Socialism will likely be front and center during the 2022 U.S. midterm election campaigns. Senator Mitch McConnell fired an opening shot last month. President Biden’s student loan forgiveness was dubbed ‘Student loan socialism’ – government intervention gone too far.
I served as a British diplomat in two countries – Cuba and Venezuela – where Socialism has been taken to extremes. The government controls many sectors of production and distribution in the economy and the market plays a limited or non-existent role. Those economic models are easy to critique as recipes for economic disaster. But in many developed countries, socialist programs abound and fulfill the essential needs of citizens including in the United States
In a book published last year with the pandemic raging Kevin Hassett, the former Head of Economic Advisors under President Trump, discusses “The Drift: Stopping America’s Slide to Socialism’. He believes that as Socialist concepts gain ground the value of market forces that produce red-blooded capitalism and roll back state involvement need to be reasserted. Hassett says capitalism is being assailed by Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse – among them elite universities, and devaluing of the family and religion. The state should get out of economic activity and stop providing services. Otherwise, Socialism’s rise will be inevitable and America will become the next Venezuela.
The ‘S’ word needs defining. A Socialist program is a government-run program that provides a service or product funded through government revenue and tax receipts irrespective of the recipient’s capacity to pay. Market forces do not apply. For example, all Americans benefit from having a strong military, police, and fire services irrespective of their wealth. Such government-funded services are socialist programs. The alternative to the police force would be a private militia which would be used to protect citizens only on a pay-per-use basis.
Weaponizing the word ‘Socialism’ in America gained prominence during the Cold War. McCarthyism was an early version of dividing the country because socialism and communism were national security threats. Republicans enthusiastically seized on the issue. In 1952, President Truman said “socialism” was “a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.” In 1955 Democrats proposed a federal program to distribute the new polio vaccine to all American schoolchildren. Eisenhower’s secretary of health education and welfare, Oveta Culp Hobby called it “socialized medicine by the back door”.
Eisenhower himself also faced charges of socialism. socialism. ‘Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine’ was an LP recording made in 1961. Reagan was talking about the Democrats’ proposals for what became Medicare. “ ….if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.’
President Trump promised in 2016 to preserve the programs that previous conservative Republicans warned were dangerous forms of socialism. “We will protect Medicare and Social Security.” And in September 2018, at a rally in Indiana, he attacked Democrats who “want to raid Medicare to pay for socialism.”
Politicians realize that socialist Medicare is popular. A Hill/Harris X poll in April 2020 found that 69 % of Americans approved of expanding the program to Medicare for All. Even 46% of Republicans approved of such an extension.
The Pandemic has exposed flaws at all levels of the US health system and required numerous ‘Socialist’ government interventions. They have covered free testing and vaccines, subsidized systems for hospital ICU bills involving government rescue package payments, and waiving copays. Even Trump’s Operation Warp Speed was the government providing over $12 billion (by December 2020) for new vaccines which the private companies would then supply free of charge to Americans. In Florida Governor De Santis has used state and federal funds to buy monoclonal antibody treatments and to promote COVID testing sites. He took these decisions because they were things he believed the private sector could not or would not provide at an affordable cost. The Republicans have also recently called the Medicare negotiation of prescription drugs as a ‘ Democrat socialist drug takeover’.
Hassett’s logic would have insisted every American affected by COVID would have met the bill from out-of-pocket or insurance coverage. But the free market system could not cope. Another pandemic measure showed the government embracing socialist remedies. The Trump Administration and Congress agreed to forgive the numerous loans given to small companies unable to pay the wages of their staff under the Paycheck Protection Program. Socialism rode to the rescue again.
Despite government interventions, the pandemic has also exposed the consequences of the American free market, for-profit healthcare system. One bill for a Covid sufferer in Sacramento California for 3 weeks of hospital care came to $1,339,181.94. She said at the time she would be left with $42000 to pay herself – more than she makes in a year. Why don’t members of Congress recognize these problems? One reason may be that an estimated 72 % of their healthcare is paid for by the federal government. Socialism for some?
There are other Socialist programs Americans seem to like. One is public schools. American public schools closely resemble a Cuban government policy that provides all school-age children free education and indeed a school uniform. Without them, there would likely be no schools in rural areas because they could not provide enough revenue. A free market would ignore the needs of such communities.
No American politician in an election campaign would ever agree with Fidel Castro that it should be ‘Socialism or Death’. But in the coming weeks, the socialist bogeyman will be dusted down to frighten American voters. Not all government programs are run well and governments must be held to account for fraud and needless expenditure. But no country – not even Cuba currently – bans all private economic activity. Those who clamor for totally free markets and vilify all socialist programs should remember President Truman’s words ‘ Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
Paul Webster Hare was a British diplomat for 30 years and the British ambassador to Cuba from 2001-04. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.