The fact that the debates about socialism in America today often swirl around the definition of socialism is no surprise. It is a highly politicized topic in our nation and throughout the world and definition is a powerful political tool in an ideological struggle. The side that can craft the definition that suits their political agenda can effectively sell their agenda to the public and advance their agenda with much greater effectiveness and ease.
So, how do I define socialism. Well, it starts with the "founders" of it. Socialism derives its philosophy from the founders of communism, Marx and Engels. -- Lest you argue that communism and socialism are completely different it is very important to understand the history behind socialism and communism -- communism in practice is socialism. Its purpose is world socialism, which the communists seek to achieve by revolution, and which the socialists seek to achieve by evolution.
The distinction between socialism, as represented by the various Socialist and Labour parties of Europe and the New World, and Communism, as represented by the Russians, is one of tactics and strategy rather than of objective. Communism is indeed only socialism pursued by revolutionary means and making its revolutionary method a canon of faith. Communists like other socialists, (1) believe in the collective control and ownership of the vital means of production and (2) seek to achieve through state action the coordinated control of the economic forces of society. They (the Communists) differ from other socialists in believing that this control can be secured, and its use in the interests of the workers ensured, only by revolutionary action leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the creation of a new proletarian state as the instrument of change.
Some important definitions:
"Socialism, reduced to its simplest legal and practical expression, means the complete discarding of the institution of private property by transforming it into public property and the division of the resultant income equally and indiscriminately among the entire population." (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1946 ed., Vol. 20, p. 895.)
"A political and economic theory of social organization based on collective or governmental ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods; also, a policy or practice based on this theory." (Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. unabridged, 1951.)
Let's emphasize here the phrase: "A policy or practice based on this theory."
Both communism and socialism have the same effect upon the individual–a loss of personal liberty. Why is socialism incompatible with man’s liberty? Socialism cannot work except through an all-powerful state. Today in America we are considering socialized medicine and hotly debate "income inequality," the solutions for which require massive central control of economic activity.
George Douglas Howard Cole, M.A. noted author and university reader in economics at Oxford, who treats socialism for the Encyclopedia Britannica, says that because of the shifting sense in which the word has been used, "a short and comprehensive definition is impossible. We can only say," he concludes, "that Socialism is essentially a doctrine and a movement aiming at the collective organization of the community in the interest of the mass of the people by means of the common ownership and collective control of the means of production and exchange." (Ibid., p. 888.)
We (the United States of America) have marched a long way down the road of socialism. The Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman indicated that government spending in the United States at all levels amounts to over forty percent of today’s total national income. (And he said this decades ago, I wonder what he would say if he saw our spending and debt today?) If we continue to follow the trend in which we are heading today, two things will inevitably result: first, a loss of our personal freedom, and second, financial bankruptcy.
Today, over two hundred years after the founding of our nation, we must sadly observe that we have significantly departed from the principles established by the founders of our country. James Madison opposed the proposal to put Congress in the role of promoting the general welfare according to its whims in these words: "If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare... it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America." [quoted in Donald L. Newquist, Prophets, Principles, and National Survival, p. 342]
Today’s socialists–who call themselves egalitarians–are using the federal government to redistribute wealth in our society, not as a matter of voluntary charity, but as a so-called matter of right. One HEW official said recently, “In this country, welfare is no longer charity, it is a right. More and more Americans feel that their government owes them something” (U.S. News and World Report, April 21, 1975, p. 49). President Grover Cleveland said–and we believe as a people–that though the people support the government the government should not support the people.
The chief weapon used by the federal government to achieve this “equality” is the system of transfer payments. This means that the federal governments collects from one income group and transfer payments to another by the tax system. This happens not only in the welfare state but in the market subsidies that favor one means of production over another, one industry over another, one company over another. It would be through these means of central market control that all of the proposals for socialized medicine would be accomplished. Calls for income equality have no hope without complete centralized control of the private income.
Today, apparently in both major parties, there is support for a comprehensive national health insurance program–a euphemism for socialized medicine. Our major danger is that we are currently (and have been for forty years) transferring responsibility from the individual, local, and state governments to the federal government.
Edmund Burke, the great British political philosopher, warned of the threat of economic equality. He said, A perfect equality will indeed be produced–that is to say, equal wretchedness, equal beggary, and on the part of the petitioners, a woeful, helpless, and desperate disappointment. Such is the event of all compulsory equalization. They pull down what is above; they never raise what is below; and they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.”
Socialism and Communism properly understood can help citizens correctly identify those policy or practice based on this theory and recognize that these policies lead to a loss of individual liberty. Looking at a public library and saying, “Awe, that’s good old socialism,” is exactly the false teaching in the classrooms of our times that leads to statistics about this generation’s friendly attitude toward socialism. The false teaching is that the socialism (and communism, which is related) forwarded throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries is the same as the building of public roads, libraries, cemeteries, post offices, etc. These are not government functions designed to control the means of economic activity within the market. Services are not the same as market disruption and control, and as all citizens are benefited by public services they are not the same as those programs that redistribute wealth. Unfortunately, components of socialism and communism have been implemented to lesser or greater degrees within governments of our world but many of the examples you give for socialism are false examples. Likening all public services to socialism is a false teaching that is used to convince student that socialism is benign and posses no threat to our freedom. Saying, do you want to abolish public water or libraries, as an argument for socialism is a manipulation! Yes, welfare entitlements and industry subsidies are forms of socialism and they are pernicious disruptions of free-markets and marked increases in central power that tear at the fiber of freedom and free markets.
It is my belief that socialism and the policies and practices based on the theory of socialism are a threat to free systems of government and free-market economies and that we have a duty to guard against such movements within our society.