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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “‘Socialism-lite'”

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My November 2nd, 2008, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was inspired by presidential-candidate Barack Obama being called a socialist after he told Joe the Plumber of his (Obama’s) wish to “spread the wealth around.” [2] You can read my column beneath the fold.

‘Socialism-lite’

Since telling Joe the Plumber of his wish to “spread the wealth around,” Barack Obama is being called a socialist. And while he’s not one in the classic sense of the term, his “socialism-lite” philosophy could be even more dangerous.

“Socialism” originally meant government ownership of the major means of production and finance, such as land, coal mines, steel mills, automobile factories and banks. A principal promise of socialism was to replace the alleged uncertainty of markets with the comforting certainty of a central economic plan.

No more guessing what consumers will buy next year and how suppliers and rival firms will behave: Everyone will be led by government’s visible hand to play his and her role in an all-encompassing central plan. The “wastes” of competition, cycles of booms and busts, and the “unfairness” of unequal incomes would be tossed into history’s dustbin.

Of course, socialism utterly failed. But it wasn’t just a failure of organization or efficiency. By making the state the arbiter of economic value and social justice, as well as the source of rights, it deprived individuals of their liberty — and tragically, often their lives.

Socialism’s requirement that each person behave in ways prescribed by government planners is a recipe for tyranny. A central plan, by its nature, denies to individuals the right to choose and to innovate.

If reckoned as an attitude rather than a set of guidelines for running an economy, socialism might well describe Sen. Obama’s economics. Anyone who speaks glibly of “spreading the wealth around” sees wealth not as resulting chiefly from individual effort, initiative and risk-taking but from great social forces beyond any private producer’s control.

If, say, the low cost of Dell computers comes mostly from government policies (such as government schooling for an educated work force) and from culture (such as Americans’ work ethic), then Michael Dell’s wealth is due less to his own efforts and more to the features of the society that he luckily inhabits.

Wealth, in this view, is produced principally by society. So society’s claim on it is at least as strong as that of any of the individuals in whose bank accounts it appears. More importantly, because wealth is produced mostly by society (rather than by individuals), taxing high-income earners more heavily will do little to reduce total wealth production.

This notion of wealth certainly warrants the name “socialism,” for it gives the abstraction “society” pride of place over flesh-and-blood individuals.

If taxes are reduced on Joe the Plumber’s income, the rationale must be that Joe deserves a larger share of society’s collectively baked pie and not that Joe earned his income or that lower taxes will inspire Joe to work harder.

This “socialism-lite,” however, is as specious as is classic socialism. And its insidious nature makes it even more dangerous. Across Europe, this “mild” form of socialism acts as a parasitic ideology that has slowly drained entrepreneurial energy — and freedoms — from its free-market host.

The fact that each of us depends upon the efforts of millions of others does not mean that some “society” transcending individuals produces our prosperity. Rather, it means that the vast system of voluntary market exchange coordinates remarkably well the efforts of millions of individuals into a productive whole.

For Barack Obama to suggest that government interfere in this process more than it already does overlooks not only the voluntary and individual origins of wealth but the dampening of the incentives for people to contribute energetically to wealth’s continued production.

A longer version of this column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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