The Socialism that Dare not Speak its Name

“Socialism” is dead, according to Matthew Dallek, writing in the Politico. I put the term in quotes, because what Dallek defines as socialism is so very narrow, that most gradients of socialistic policies are bound to escape his definition.

Even amid the current economic emergency, there is no viable Socialist Party in the United States, nor is there a serious socialist movement, as there was when Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly 1 million votes in both the 1912 and 1920 presidential elections and when Socialists won more than 1,000 state and local elected offices nationwide a century ago. Most socialists and communists were expelled from America’s labor unions during the early Cold War.

Moreover, millions of voters under 35 have no direct experience with socialism as adults. Thus, it’s hard for them to see how socialism poses any kind of a threat to democratic capitalism. In their adult lifetimes, the Berlin Wall was a historic site, and détente lacked all meaning in foreign affairs. But the pseudo-controversy about Obama’s allegedly socialistic tendencies is particularly surreal because even CPAC heroes William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan muted, and mostly abandoned, the liberal-as-socialist trope in the early-to-mid-’60s.

Dallek seems fairly passionate over what is essentially a semantic point, one which he seems to argue is crucial for Republicans to understand if they are to regain political viability. Call me a stickler for words, but policies that would nationalize entire industries — from airport screening to health care — or socialize risk — from corporate bailouts to subsidized insurance — are socialistic by any sensible definition. You don’t need to embrace an ideology in toto to move in the direction of its vision of society.

Furthermore, you don’t need to define an ideology by its most vicious manifestation to recognize elements of it when they appear. There are other strands of socialism beside Soviet-style communism.

Ultimately, Dallek’s argument seems to rest on the notion that if you just don’t label somethign as “socialist,” then it isn’t.

Which would be great comfort to Teamsters President James Hoffa, who, in the Detroit News, offers an unusual definition of democracy.

Sen. Robert Wagner of New York sponsored the law in 1935 that bears his name. The Wagner Act recognized the right of workers to form unions. Wagner understood that the difference between despotism and democracy is not the secret ballot, but whether workers have the right to bargain collectively.

Not free elections, not a free press, not private property, but the ability to form and join unions. By that definition, PRI-era Mexico and Peron-era Argentina would qualify as exemplars of democracy. I’ll give Hoffa the benefit of the doubt as to whether he’s making a sloppy omission here, but taking his statement at face value, such a definition of democracy rests on redistribution as a core value and is therefore socialistic, at least in part.

In his article, Hoffa argues in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which, contrary to his protestations, would make secret ballot elections in union organizing a dead letter. Also part of EFCA is a provision that carries a socialistic trait: loss of control over one’s private property.

As former National Labor Relations Board members Peter Hurtgen and John Irving note in The Wall Street Journal, EFCA’s binding arbitration provision would empower a federally appointed arbitrating panel to impose a contract if a newly organized company and the union are unable to reach a contract after 120 days to an enormous extent.

An arbitration panel’s power to dictate terms is virtually limitless. Such panels could impose uncompetitive wage rates and unworkable work rules. Arbitrators could also impose mandatory union dues and discharge for failure to pay.

Arbitration panels are by definition a stranger to the work place. Yet real, private agreements are products of the needs, desires, capabilities and resources of the negotiating parties who are anything but.

In effect, this would mean that a business owner would lose an enormous amount of control over an important area of his own business, which would erode his right to dispose of his property, at least to some extent.

This may all seem over the top to some, but I don’t see any need to mince words, and neither did F.A. Hayek.

Fore more on EFCA, see here.