The Colors of Socialism

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From: Zhang, Yangkun (Yangkun.Zhang@FMR.COM)
Date: Thu Oct 19 2000 - 13:48:01 PDT

Big government, in green, gray, baby blue, and khaki

By John J. Pitney Jr.

No more May Day worker rallies. No more sing-alongs of "The
Internationale." No more pin-up pictures of John Reed and Emma Goldman.
Old-fashioned red socialism has faded into memory, except in such distant
outposts as North Korea and Santa Cruz, California. Yet socialist ideals
survive in new guises. In the 1990s, the rhetoric of class struggle has
given way to the language of sustainable growth and economic justice.
Leftists still speak of anger and vengeance, but nowadays they are just
as likely to talk about compassion and sensitivity. Joe Hill, meet Barney
the Dinosaur.

Socialists and socialist wannabes haven't really changed their
goals--they've just changed their colors. When you look to the left, you
won't see red. Instead, you'll see a spectrum of greens, grays, baby
blues, and khakis. At first glance, these shades of ideology all seem
different. But beneath the surface, they all pay devotion to the same
master: a more powerful government. What follows is a brief spectroscopic
analysis of our varied modern socialisms.

Green Socialism. Everybody likes clean air and lush landscapes. If you
want to sell statism, you might want to wrap it in green. In 1996, Green
Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader gained 651,771 votes (outpolling
the Libertarian Party's Harry Browne), and a handful of Greens won local
offices. The party's national program puts its philosophy forthrightly:
"Concepts of ownership are provisional and temporary, to be employed in
the context of stewardship and of social and ecological responsibility."
While claiming to disown Soviet economics, the Greens also spurn
competitive capitalism "because it creates a dynamic of endless growth
that is incompatible with ecological sustainability and that fosters
greed and domination in society."

The Greens support public ownership of major industries, a guaranteed
minimum income, a mandatory maximum wage, and free health care "under
democratic public ownership and control." They occasionally praise
decentralization, but all their talk of public control suggests that
their model is not the United States under the Articles of Confederation,
but Yugoslavia under Tito.

The Green Party program might be too bold for mass consumption, but paler
versions are flourishing. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Vice
President Al Gore says that capitalism's blindness to ecology is "the
single most powerful force behind what seem to be irrational decisions
about the global environment." Gore proposes a worldwide accounting
system "that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of
both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies, and
larger, macroeconomic choices by nations." He foresees treaties embodying
"the regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement
mechanisms, sharing arrangements, incentives, penalties, and mutual
obligations necessary to make the overall plan a success." Throughout the
book, Gore keeps repeating that he believes in free markets. Right. And
Strom Thurmond believes in term limits.

Gray Socialism. The American tradition of individualism holds that
able-bodied workers should take care of themselves. Decades ago,
supporters of the welfare state realized that they could bypass this
resistance by focusing benefits on the elderly, a group with whom
everybody sympathizes. Programs for old people, in turn, would create
constituencies for more of the same, by creating both a bureaucracy eager
to perpetuate itself and citizen pressure groups such as the American
Association of Retired Persons raring for more. Social Security thus
begat Medicare and SSI.

Large-scale programs for the aged, however, end up affecting everybody.
Social Security numbers, which began as a tool for tracking wages, now
enable various government agencies to keep an eye on all of us, all the
time. Medicare started as a limited effort to help old people with
medical bills, but to control costs and prevent fraud, Washington has
spread bureaucracy and red tape throughout the health care industry. The
feds have turned Dr. Kildare into Dilbert.

Proponents of gray socialism want to give the government even more power.
The AARP would solve Medicare's problems through a "comprehensive health
and long-term care system that provides access for all," with the money
from a value-added tax or increased corporate profit taxes. As for Social
Security, gray socialists shudder at the idea of letting individuals
choose how to invest their own contributions. One alternative is for the
government to put much of the Social Security trust fund in the stock
market. Many gray socialists favor this approach, since these stock
holdings would give Uncle Sam effective control of large swatches of the
private economy. President Clinton says the proposal is "quite

Baby-Blue Socialism. According to a recent poll commissioned by a group
of children's organizations , two-thirds of voters are willing to spend
additional tax dollars to ensure children's welfare, and three-quarters
are more likely to back candidates who support children's programs.
Baby-blue socialists take advantage of these sentiments by framing every
issue as a children's issue. Unemployment? Parents need jobs to buy food
and clothing for their children. The environment? Hey, children breathe!

If you think I exaggerate, check out the 1996 Democratic platform, which
mentions the words child, children, or childhood 89 times. It says
America needs the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities because
"investment in the arts and humanities and the institutions that support
them is an investment in the education of our children."
Government-subsidized television is essential because "we want our
children to watch Sesame Street, not Power Rangers." The Consumer Product
Safety Commission is "an effective guardian of children and families in
and around their homes." Even arms control becomes a children's issue:
"Today, not a single Russian missile points at our children." All that
time we were trying to protect the Pentagon and Fort Bragg, the Soviets
were really targeting Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Khaki Socialism. During the Cold War, most Americans worried about those
Russian missiles. This fear was justified, but it had the unfortunate
side effect of encouraging people to let down their guard against
government power. After all, who wanted to oppose measures that served
our defense needs? The khaki cloak of national security not only led to
the growth of the Pentagon, but also provided cover for the expansion of
domestic programs. We had to expand education in order to keep up with
the Sputnik-launching Russkis, hence the National Defense Education Act.
We needed to make sure military vehicles could cross the country quickly,
hence the National Defense Highways. Many even argued that poverty and
welfare were national security issues, since U.S. slums provided the
Soviets with propaganda material.

This political strategy may have seemed outdated at the end of the Cold
War, but it's making a comeback. In his 1997 State of the Union address,
President Clinton uttered the phrase "national security" only once--and
not in regard to the military. "I ask parents, teachers, and citizens all
across America for a new nonpartisan commitment to education-- because
education is a critical national security issue for our future."

During the Cold War, supporters of government defense policy liked to say
that "politics stops at the water's edge," implying that dissent was
unpatriotic. Adapting this line to his own situation, President Clinton
added that "politics must stop at the schoolhouse door." Mind you, he
does not want government to stop at the schoolhouse door--he opposes
vouchers. Rather, he wants to declare that Washington's role in education
policy is off- limits to fundamental debate and disagreement.

Not every issue lends itself to a national-security justification. But
big government's friends can disguise this by using military language as
a metaphor. In his Depression-era first inaugural address, Franklin
Roosevelt spoke of "broad executive power to wage a war against the
emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in
fact invaded by a foreign foe." Following FDR's lead, politicians would
later declare a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, and a Moral Equivalent of
War on energy shortages.

Such language is supposed to be inspirational, but its implications are
disturbing. During wartime, combatants obey orders and civilians set
aside their personal misgivings in support of the national effort. Armies
and navies are strict hierarchies that administer rewards and punishments
based on bureaucratic rules, not marketplace demands. Indeed, former Navy
Secretary James Webb calls the military "a socialist meritocracy." If the
whole country ran on that basis during peacetime, it would look
like...well, a socialist state. Khaki can be an attractive color. So can
green, gray, and baby blue. But once the paint wears off, you might be
stuck with something very ugly indeed.

Reason Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. is associate professor of
government at Claremont McKenna College.

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