

    Funny, I’ve never felt oppressed, but then I’m a white man. A middle class white man. Hear me roar!

  2. Well, sadly, I’m not sure I’m on board with most of this, though I share your general goals. I just don’t think you’re characterizing the dynamics of these systems rightly.

    I wouldn’t call the relations between the branches of government “competition”, in the sense in which we use that word to mean independent striving to win approval or custom by offering to meet the public’s needs. They are in conflict or tension, but they certainly aren’t in competition the way business in the same market are in competition. And that underscores a point I think you implicitly gloss over: there are various ways of limiting the excesses of certain systems, and they operate by different means. The myth of capitalism has it that businesses will not cheat or abuse their customers, and will instead seek to fulfill their needs as effectively as possible, because the competitive forces of the market and the customers’ power to take their business elsewhere inherently impose a beneficent dynamic on business. (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”) A moment’s thought, and many lifetimes of unfortunate experience, tell us that this is nonsense. Government regulation protects us from businesses that cannot be relied upon to protect us from themselves; it does so by prohibiting and punishing some aspects of otherwise natural competitive dynamics. Government is not “in competition with” businesses in the same way those businesses are in competition with each other; government rides herd on them because of their naturally anti-social inclinations.

    Similarly, I don’t think it’s quite right to characterize child-protection, church/state, or even social-service monopolies as fundamentally serving a principle of balancing the distribution of power. Perhaps they do this, but, I think, in most cases incidentally. (There *are* aspects of government that aim specifically at distributing and balancing concentrations of power – for instance the Constitution’s 9th and 10th Amendments, and its general federal/state division of powers – but that seems to be different from what you are discussing.) I think each of these addresses a different, and unique, problem, in a way that reflects the dynamics of that particular problem.

    Parenthood and family life have traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct – parents had almost perfect freedom to raise their children as they saw fit. Gradually, a more robust sense of the absolute and objective welfare of children, and later of children as immature, but rights-holding, citizens in their own right, gave rise to greater state intrusion into family life. Compulsory schooling, vaccinations, child-labor laws, and other standards of child care were erected to prevent children being harmed by parents who were not providing minimal standards of care or were violating their own children’s rights. The state thus imposes itself in loco parentis in its role as universal guardian of all citizens’ rights, when the parents are failing at their job as guardians of their own children. It does for the neglectful parent’s children what it did for Terri Schiavo – acts as final arbiter of what the law demands, and caregivers must provide, out of respect for the individual’s rights. But this has nothing to do with “balancing” power between state and parents. Indeed, the state here claims all the power, as, under social contract theory, it must do; parents or other guardians may serve as agents of their wards’ rights, but those rights exist under and are guaranteed by the state, exclusively.

    In the case of church/state separation, the Constitution (and plain good sense) dictate a non-religious form of government, and freedom from government-enforced religious pressures. This scheme the government must enforce. Again it has nothing to do with “balancing” – the separation requirement would be satisfied if the country became entirely atheist in every way, but would be violated if the government became even slightly (i.e., far less than it actually is) religiously oppressive. This is straightforwardly the enforcement of a rule which is needed to prevent violation of citizens’ rights (among other, worse consequences).

    Likewise, the distribution of service monopolies is a policy decision, but not, I think, one aimed at “balancing” or “competition”. It may be prudent or practical to allow private companies to take over certain government functions, but not by reason of market competition. The government has certain obligations, regarding both the protection of the country and the provision of necessities for its functioning and flourishing. Traditionally, provision of a postal service has been seen among these. (Arguably, it’s not as vital today, with robust electronic communications and physical package delivery widely available, but it certainly was vital at one time.) Road-building, basic infrastructure like dams and bridges, and, the rock-bottom example, provision of military and criminal-justice functions, are other traditional examples. Strictly speaking, none of these, including military service, is impossible to obtain on the commercial market, but there are many good reasons why they should not be left in private hands (as Machiavelli, Halliburton, and Blackwater have taught us). So, the government may outsource some of its service obligations, but it cannot do so in ways that leave fundamental civic necessities to the mercies of the market. That means either heavily regulated industries (like air traffic control), or core functions retained in government hands with industry competing in limited areas (like package delivery). But, even if industries compete with one another in limited ways in these markets, government does not compete with industry in the same way (it is important to have a national military force even if mercenary companies would be cheaper); the reason is to prevent a “balancing” of powers (government must retain necessary powers no matter how expansive or limited those turn out to be).

    If these criticisms bear up, as of course they do, then your argument about medical care has to be stated slightly differently. The problem with “socialism” is that it is an effective bugaboo that medical privateers have effectively slapped on what should be a fundamental governmental obligation. So, for historical and political reasons, it is a powerful counter to simple observations about the basic needs of the people and the functions of the government. And you are right that that argument is entirely disingenuous in the face of the non-opposition to socialism in core functions that are not the fiefdom of an entrenched professional class. But not all the examples you give (child protection, church/state separation) have to do with socialism, and the way you explain government action (socialist or otherwise) in your various examples is, I think, a bit off.

  3. Cat Dealey said

    Cat Dealey

    I Googled for something completely different, but found your page…and have to say thanks. nice read.

  4. Jon said

    Nice site – Here’s wishing you a very happy and prosperous new year !

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