American “socialism” – a threat or a promise?

Could America become socialist?

That’s where some conservatives believe the country would be headed under the Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been leading a progressive movement that has gained widespread support.

Conservatives, like columnist George F. Will, warn of government displacing free market corporate decision-makers in setting industrial policy.

Will’s concern does not match what Sanders would want. Nobody proposes historic socialism with government ownership or control of all production.

Americans believe in the free enterprise system. Most would worry if the government made decisions that should be freely made by individuals. So, what might socialism mean in the U.S. with its long and firm tradition of individual liberty?

Inevitably, it would involve a larger role for government, paid for by taxes. But, instead of government taking over businesses in line with historic socialism, the American version would more likely enhance the public role in meeting the basic needs of Americans. Here are some examples.

Social Security is becoming a national retirement program, though that was not the original intention. People do not save enough for their retirement, and many have no access to an employer retirement plan. Many retirees must find ways to live on Social Security and not much else.

If Social Security were converted into a real national retirement plan, seniors would be helped and private retirement plans could become an employer option, not a necessity. Of course, tax support would have to increase, but employers would save by not having to offer their own plans.

The private sector could be involved. Today’s retirement plan operators might provide, through competitive bid, investment services to the government.

Much the same would be the case for health care. Right now, health insurance is costly, does not cover tens of millions and the level of care is questionable as many people are rushed through doctors’ appointments to keep up cash flow.

Government now pays many medical bills though Medicare, Medicaid or the Veterans Administration. Because the health care system largely involves the government paying somebody else’s bills, there’s room for cheating.

To get around the weaknesses of the current system, some advocate a single payer system where government pays all the bills and is able to control costs and availability through its market power. Doctors would not need to be government employees, and people could still choose their doctors.

The Affordable Care Act was meant to be a step toward government coverage for an increased number of people. Though it has produced some benefits, socialists would say it is half-hearted and thus bound to disappoint.

Recently, proposals have appeared for a “universal basic income.” The government would ensure that everybody received a modest income, providing protection as technology eliminates jobs. Recipients would be expected to carry out public service tasks and seek work, if physically able.

Similarly, Sanders and others advocate a free college education for all to help workers keep up with technological change.

Government would have a major economic role in promoting growth during a recession by increasing its purchases from private suppliers. Spending on public works can be boosted, just as the Obama Administration did.

Stimulating the economy costs money and that may mean an increase in the public debt. But that could be more effective than boosting the debt by cutting taxes, in the hope that tax savings will be converted into private sector investment and not just more profits.

Everybody is affected by the environment. Claiming it smacks of socialism, private sector leaders, like the famous Koch brothers, fight any regulation, because it reduces profits. Almost certainly, it does. But limiting industrial activity, like burning coal and off-shore oil drilling, can produce longer-term benefit.

Conservatives argue that bureaucrats have too much power and can impose their own environmental views. But that’s not their fault. Congress passes general mandates and leaves too many details to the administrators. Congress needs to legislate more clearly about its intent, leaving less discretion to regulators.

All these aspects of a possible American version of socialism clearly do involve an enlarged role for government. Opponents argue that people ought to hold onto their money and make their own decisions rather than funding government to play a greater role in their lives.

Individual liberty is at the essence of the American system. But that does not prevent people from agreeing voluntarily to deal through government with common challenges.

Even watered down “socialism” probably won’t prevail any time soon, but proposals for a greater government role are now on the table. That should make for interesting elections.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.