Where “Socialism” Goes Wrong – and Right

The word “Socialism” strikes fear into the hearts of most Americans. As a slur, it can usually be counted on to turn the tide in elections. But as Humpty Dumpty told Alice, words mean what you want them to mean, and “Socialism” is no exception.

Here is one definition:

Socialism is an economic or governmental system in which the public, or the state, owns or runs important industries. Its goal is to have the industries make money which can be used for the benefit of everyone. It wants to give workers some control over their work places.

In the popular lexicon it also implies some sort of “welfare state,” like the vision the English Labor party tried to realize after World War II. The idea was to ensure a level of security for all citizens “from the cradle to the grave.” It’s an idea that has always appealed to me. As a teenager, I marched in London to support Nye Bevan’s fight to provide the elderly with free false teeth and eyeglasses.

If you tell me the English experiment failed, if you point to the nationalization of such major industries as car manufacturing and coal mining as examples of dire folly, I am defenseless. And if you argue that mishandling the pogey cost British taxpayers a bundle and undermined the economy, I won’t try to contradict you. No system works if it is badly implemented.

If you cite Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez , I would respond that they are most definitely not my kind of “Socialist.”

I read in today’s news that Chavez is nationalizing private homes on the Caribbean resort islands of Los Roques. The item noted that:

Chavez’s government has nationalized hundreds of businesses including cement makers, retail stores and steel mills as part of his drive to establish a socialist economic model in Venezuela. Authorities have also seized large swaths of agricultural land deemed idle by officials, turning parcels over to poor peasants.

The report reminded me of a program in Jamaica to take over private land and divide it among small farmers, and it demonstrates the kind of  policy that has given “Socialism” a bad name. As long as people are the way they are, “egalitarian” experiments like that just won’t work.

But I lived in Canada for 20 years and I saw a sort of “soft Socialism” that worked very well.

In the Province of Ontario, where I lived, capitalism flourished alongside state ownership of power plants and state sales of alcohol, for example. The government subsidized poor families and provided free health care for everyone. The Royal Bank of Canada accepts responsibility for the country’s financial system, avoiding the mess that resulted in America’s horrendous bank bailout and the absurdities of the Federal Reserve.

I saw “Socialism” deployed as a kind of insurance system, where everyone chipped in so that no one would be destitute. I saw the government stepping in to control essential services that could not responsibly be left to the vagaries of looters and scam artists. I saw a superbly maintained infrastructure and immaculately clean cities.

And I ask you, what’s wrong with that?