Does Criticizing Capitalism Make Me a Socialist?

This "Obama is a socialist" debate might have fallen to the back burner for a little bit, as Election Day Monday morning quarterbacking goes into full throttle and President-Elect Obama begins preparations for becoming our country's next President.  But I imagine that accusations of socialism will resurface when Obama proposes his first budget next spring.

Those accusations are wrong.  Obama is no socialist.

As I commented on my Facebook page repeatedly over the past week, socialism involves state control over the means of production.  State ownership of major industries and the finical sector, for example, would be trademarks of socialism.  Obama's higher tax rates for the wealthiest in our society may or may not be good policy, but it is not socialism.  Private enterprise will remain private under an Obama administration.

Ironically, it has been under a Republican administration that our country has moved closer to socialism than ever.  The federal government now owns or controls some of America's largest banks and insurance companies.  Wall Street now has an inside-the-beltway mailing address.  And another trademark of socialism – the abrogation of civil rights – has increased under the Bush presidency.  Warrantless wiretaps, torture, indefinite confinement, wide-ranging claims of "executive privilege" . . .

But the accusations that Obama and the democrats are socialists will remain, a legacy of this nasty campaign whose negative tone was brought to you by John McCain.  Factually that claim is incredibly erroneous, but it is also terribly disturbing.  A few thoughts.

"Socialism" is synonymous with "unAmerican," or "unPatriotic."  Not long ago in our nation's memory we fought a Cold War against the Soviet Union and the communist world.  It was an us-vs-them,  you're-either-for-us-or-against-us world.  Democracy, free markets, and freedoms vs. dictatorship, state-controlled socialist economies, and repression.  John McCain, a product of the Cold War (which was one of his great vulnerabilities in facing a post-boom opponent), knew quite well what he was doing when he applied the "socialist" tag to Obama – he was calling Obama an enemy of America (an easy thing to do when talking about an African-American whose middle name is Hussein).

I was also struck how any recognition of socio-economic inequality in our society, any criticism of capitalism, was deemed "socialist."  On Facebook, on blogs, and in the soundbites of supporters at McCain rallies, I have read and heard claims that "taking from the rich to give to the poor" is socialism, and that even talking about rich and poor is fomenting class warfare.  If recognizing and lamenting class distinctions in society is socialist and unAmerican, then should we say that the Bible is a socialist text book?  Take a look:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

– Luke 1:51-52

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
– Matthew 19:24

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.
– Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
– Zechariah 7:9-10

5Recognizing class distinctions and seeking to address the plight of the poor does not make one a socialist.  (Yes, there's a What's the Role of Government? question here, which I'm not entertaining in this blogpost, but is a terribly important yet often overlooked issue.)

I hope that I'm wrong, and that these hateful claims of Obama's supposed socialism will not return to the mainstream political debate.  Such claims are factually wrong and tinged wth the slash-and-burn, you're-either-for-us-or-against-us struggle that defined the United State's global struggle during the Cold War, and which became a domestic plan d'guerre over the past 8 years.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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5 Responses to Does Criticizing Capitalism Make Me a Socialist?

  1. LP says:

    I was also struck how any recognition of socio-economic inequality in our socity, any criticism of capitalism, was deemed “socialist.” On Facebook, on blogs, and in the soundbites of supporters at McCain rallies, I have read and heard claims that “taking from the rich to give to the poor” is socialism, and that even talking about rich and poor is fomenting class warfare. If recognizing and lamenting class distinctions in society is socialist and unAmerican, then should we say that the Bible is a socialist text book?
    I think you may be overstating the case a tad. While there were some who may have viewed any critique of capitalism as socialism, that certainly was not what I encountered in broader and more serious conversations.
    I think the socialism bit really came to a head when Obama suggested “spreading the wealth around” and Biden described the rich paying excess taxes as fair and patriotic. Is it pure socialism. No. Did it maybe taste a little like socialism? Yes. I’ll admit both statements rubbed me the wrong way personally.
    Where the McCain camp really messed this up was not getting the log out of their own eye before going after the Obama/Biden speck. Republicans DO NOT BELIEVE IN A FREE MARKET, at least not in practice, and therefore want only a modified version of capitalism. Hell, even Palin was pro-windfall profit tax (big bad companies making too much money even when the market bears that out). In practice, they (neo-cons)do not believe in smaller government or lower taxes. McCain tried to stand on these traditional principles, even though the neo-con movement gutted the principles of any meaning. Though Obama’s statements may have smacked of socialism, you have to admit that it seemed like a desperate, last minute attempt on McCain’s part to to go after voters. I think most people were able to see through the charade, thus yesterday’s pretty overwhelming result.
    As far as the Bible as a socialist text book, I think we have to tread carefully here. I think especially about Acts, when believers “held all things in common.” Hmmm…sounds pretty socialist on the surface. Yet we fail to recall that living in this manner was a choice freely made and not one made under coercion. In other words, the decision to live this way was a peaceful and voluntary choice. Using this passage, or any of the ones you cite in support of particular forms of governance (socialist or otherwise) simply does not work. Again, these are things that God expects of God’s people out of their virtue, acts to be freely committed under no coercion.

  2. nickleach says:

    I agree with your post. I think that Biden and Obama have gotten into trouble because they have actually bought into the bankrupt narrative that our country is top-down redistributionist and are trying to justify what I think are acceptable policies to a skeptical populace.
    I think that the traditional narrative of top-down redistribution is exactly backwards. Some of our taxes are progresive (federal income), some of our taxes are flat (sales tax, some state income taxes) and some of our taxes are regressive (Social Security). When you add them all up you get a big mess. The New York Times did a study a couple years ago in which they found that the ultra-rich actually pay a lower overall marginal tax rate than the rich – about equal to or a little lower than the rate that the people whom we consider upper middle class pay. It’s because of the intersection of all the taxes and because our system is so complicated. People seem to be under the impression that wealthy people pay the top income tax rate on all of their income, and that’s just flat wrong – the Times study found that some earners making upwards of $10 million paid an overall marginal rate of 20-25%, similar to what my wife and myself pay. I would call this a functional flat tax.
    The other thing to consider is that the wealthier you are, the more you benefit from the things your taxes pay for. You are better able to take advantage of the public infrastructure, and in this day of privatization, better able to take advantage of government spending (whether in the defense, financial or consulting sectors.)
    This is a complicated issue, and as usual, Christians need to reframe the narrative.

  3. Bill says:

    nickleach – Your comment is brilliant. If you could point me in the direction of some of that research or in towards some like-minded commentary, I’d very much appreciate it. I have considered these ideas before, but never found the information necessary to parse them.
    Chris – Great post. I especially liked this parenthetical thought: John McCain, a product of the Cold War (which was one of his great vulnerabilities in facing a post-boom opponent)… A very shrewd observation.

  4. Zac Bezle says:

    Obviously the word “socialism” was chosen for its heavy negative connotations. However, the Obama side of this was also worded very carefully as well.
    From the campaign website next to a graphic that says “What’s your Obama Tax Cut?”:
    – Cut taxes for 95 percent of workers and their families with a tax cut of $500 for workers or $1,000 for working couples.
    – Middle class families will see their taxes cut – and no family making less than $250,000 will see their taxes increase.
    What exactly should the other side use? When we refuse to talk in absolutes (just relatives), who doesn’t believe lower taxes is better? The exact same message could be used every year. Where is the discussion about how MUCH should be paid? The top 1% of our population earns 19% of our income, but pays 37% of the total income tax bill (statistic from the internet, so it must be true..;) So, what percentage SHOULD they pay? 38%? 40%? 45%? What is the number? It seems rather convenient to promise 99% of the people less at the expense of 1%. Since votes are by person, not by money, this sounds like a good deal every time you can make it stick.
    As long as we are willing to decide our elections on pure emotion, propaganda will be an effective tool. Each side relies entirely on one to three word propaganda phrases. Propaganda works (unfortunately).

  5. nickleach says:

    Hi Bill,
    Here is an article summarizing many of these findings:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/national/class/HYPER-FINAL.html
    Some books on the subject of how complicated the tax system is and how the intersection of all the rules and deductions benefits the rich are as follows:
    “The Great American Tax Dodge” and “America: who really pays the taxes?” by Donald Barlett
    “Perfectly Legal” and “Free Lunch” by David Cay Johnston (the author of the Times article above)
    The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both have excellent reporting on taxes.

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