Commentary

When did socialism become a four-letter word?

Lately the word “socialism” has gotten a lot of attention as our nation debates sweeping changes in how we deliver health care. Some easily embrace the idea of socialism, while others deem it a curse upon the land. Perhaps a definition or two would be in order.

Socialism is something of a hybrid between an entirely free market system (lacking any kind of government controls) and a system whereby all commerce is strictly governed by the state (communism). Placed between these two extremes, socialism is not the monster some make it out to be. Indeed, we can even find Biblical justification for this idea as we note in the Book of Acts that the earliest Christians “held all things in common” (2:44) and re-distributed their wealth “as any had need.” (2:45).

One of the most pressing questions of our time is this: What is the legitimate role of government in our lives today? Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan got elected in part by declaring that “government IS the problem.” (That comment helped to set the stage for a tsunami of federal deregulation which has even played a role in our current economic meltdown and the Great Recession of 2008-2009).

But government is not the problem. Bad government is the problem. Good government is a blessing to any society. Without government, anarchy and chaos would rule the day.

Taxes levied to distribute wealth for the benefit of all citizens are not a curse.

In Political Science 101, we learned that every legitimate government has three basic obligations to its citizens: to provide for national security, to write and pass laws that ensure a structured and orderly society for the good of all, and to levy taxes that address the needs of the nation and help distribute wealth for the benefit of all citizens.

Surprised by that last statement? Well, it does carry a tinge of socialism. Taxes levied to distribute wealth for the benefit of all citizens are not a curse. In fact, they could well be a blessing. Just look at our own nation. We are already “socialistic” if you consider VA benefits, Social Security, Medicaid, and hundreds of other government programs that in one way or another benefit nearly every citizen of this great land. But when the distribution of wealth gets too lopsided by some Wall Street tycoons or captains of industry, then beware.

Executive pay in Japan is 11 times that of the average worker. In America today, the CEO is likely to earn 475 times that of an average employee.

The paradox of economic systems

It is worth noting that a nation like Sweden, which surely has a socialistic bent, also has one of the highest standards of living in the world. While I will grant that their taxes are high, their programs for education, health care, transportation, and basic social services are among the finest in the world. Perhaps America could take a lesson or two from such a system. It is also worth noting that, during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, some of the most progressive social legislation this nation has ever ratified came into being. Against sometimes stiff opposition, FDR fought for the G.I. Bill of Rights, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, and the Security and Exchange Commission (which should have prevented this current economic collapse had Christopher Cox and his friends not turned such a blind eye toward Wall Street).

LBJ signed into law the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Head Start, the WIC program, Medicare, Medicaid, Title One Schools, and other pieces of legislation banning discrimination with regard to housing, employment, and education. This is the role of good government, even if some wish to call it socialism.

Over the past 15 months, our nation has been suffering through an economic meltdown caused mainly by human greed and a massive failure of our government to closely monitor the investment and mortgage policies of our banks and brokerage houses. Men like Alan Greenspan kept telling us that the banks would monitor themselves. One could now reasonably argue that if the federal government had been doing its job — auditing, oversight, and regulation — much of this pain could have been avoided. There is a very beneficial role for government in our lives.

In the early months of 1945, just before his death, FDR set forth a Citizen Bill of Rights that stated that all citizens of this land, regardless of status, color, or creed, should have access to decent housing, education, employment, and health care. It was also a time when the U.S. was soon to be helping two of its defeated enemies, Germany and Japan, to write their own post-war constitutions. To their great credit, these two nations embraced FDR’s Citizen Bill of Rights. Ironically, and even tragically, we Americans failed to do the same.

The debate will surely continue as to how socialistic we wish our nation to become. But let us not be deceived into thinking there is no legitimate role for government in our lives. There clearly is. And we should be grateful for it.

Paul Harrington is pastor emeritus of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church (ELCA), in Apple Valley, Minnesota.

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