At a rally in Iowa on October 9, 2018, President Trump officially denounced his political opposition as seeking to “impose socialism,” among other unpardonable offenses, against the Republican order. Who is behind this scheme?
They are candidates for elected office across the nation and one has even been elected in Virginia. Forty-six are counted nationwide, with four running for House of Representatives seats. Who are they? They call themselves Democratic Socialists. The term “socialist” or “socialism” has long been an epithet of the right against candidates and policies of the left, including the expansion of Medicaid in the Commonwealth. Often, the pejorative use of the term suggests a deadly, infectious plague. What does one say to a socialist? How to criticize socialism, especially when the term is so vague?
A diligent internet search produces no instances of Republican socialists except a few examples of that term employed in derision of party members for their positions or policies. For example, President Dwight Eisenhower was chastised for his leadership in developing the nation’s interstate highway system and enforcing Brown v. Board of Education. Others, in a type of RINO attack, have been pilloried for failure to voice repeal of the income tax and Medicare, promoting corporate welfare, favoring regulation to stabilize markets, spreading the American empire across the globe in the name of national security, and advocating for a commodity-based currency (whatever that means). This criticism has resulted in some Republicans being labeled socialist “fellow travelers” (e.g., Mitt Romney).
Echoing similar tropes from earlier times—“my mommie is a commie”—it was time to retreat to dictionaries for some definitional language to help sort out the brickbats. That inquiry produced a reasonable description of socialism:
a system of social organization wherein the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of goods and services are vested in collective or cooperative beneficial ownership by the community as a whole to maximize sharing the common wealth and minimizing human suffering.
Interestingly, the literal definition of “commonwealth” is virtually identical to that stated above. Philosophers prefer to restate this principle as distributive justice, a concern for the allocation or distribution of goods, service, privileges, and duties relative to the best interests of the society and according to the merits and needs of individuals.
Beneficial ownership within the definition recognizes the accepted principle of individual interests in property and acknowledges that the society as a whole—i.e., the national community—shares in the common wealth of property and natural resources. The concept does not negate the generally held view concerning private property but, in fact, reflects the affirmative responsibility of humans as stewards of natural resources. At common law, this jurisprudence was reflected in the “rule against perpetuities,” which precluded unlimited individual ownership of property forever, forcing private property to be returned to the stream of commerce for the benefit of all.
The US Constitution contains strong language to support this outlook, from the words of its Preamble to “promote the general welfare” to its Fifth Amendment ban on the taking of private property for public use by government without just compensation. Known as “eminent domain,” this constitutional provision is a powerful expression of the dominion of the national community over that of the individual, notwithstanding the tomes of literature arguing for an inalienable right to private property ownership. In fact, the right to property is constitutionally alienable despite the efforts of some to equate the inalienable “pursuit of happiness” with private property ownership.
Eminent domain, then, is an ultimate expression of the socialist principle of property’s purpose, viz. to benefit all. President Nixon was chastised for declaring that we are all Keynesians, the equivalent of new liberalism (which favored central planning and collective government to stabilize free or unfettered markets and their volatility). In August 2011, Elizabeth Warren, campaigning for US Senate, made the following remarks:
There’s nobody in this country who got rich on their own—nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that he rest of us paid for.… [Y]ou built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless—keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Just under a year later, during the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama, in Roanoke, Virginia, remarked in a similar vein:
You didn’t get there [being successful] on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, “Well, it must be because I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” … If you were successful, somebody along the way gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create the unbelievable American system that has allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.… The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.
Warren and Obama both cite public education and highway infrastructure as examples of common contribution from all underwriting the realization of an individual’s entrepreneurship or success. With perhaps the exception of some Republicans who believe public education is a commodity, few can deny the contribution of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system in facilitating profit-making commerce.
The antithesis of socialism is libertarianism, which unequivocally states that eminent domain is an abridgment of the fundamental right to private property and that property owners should be free from government restrictions on their rights to control and enjoy their property. Such proposition stands in contrast, if not in contradiction, to a society’s determination to support public services such as police, fire, education, and health care, not to mention frills like mandatory auto insurance, traffic lights, water and sewage systems, and animal shelters, among a few.
These are not allocations of goods or services that are opposed by Republicans or Democrats and exist for the benefit of the general welfare. Common sense dictates and demands that the dimension of humanity requires all to minimize human suffering and ensure both distributive justice and a consciousness of our responsibility as stewards. Whether we know it or not, there’s a socialist lurking within us–and we have cooperated with our neighbors to enjoy the benefits of sharing the common wealth. We instituted distributive justice.