Steve G.

The S-Word

In Libertarian, Socialism on July 21, 2008 at 7:16 am

In Kansas City last week, John McCain said Barack Obama had the “most extreme” Senate voting record, I guess referring to National Journal’s annual rating of voting records during the previous year, which found Obama the most liberal senator based on 99 key votes. (Of course, since someone — Sen. Jim DeMint — was also ranked most conservative, it could be argued both Obama and DeMint registered as equally “extreme”.) After the event, McCain was asked if he thought Obama was an extremist. He replied, “His voting record…is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.” Pressed on whether he thinks Obama is a socialist, McCain replied, “I don’t know. All I know is his voting record, and that’s what people usually judge their elected representatives by.” The Obama camp took this as an insult, issuing a statement saying in part that McCain was issuing “the same old tired political attacks that the American people are sick of.”

But what’s wrong with calling someone a socialist? It is not — or at least should not be — a dirty word. The “same old tired” politics is really the castigation of entire groups because of reasonable but minority philosophical stances. Liberals were so cowed by attacks on their proud tradition that they rebranded themselves “progressives”. Before 1978 or so, “conservative” was deemed a slander.

During an appearance on The Colbert Report earlier this year, George Will summed up the philosophical divide in American politics quite elegantly: “Conservatives tend to favor freedom and are willing to accept inequalities of outcome from the free market, liberals are for equality of outcome and are willing to sacrifice and circumscribe freedom in order to get it.” While Will defended his stance as a proponent of the conservative view, he did not trash-talk the liberal view. His simple summary makes great sense. If one believes freedom to be paramount, inequality is a necessary side-effect, as the government will not be intervening to boost some and hold others back. If one believes equality to be most important, restrictions on personal activity are required to keep those with certain advantages in check.

I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak years ago, when I was still in college, and at one point he thundered, “‘Socialist’ is not a dirty word!” While Vonnegut’s democratic socialism was hardly a secret, I’ve always thought it odd, coming from the author of “Harrison Bergeron“, probably the best cautionary tale of regulation with the goal of absolute equality ever written. I, of course, am not a socialist, though I once was, and I agree that “socialist” is not a dirty word. We need to get beyond such simplistic attacks in order to have an honest debate about the merits of freedom versus forced equality.

  1. Obama isn’t a socialist, he’s a fascist just like McCain.

    The nerve of McCain to criticize Obama on economics.

  2. Faith based economics?

  3. Voo-doo economics v. Clintonomics.

  4. Socialist is a dirty word. It is a word people use when they want to refer to theft by the state, in the name of the people. It is a word people use when they refer to death by the state, in the name of the people. Socialists have been responsible for on the order of 250 million deaths by combat, genocide, and state intervention in the 20th Century. You can call some of them Nazis and some of the Commies, but they are all socialists to me.

  5. I think “socialist” is the dirtiest of the dirty words. Anyone who values “society” over the rights of the individual is pretty bad in my view, and delusional as well. “Society” is nothing without the individual, and if individual rights are violated (supposedly for the good of society) society is destroyed. Obama, McCain, and other politicians who attempt to be chameleons who take on the surface characteristics of their surroundings without changing their core are socialists.

  6. George Will, as quoted in the article, gets it nearly (but decidedly less than) half right when he says:

    “Conservatives tend to favor freedom and are willing to accept inequalities of outcome from the free market, liberals are for equality of outcome and are willing to sacrifice and circumscribe freedom in order to get it.”

    Mr Will, conservatives tend (and ONLY tend) to favor enterprising freedom, yet favor coercion to force equality of outcome of virtuous personal behavior, i.e to force equality of personal behavior. Moreover, conservatives tend to favor strong-arming regimes around the world it doesn’t like, causing a de-facto policeman and benefactor of/to the world, and tend to favor infringement of liberty to achieve their desired end, ORDER!

    On balance, conservatives have only one ace in the hole, if they would choose to use it . . . starve the government so it can do only very little to

    Bit alas, conservatives WANT to government to “do” . . . force virtuousness and stop all oppression around the world. Thus, they have no incentive to “starve” government . . . government is a tool they need, and use to further their ends . . . and do so continuously.

  7. kentmcmanigal Says:
    July 21, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I think “socialist” is the dirtiest of the dirty words. Anyone who values “society” over the rights of the individual is pretty bad in my view. . .

    I prefer to use the term “collectivist”, as 1- not all socialists are collectivists, and 2-there are other viewpoints (fascists, racists, etc) who also value some group over the rights of the individual.

  8. If the liberals inherited the left hand position of the third estate in the French estates general, then the conservatives inherited the right hand position of the second estate – the aristocracy. The landed gentry with titles of nobility are interested in only one thing, as Steve LaBianca correctly notes: order. Not just the order of one giant enormous super power policing the world, not just the order of a hierarchy, but the total order of total authority.

    The liberals, on the other hand, of the classical frame, who were the entrepreneurs and strivers and hard workers and capital deployers and wealth creators of the third estate were replaced by the socialists. The classical liberals, well, folks, that’s us. We are what L. Neil Smith likes to call “the productive class.”

    And if McCain represents the aristocracy and their demand for order at all costs, and Obama represents the socialists and their demand for redistribution of wealth at all costs, who actually represents us? Who represents those who want to keep what we’ve earned, with the freedoms identified in the constitution and all the freedoms not enumerated there?

    I’ll tell you who. Charles Jay and Tom Knapp, that’s who.

  9. Fascism is not a political theory, but a highly discredited economic policy. Fascism is to socialism as central planning is to communism.

    Unfortunately, central planning also plays a key role in the authoritarian economic policies of the aristocracy.

    There is no freedom without free markets.

  10. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an absolutely brilliant man. One of my favorite authors, second only to Fyodor Dostoevsky (to give you an idea what level of authorship I ascribe to him), Vonnegut had a huge influence on my sociopolitical views, from a very young age.

    I was honored to meet and speak with Vonnegut on a personal level several times over the years, and – though I have met many extremely famous people, from rock stars to actors to writers to politicians, and am thus well past the point where I am impressed by celebrity – I will always cherish those moments when I was in the presence of the man I strongly view as one of the great thinkers of our time.

    In addition to being called a “Democratic Socialist”, Vonnegut was also described as a “libertarian socialist”. That may seem a contradiction in terms (just as it seems highly contradictory that a socialist would ever pen “Harrison Bergeron”), but it isn’t a contradiction when you take into account that the “socialist” designation arose from the fact that he was a well-known humanist, and very active in the Humanist movement.

    Socialists can be humanists, just as they can be Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc (though it is important to bear in mind that humanists do not believe in the supernatural, including worship of deities; as is often stated by humanists, “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”) It is however a common error to assume that all humanists are socialists, because quite the contrary is true. Humanists are far more libertarian than socialist, especially after the adoption of the second Humanist Manifesto in 1973, which made the movement’s libertarian roots and belief system far more clear. Humanists wish to see the end of all war, and we are some of the strongest supporters of human rights you will ever encounter.

    You can read more about the Second Humanist Manifesto, or the Humanist movement in general, on either the American Humanist website (, or on Wikipedia, if you are so inclined.

    When “socialist” is used to describe a humanist – a designation made only because humanists do not fit neatly into any of the predetermined molds – it is incorrect. Humanists believe in improving the human condition through adherence to a set of philosophical and ethical mores, and as such engage in voluntary acts of charity where appropriate, as well as other actions voluntarily committed to improve life for all of humankind. That is not socialism, since no coercion or dependence upon governmental intervention is involved, and in fact it is well within libertarian parameters.

    So no, “Socialist” is not a dirty word. It describes all kinds of philosophies, some far more accurately than others, and – like all such terms – occasionally is taken completely out of context. Those who refuse to even consider that someone viewed as a “socialist” could teach them a few things, are actually denying themselves the ability to draw upon longstanding philosophical and ethical belief systems which could be effectively used to further libertarian goals.

    Lest I forget … when Vonnegut passed away in April 2007, at the age of 84, I was moved to write about his life and work for LFV, in a piece I called “So It Goes, Or, Kurt Is Up In Heaven Now”. Those who are curious about Vonnegut, or are fans of his work, may find it interesting.

    Overall, I think Peter makes an excellent point, in suggesting that we stop relying upon labels if we wish to truly engage in honest debate and discussion. The confusion about the alleged “socialist” views of humanists is but one example of where labels simply don’t fit and the conventional wisdom is incorrect, so by using labels we stand to alienate those who would otherwise be strong allies.

    Furthermore, whenever I read where someone has referred to another person as a “socialist”, a “neocon”, a “statist”, or any one of the many other labels commonly used by libertarians, I view it as a personal attack, and therefore automatically tune it out. Using such labels rather than engaging in vigorous intellectual exercise – and let’s be honest, none of those terms are intended as anything but an insult when used in this manner – is the lazy way out, and makes the speaker appear either uninformed, unintelligent, or intellectually dishonest (though they incorrectly believe they are placing the object of their insult in that position); and therefore makes the speaker’s ideas appear unworthy of further consideration, even to the casual reader.

    I therefore personally believe we would get much further in spreading libertarian ideals if we were to stop using such terms altogether. When so many libertarians use those terms as a kneejerk reaction toward anyone or any belief system which disagrees even minimally with their own beliefs – a situation I see far, far more often than I am comfortable with, especially when libertarians are so closed-minded that they refuse to even consider the validity or usefulness of seemingly contradictory beliefs – no one takes us seriously, nor should they. As a result, instead of spreading our ideals, we add to the common belief that libertarians are anti-intellectual extremists whose views are rarely even based in reality. We are therefore far better advised to stop using those terms as a sword based upon our own biases, which may or may not even be correct, and instead start listening to others. You never know, you might actually learn something, such as that you were wrong about them all along.

  11. Steve – I would disagree with your assessment. I know of no conservatives who even remotely favor free markets. It’s empty rhetoric. Like Bob Barr saying we should “privatize” Fannie/Freddie, which were already privatized in the 70s, and which are “quasi” private in two ways in which he wants to add more government intervention.

    That’s the “conservative” definition of “enterprising freedom.”

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