No to Socialism, No to Right Wing
But that’s not what’s at stake in health-care reform
By Jennifer Blalock
As the conversation about universal health coverage heats up, the word “socialism” is being tossed about like a contagious disease to be avoided. Do you believe that America could embrace socialism? Would greater government involvement to provide health insurance to all citizens lead us down a slippery slope into socialism?
When I see protesters holding signs saying, “No to Socialism,” I wonder what they’re saying “no” to. What do they mean by “socialism”? Men and women at town halls across the country are visibly shaking with emotion and anger, fearful that our country will succumb to it.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines socialism as “an economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity.”
There is a wide variety or continuum of socialist beliefs and practices ranging from tolerating capitalism to more strict “communist” versions that abolish private enterprise.
The definition doesn’t clearly delineate the differences between socialism and free enterprise – it begs the question: How much government control, cooperation or competition should guide economic activity? What is “substantial” or too much control?
In America, we’re not a 100 percent laissez-faIre, free enterprise system – we’ve been debating the pros and cons of government control since the inception of our republic. For the protesters and conservative commentators, their underlying issue seems to be the standard “big government vs. small government” argument wrapped in a fear-laced package implying that, if we don’t get it right, down the slippery slope we’ll go, falling into plague-infested waters with the implication that socialism will destroy the fabric of our nation.
I lived in France for eight years, was married to a Frenchman and learned through experience and observation how socialism defines and influences a society. France isn’t officially a socialist country; it’s are a republic with close ties to the birth of socialism and a strong socialist party (the Parti Socialiste). The French enjoy health care for everyone, decent job security and state-paid education but businesses also endure a high degree of regulation, which I believe diminishes competition and entrepreneurism.
Based on my experience, I, too, say “no” to socialism but don’t feel the least bit threatened by it as we debate health-care reform. First, it’s not a dreaded disease – it has merits for the people it serves; it is congruent with their value system. Second, in America, our culture would never embrace the ideology or values that support socialist governments.
Socialism is broadly defined as an “economic system” but from a practical perspective, I argue that socialist practices thrive in a country like France because it’s a system of government that makes sense to the people. When viewed within their historical and cultural context, it’s no mystery that the French culture readily embraces their brand of socialism.
The modern French Republic emerged after the bloody French Revolution (1789-1799), which decimated the longstanding monarchy. The founding principles are “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” In 19th-century Europe, socialist philosophy emerged in part in reaction to the perceived ills of the Industrial Revolution – it threatened their primary values.
The founding principles of our republic are “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” There is a huge difference between America’s history – fighting off colonialism, creating a federation of 50 states, building a market system – and a country like France. We, too, reacted to industrialism by creating regulations and laws such as the Child Labor Act; but we didn’t adopt socialism.
Believe me, we don’t think or operate like French people. We might value similar ideas (i.e., family is primary, wine is good) but our cultural DNA circulating is markedly different. For socialism to work, there has to be a greater value placed on equality and fraternity than on the individualism that is so prevalent in the states. For example, when I shared the idea that in America the quality of a school is normally determined by the wealth of a neighborhood or city, my French friends were shocked and disgusted. For them, money should never determine the opportunity to have a quality education.
Thanks to our history, we’re all about “manifest destiny” and the “American dream” – an ideology that is our greatest export. Have you ever heard of the French dream? How about the Dutch dream? The possibility of the American dream is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and I believe it vaccinates us from becoming a socialist nation.
France has an excellent health-care system but also has significant controls over commerce. For example, the French government decides the hours of business operation, who can be open on Sunday or when a store can have a sale. Amazon.com in France was sued by the French Booksellers Union for offering free shipping to customers because it created an “unfair” advantage and Amazon chose to pay 1,000 euros a day rather than change its policy.
Those who are not realizing the American dream, who are underemployed, uninsured and falling through the social safety net might yearn for a more responsive, empathetic or socialist government but I don’t think we could ever emulate the European models. One needs to appreciate the complex weave of inner values, history and cultural context. For every perceived advantage of the French brand of socialism, I could provide many examples of how the system does not work (for me, an American).
Would a public option that would provide health insurance to everyone lead us down the road to socialism? I don’t think so. Debating the advantages and disadvantages of government control is productive and essential but when the threat of socialism is used to incite fear, the ability to substantively debate the issues disappears. I say “no” to vitriolic fear tactics.