“We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
— Donald Trump, 2019 State of the Union address
One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows an exasperated father trying to cajole a reluctant, pajama-clad child to go to sleep. Lifting up the bedding so the child can peer beneath the bed, the father says: “See? No socialists.”
It used to be communists, not socialists, who lurked under our beds. Everyone was afraid of communists. But “socialists” most intensely scare the rapacious rich, who labor diligently to spread their fright of socialist-induced penury to the rest of us.
I have good news, Mr. President: The United States of America will never be socialist. We Americans don’t have what it takes to be socialists. It’s not in our cultural DNA.
We’re too self-centered, self-reliant, independent-minded, entrepreneurial. We’re too admiring of wealth, too indifferent to inequality. We worship at the altar of unbridled individualism, not the common good. Taxes wound our very souls. And we have a remarkably high tolerance for life in a dysfunctional, failing society.
Is this a recipe for a socialist state? Hello?
Nonetheless, it’s become fashionable to talk about socialism, delighting none more than Republican guardians of wealth. Sen. Bernie Sanders is running for president as an Independent Social Democrat. And Democratic presidential candidates seem keen to promote a more equitable society in the wake of the national wreckage facilitated by their party’s abandonment — initiated by Bill Clinton — of the Democrats’ working-class base.
Trouble is, it’s nearly impossible to discuss “socialism” in the United States because hardly anyone knows what anyone else is talking about. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore points out, the term socialism “actually doesn’t mean anything.” Too many versions, too much ignorance, too much fear-mongering.
Total government control of the means of production was a defining feature of the “socialism” practiced by the failed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and by the former incarnation of communist China. It didn’t work. Western socialist democracies reject that approach. Their economies are a mix of closely regulated (!) capitalist-funded and state-owned enterprises.
“Socialism” especially interests younger Americans because they take a dim view of the birthright of inequality we’re bequeathing them. Unlike many of their elders, they’re not willfully blind to how poorly the United States compares with other developed countries in providing universal access to higher education, health care and child care for working parents.
It’s become difficult not to notice that people in “socialist” Scandinavia, say, live in more economically stable, more economically egalitarian and more humane societies than people who do not. Little wonder, then, that more Americans are wondering why the United States can’t duplicate some of these socialist successes.
It can, of course. See Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The type of “socialism” I know best is Norway’s. Today Norway is rich, awash in North Sea oil. But Norway was socialist before it had oil, and Norway will be socialist after the oil is gone. These people are fierce egalitarians. Unlike us. Culture matters.
This essentially debt-free nation of 5.1 million has the world’s largest sovereign investment fund, one trillion dollars in oil profits. And that mostly pays for its universal pension fund.
However. Norwegians tax themselves heavily to pay for the rest of their universal perks: free college tuition and medical care, a year of paid leave for parents of newborns, subsidized child care starting at age 1, etc. They have short working hours, long vacations and high productivity.
While high taxes, not oil, pay for most of these benefits, that any oil income whatever is underwriting Norway’s socialist paradise is admittedly awkward, something of a national embarrassment for this wannabe green nation.
Oil profits for common good
But here’s a salient difference between Norwegian “socialism” and American capitalism: Profits from oil harvested in the United States are narrowly held by oil companies and their individual shareholders. The richest get richer. In Norway, taxpayers are majority shareholders in the national oil company. They get 67 percent of oil profits, which are used for the common good.
No one should imagine that Norway is free of social problems, though theirs do pale next to our own. Norway consistently ranks as the United Nation’s top place to live as measured by egalitarianism, support for families, gender equality, access to education and health care, social safety nets and so on.
Norwegians will tell you they’re proud to pay high taxes because they know they get something valuable in return: a personal safety net and a stable, fair society.
We are capitalists. We tolerate a largely unfettered brand of capitalism that does pretty much as it pleases regardless of social consequences; see tech firms, drug firms and Wall Street bankers.
What you don’t see much of in Western socialist democracies is what happened here during the 2008 financial implosion. Taxpayers bailed out irresponsible corporations, irresponsibly regulated by Congress, that caused the meltdown. But millions of innocent American families, bankrupted by that witless chapter of heedless capitalism, were abandoned.
A century ago, American union leader Eugene Debs came reluctantly to socialism after laboring for the worker-unfriendly railroads. He ran for president as a socialist five times, the last time from prison. He never got more than a million votes.
Debs described socialism as “merely Christianity in action.”
He believed socialism was a perfectly appropriate political philosophy to guide a self-proclaimed Christian nation.
Clearly, he was misinformed.
Solveig Torvik is the author of “The World’s Best Place: Norway and the Norwegians.” She lives in Winthrop.