“Socialism,” the Tea Partiers, and Slate’s Political Gabfest

On today’s Slate Political Gabfest the hosts criticized Tea Partiers for misusing the word “socialism.” David Plotz said it’s “stunning” that Tea Partiers would say Obama is leading the country into socialism. After all, the Obamacare legislation benefited corporations such as insurance companies. The hosts accuse the Tea Partiers of basically engaging in equivocation: using the pejorative potency of “socialism” because of its traditional technical meaning but using the word in a looser sense to refer to “big government.”

But of course the Tea Partiers have a point. It is true that socialism in a technical sense has been used to denote economic or political systems in which the means of production are publicly owned–basically, the state owns land and factories, as under communism. But fascism and corporatism can be seen as variants of this basic idea: instead of directly and explicitly owning the means of production, the state indirectly controls such resources by its control and regulation of corporations, who nominally own capital. This was done under fascism in Hitler’s Germany, for example, which was of course socialistic–the word Nazi means “national socialist”. Thus, the Slate Political Gabfest pundits, while a bit condescendingly chastising the Tea Partiers for their naivety, are themselves a bit naive in contrasting fascism from socialism, as if they are totally distinct or opposed.

As I noted in What Libertarianism Is, Austrian economist and libertarian philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his treatise A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (chapters 3–6), provides a systematic analysis of various forms of socialism: Socialism Russian-Style, Socialism Social-Democratic Style, the Socialism of Conservatism, and the Socialism of Social Engineering. In fact, recognizing the common elements of various forms of socialism and their distinction from libertarianism (capitalism), Hoppe incisively defines socialism as “an institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims.” Ibid., p. 2 (emphasis added). He goes on:

If … an action is performed that uninvitedly invades or changes the physical integrity of another person’s body and puts this body to a use that is not to this very person’s own liking, this action … is called aggression … Next to the concept of action, property is the most basic category in the social sciences. As a matter of fact, all other concepts to be introduced in this chapter — aggression, contract, capitalism and socialism — are definable in terms of property: aggression being aggression against property, contract being a nonaggressive relationship between property owners, socialism being an institutionalized policy of aggression against property, and capitalism being an institutionalized policy of the recognition of property and contractualism. [pp. 12, 7]

In other words, although the term socialism is usually narrowly restricted to public ownership of the means of production, from a political or ethical standpoint there is nothing special about “capital”; what is important about it is that it is a type of private property. Thus the essence of socialism is simply institutionalized aggression against private property. In this broader sense, any state action that infringes on property rights is socialistic. The Tea Partiers are right to sense the socialism of Obamacare, for it most certainly involves institutionalized, massive, and widespread interference with private property rights–e.g., the taxes that fund it are theft of private property; the economic regulations imposed on businesses and individuals are trespass. Where the Tea Partiers go wrong is in not realizing that Republican and conservative polices are also socialistic in this broader sense–from the drug war to the war in Iraq. (See also Friedman and Socialism.)

Yet again, we have an illustration of the fact that only libertarians oppose the state, aggression, slavery, and socialism in a principled, consistent way.