What defines our community? Socialism

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By Rafael Sassower

To put it bluntly, we have been socialists all along. This is true, of course, depending on how you define the term. If you are thinking of Soviet-style state controls, then we are only somewhat socialists; the IRS knows more about more of us than the semi-dysfunctional KGB ever knew about citizens in the Soviet Union. If you are thinking about the original Marxist principle of “everyone giving according to his ability and receiving according to his needs,” then we come fairly close. We are a full-fledged welfare state that has Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a standing military more powerful than any other country. We have “progressive taxation” (the richer you are the more you pay) and safety nets for the poor and the not-so-poor (for example, retired military personnel).

But if we mean by socialism a much broader sense that we all belong to a community and as such participate in its life and contribute to its well-being, then we have always been socialists. The very concept of a “militia” (to which the second amendment to the Constitution refers in regards to the right to own guns) and its most recent incarnation as the military forces that protect our “national security,” then we are fully committed to a social way of thinking of ourselves. Think, for example, what would happen if we eliminated the Fire Department in Colorado Springs: wouldn’t we save millions? In fact, the CSFD are first respondents to all emergency calls (especially for those who cannot afford to go to doctors or hospitals because they don’t have health insurance). How many fires have we had in 2009? If you measure them exclusively on financial terms, you’d discover that we might as well let some houses and buildings burn down to the ground, rather than maintain a whole force in anticipation and thereby save millions in tax-payers money. So, the issue isn’t financial, but social and moral, political and religious: saving life is not measurable in dollars and cents.

We are socialists through and through when we ask the government (local, state, and federal) to enforce rules and regulations, laws and codes. We all agree that the police enforce “drive on the right side of the road.” We are also happy to call the police to enforce noise ordinances and zoning rules in regards to garbage and abandoned cars — why? Why should we ask the FDA regulate the safety of food? If someone dies because of your rotten food, no one else would frequent your restaurant, and the marketplace will provide sufficient incentives for you to behave properly. But will you? Will it be too late? Will the life of my dead child be worthy of closing a restaurant down, or would we rather such an occurrence never happened in the first place?

So, it’s not that we are socialists or capitalists; we are both! We are socialists of convenience. When it suits us, we welcome government protection and intervention — we even invite it to decide who we can and cannot have sex with; when we don’t like it, we shout “socialism!” as loud as we can and hope the boogie-man vanishes. But you can’t have it both ways. Once you invite government agencies to police your neighbors, they remain in place to police you, too. Once you admit that you need government agencies, you can’t claim that they are useless and superfluous. Oh, it’s not their intervention that you object to — since we already established that we are socialist of convenience — it’s their inherent inefficiencies. OK, that’s a different story now: you moved from principle — which you have given up — to an operational complaint — which you can help transform.

Having admitted that you are a socialist insofar as you acknowledge that you don’t live on an island and that you yourself rely on those awful government agencies for your personal and national safety, let’s get to what really upsets you: Government inefficiencies! First, we must admit that all bureaucracies are inefficient: note that in the current great recession corporate America shed close to a third of its workforce and has increased productivity and profits. It’s not private vs. public bureaucracies, it’s bureaucracies as such. Second, there are two kinds of inefficiencies: those we must have and those we can do away with. The former is the kind we have in cars and spaceships and pharmaceutical research: redundancies that ensure safety and quality control, the ones we all want more of!; the latter we want to eliminate as much as possible because they have no added value and are unnecessarily expensive. So, before we “throw out the baby with the bathwater” as the famous expression goes, let us make sure we go after the right kind of inefficiencies and waste in bureaucracies. Some hospital test are wasteful and enrich corporate pockets, some are crucial to figure out what ails you — we hope experts can tell the difference; the rest of us must rely on their integrity.

For example, in our city there is a difference between blatant waste, such as having three guards chat at the entrance of the city administration building downtown instead of one focused on the duty at hand, and the kind of waste worthy of discussion: should the city own or lease a fleet of cars (excluding heavy machinery and specialized squad cars) rather than give employees a monthly car allowance? There may be similar questions worthy of exploration that could save jobs and money.

We moved away from name-calling and ended up with the integrity of experts who are our bureaucratic custodians. We began with a philosophical question and ended up with a philosophical answer: human integrity in the face of social responsibility.

Whether we speak of our great city or anywhere else in our great nation, we have to remember that what distinguishes us from the rest of most of the world is how relatively little overt government corruption we encounter in our daily lives. Our city is small enough to demand integrity and make our fellow citizens who serve in any of our government agencies to remember that they are our neighbors, too, and that their children go to the same schools ours go to, and that we are bound to run into them in the grocery store or the restaurant down the street. Maybe one day we’ll move from socialist of convenience to socialists of conviction and see ourselves as members of a community who share responsibility for its success and prosperity.

Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and someone who pays a lot of taxes.