Monday, November 19, 2007

Socialism? So what?

Since the beginning of the Cold War (immediately following the end of the hot war of World War II), Communism and Socialism have been huge bug-a-boos in our nation. During the Cold War our enemy was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, and by golly, it even had Socialist in its name! They were the enemy; they were Socialists (though it might easily be debated that they weren't actually socialist) and therefore, anything they did or thought or believed had to be in total opposition to everything we stood for.

The net result is that one of the quickest ways to curtail discussion of an idea in this country, regardless of its merit, is to label it “Socialist”.

I was exposed to socialism one summer vacation between bouts of college when I helped out on a cousin's dairy farm. Several of us were “making hay” on the "north forty" that hot, late-summer day. When the work was done, we decided it would be great to wash all that dust down with a beer. None of us individually had enough money to buy a case of beer, but by pooling our resources we could just swing it. We bought the case of beer. I had two that late summer afternoon. Someone was happy with one. A couple of the guys knocked down three apiece, leaving about half of the case untapped. We divided the remainder amongst ourselves without any conversation about who drank how much or who contributed which percentage or who owed who how much. Everyone was happy. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. It was the essence of socialism.

In thinking about it, it occurred to me that there are several “socialistic” institutions alive and well here in the United States in spite of the atmosphere of "though purity" that hangs in the air that we all breathe. As an example, lets take a quick look at volunteer fire departments. They’re ubiquitous and they cover more than 90% of the acreage on this country. Fire fighting equipment is provided by the community in which they live as part of their property taxes and citizens of the community volunteer their time for training and to fight fires when the need arises. Through a network of reciprocal understandings with surrounding communities, they not only fight fires in their community but they also volunteer their services when tragedy strikes their neighbors.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, fire brigades were free enterprise organizations. Rival brigades would compete with each other to reach a fire first because insurance companies paid hard cash for structures saved. It was not uncommon for rival fire brigades to engage in fisticuffs at the scene of a blaze … often to the detriment of the building owner. The building could burn to the ground while the brigades sorted out who would put out the fire.

On the other hand, it was equally common for the members of a fire brigade to stand around and watch a building become totally engulfed in flames … because it was uninsured and, therefore, putting the fire out was not profitable. Of course, if the building owner came up with a handful of cash, the festivities could begin. It was the epitome of privatization but it didn’t work very well. The mutual protection approach covering everyone in the community, supported by equipment purchases paid for by the tax payers and manpower provided by volunteers seems to work much better … though its highly socialistic. Tax payers contribute according to their means, volunteers participate according to their abilities, and everyone in the community uses the service according to their needs.

Actually, any situation where we pool our resources for a common goal is, strictly speaking, socialism.

The TVA pooled tax payers resources to build hydroelectric dams through out the south east and now it’s an integral part of the national electricity grid. Hoover Dam is a socialist project, again pooling tax payer resources to create another segment of the national electricity grid.

I’m not saying that socialism is the answer to every question. It isn’t, not by a long shot. However, doctrinaire folks who are opposed to socialism purely on ideological grounds are missing the possible merits of an idea by ruling out what might be the best solution to a given problem.

Universal health care is an issue that’s being approached with ideological blinders by some folks. It doesn’t pay to have a closed mind – and a closed mind rarely provides the best answer to the question before us. So, maybe universal, single payer health care is the best answer – like volunteer fire departments have been for the last century. So, maybe it is socialistic. So what? We’ll never know if its the right answer if we keep the ideological blinders on.

One doesn't need to be a socialist. That can become pretty ideological, too, and that's just as counter productive as assuming anything that smacks of socialism can't be good. I think it works best if one simply settles for being a rational pragmatist.

Footnote: Wasn't Hitler pretty anti-socialist, anti-communist, anti-Stalinist, anti-Leninist, anti-Marxist? Wanna be careful who one's bed-fellow are.

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