American Socialism – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: David Shankbone, “Members of the Democratic Socialists of America march at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York,” wikimedia.org, Sep. 17, 2011, creative commons license

Socialism in the United States is an increasingly popular topic. Some argue that the country should actively move toward socialism to spur social progress and greater equity, while others demand that the country prevent this by any and all means necessary. This subject is often brought up in connection with universal healthcare and free college education, ideas that are socialist by definition, or as a general warning against leftist politics.  

While some politicians openly promote socialism or socialist policies (Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example), others reject the socialist label (now Vice President Kamala Harris said she was “not a Democratic Socialist” during the 2020 presidential campaign) or invoke it as a dirty word that is contrary to American ideals (in the 2019 State of the Union, President Trump stated the US would “never be a socialist country” because “We are born free, and we will stay free”). [1] [2]

To consider whether the United States should adopt socialism or at least more socialist policies, the relevant terms must first be defined.

Socialism is an economic and social policy in which the public owns industry and products, rather than private individuals or corporations. Under socialism, the government controls most means of production and natural resources, among other industries, and everyone in the country is entitled to an equitable share according to their contribution to society. Individual private ownership is encouraged. [3]

Politically, socialist countries tend to be multi-party with democratic elections. Currently no country operates under a 100% socialist policy. Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, while heavily socialist, all combine socialism with capitalism. [4] [5]

Capitalism, the United States’ current economic model, is a policy in which private individuals and corporations control production that is guided through markets, not by the government. Capitalism is also called a free market economy or free enterprise economy. Capitalism functions on private property, profit motive, and market competition. [6]

Politically, capitalist countries range from democracies to monarchies to oligarchies to despotisms. Most western countries are capitalist, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand. Also capitalist are Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. However, many of these countries, including the United States, have implemented socialist policies within their capitalist systems, such as social security, minimum wages, and energy subsidies. [7] [8]

Communism is frequently used as a synonym for socialism and the exact differences between the two are heavily debated. One difference is that communism provides everyone in the country with an equal share, rather than the equitable share promised by socialism. Communism is commonly summarized by the Karl Marx slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and was believed by Marx to be the step beyond socialism. Individual private ownership is illegal in most communist countries. [4] [9]

Politically, communist countries tend to be led by one communist party, and elections are only within that party. Frequently, the military has significant political power. Historically, a secret police has also shared that power, as in the former Soviet Union, the largest communist country in history. Civil liberties (such as freedom of the press, speech, and assembly) are publicly embraced, but frequently limited in practice, often by force. Countries that are currently communist include China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Worth noting is that some of these countries, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, label themselves as democratic or socialist though they meet the definition of communism and are run by communist parties. Additionally, some communist countries, such as China and Vietnam, operate with partial free market economies, which is a cornerstone of capitalism, and some socialist policies. [4] [5] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Given those definitions, should the United States adopt more socialist policies such as free college, medicare-for-all, and the Green New Deal?

Should the US Become Socialist?

Pro 1

The US already has many successful and popular socialist policies.

A lot of everyday American policies are socialist: medicare, social security, the minimum wage, and child labor laws to name a few.

As Jack Schwartz, the late Newsday book editor and author explained, the Socialist Party platform of 1912 contained many policies Americans now wouldn’t think of as “socialist,” including: “An eight-hour workday at a decent wage, a public-works program for the jobless (realized later in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration), safety regulations for workers in the mines and factories, a child-labor law, an old-age pension, unemployment and accident insurance, a graduated income tax, an inheritance tax, suffrage for women, a direct vote in national elections doing away with the electoral college, the creation of separate departments of health, education and labor, and a convention to revise the Constitution. The first of their political demands was absolute freedom of the press, speech and assembly.” [14]

If existing and proposed socialist policies are so heavily favored, they should be maintained.

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Pro 2

The job of the US government is to enable and protect all of its citizens. More socialist policies can work with capitalist structures to undo the harm done by unfettered capitalism.

Capitalism has resulted in the top 1% of Americans holding more wealth (a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion, or 30.4% of all US wealth) than the bottom 50% of Americans ($2.1 trillion, or 1.9%). [22]

This disparity is not because billionaires work harder than those earning a minimum wage. Instead, rich Americans have more access and exposure to the stock market, and the Americans with the top 10% of wealth hold over 88% of all available equity in corporations and mutual fund shares (and the top 1% hold more than twice as much equity than the bottom 50% of Americans combined). And nationwide crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, only increase these disparities. [22]

Socialist policies, particularly a wealth tax, could redistribute wealth and aid Americans who have been penalized by a structurally inequitable system.

Those who support socialist policies believe the measures could “create a fairer, more generous system,” and “build upon… and improve capitalism.” Adding socialist policies isn’t an either/or debate against capitalism. Both systems can function together. [23]

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Pro 3

The American public supports the implementation of more socialist policies.

In general, socialist policies are broadly supported by Americans: 69% support medicare-for-all. 63% support free public college tuition. 59% support raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. 85% support paid work leave for illness. 82% support paid maternity leave. 69% support paid paternity leave. 67% support paid leave to care for an ill family member. 74% support continued social security benefits without cuts. 66% support government-led environmental protections. And 64% support a wealth tax. [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

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Con 1

The US already has too many costly socialist entitlements.

Socialism is a series of entitlements that cost the American public a considerable amount of money. 2018 estimates put the cost of Democratic Socialist proposals, including but not limited to Social Security expansion, free college, paid family leave, and medicare-for-all, at $42.5 trillion over ten years. In 2017, the federal government spent around $2.7 trillion on entitlements including Social Security, medicare, and unemployment insurance. If new entitlements cost $4.2 more per year, that’s a 157% increase in government spending for handouts. [24] [25]

To raise money to pay for the entitlements, taxes are going to have to be raised. The socialists propose a wealth tax, but 60% of registered voters were not in favor of a wealth tax if it applied to them (if they won the lottery, for example). [26]

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Con 2

The job of the US government is to enable free enterprise and then get out of the way of individual ingenuity and hard work. The government should promote equal opportunity, not promise equal results.

As the Dallas Federal Reserve explained, “Free enterprise means men and women have the opportunity to own economic resources, such as land, minerals, manufacturing plants and computers, and to use those tools to create goods and services for sale… Others have no intention of starting a business. If they choose, they can offer their labor, another economic resource, for wages and salaries… By allowing people to pursue their own interests, a free enterprise system can produce phenomenal results. Running shoes, walking shoes, mint toothpaste, gel toothpaste, skim milk, chocolate milk, cellular phones and BlackBerrys are just a few of the millions of products created as a result of economic freedom.” [31]

When the government allows individuals to pursue what is best for them without interference, individuals prosper, the country enjoys “an average per capita GDP roughly six times greater than those with lower levels of economic freedom, as well as higher life expectancy, political and civil liberties, gender equality, and happiness.” In summary, “the diversity of economic freedom… helps us thrive both as individuals and as a society.” [32]

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Con 3

The American public supports a capitalist economy.

The American public does not support socialism. 65% of Americans have favorable views of capitalism, while 42% have a unfavorable view of socialism. 87% of Americans support free enterprise, a cornerstone of capitalism, and 60% believe a free market model is the best economy. [27] [28] [29]

Capitalism is the best fit for the American entrepreneurial spirit. As Mark J. Perry, PhD, MBA, Scholar at American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Michigan, explained, “Capitalism will play a major role in the global revival of liberty and prosperity because it nurtures the human spirit, inspires human creativity, and promotes the spirit of enterprise. By providing a powerful system of incentives that promote thrift, hard work, and efficiency, capitalism creates wealth. The main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works.” [30]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should the US government enact more socialist policies? Which policies and why? Or why not?

2. Should the US get rid of existing socialist policies? Which policies and why? Or why not?

3. What combination of capitalist, socialist, and/or communist policies would your ideal government have? Explain your answer.

Take Action

1. Consider this defense of socialism by Bruce Nissen, Carol McNamee and Sean Armil.

2. Explore socialism with the Brookings Institute primer.

3. Analyze Andy Puzder’s defense of capitalism.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources 

1.Jeremy Hobson and Serena McMahon, “What Is Socialism? A History of the Word Used as a Scare Tactic in American Politics,” wbur.org, Mar. 7, 2019
2.Rebecca Walser, “Trump Says US Will 'Never' Be a Socialist Country, Here's Why It Matters So Much,” foxbusiness.com, Feb. 6, 2019
3.Terrence Ball and Richard Dagger, “Socialism,” britannica.com, Mar. 1, 2021
4.Matt Rosenberg, “A List of Current Communist Countries in the World,” thoughtco.com, Apr. 11, 2020
5.Kimberly Amadeo, “Socialism and Its Characteristics: Pros, Cons, Examples, and Types,” thebalance.com, Nov. 7, 2020
6.Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Capitalism,” britannica.com, Sep. 23, 2020
7.Kimberly Amadeo, “Capitalism: Its Characteristics, Pros, and Cons,” thebalance.com, Oct. 16, 2020
8.George Waas, “America Already Has Socialist Programs — You Probably Benefit from Them | Opinion,” tallahassee.com, Dec. 2, 2020
9.Terence Ball and Richard Dagger, “Communism,” britannica.com, Nov. 13, 2019
10.Kimberly Amadeo, “What Is Communism?,” thebalance.com, Mar. 18, 2021
11.Robert W. Pringle, “KGB,” britannica.com, Mar. 2, 2021
12.Martin McCauley, “Soviet Union,” britannica.com, Nov. 10, 2020
13.Carmen Alexe, “I Grew Up in a Communist System. Here’s What Americans Don’t Understand About Freedom,” fee.org, Mar. 9, 2018
14.Jack Schwartz, “How Socialism Made America Great,” thedailybeast.com, July 1, 2019
15.Hannah Hartig, “Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Free College Tuition, while Republicans Are Divided by Age, Education,” pewresearch.org, Feb. 21, 2020
16.The Hill, “Poll: 69 Percent of Voters Support Medicare for All,” thehill.com, Apr. 4, 2020
17.Reuters Staff, “Majority of Americans Support $15 Minimum Wage, Reuters/Ipsos Poll Shows,” reuters.com Feb. 25, 2021
18.Juliana Menasce Horowitz, et al., “Americans Widely Support Paid Family and Medical Leave, but Differ over Specific Policies,” pewresearch.org, Mar. 23, 2017
19.Kim Parker, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Retirement, Social Security and Long-Term Care,” pewresearch.org, Mar. 21, 2019
20.Mohamed Younis, “Four in 10 Americans Embrace Some Form of Socialism,” news.gallup.com, May 20, 2019
21.Howard Schneider and Chris Kahn, "Majority of Americans Favor Wealth Tax on Very Rich: Reuters/Ipsos Poll," reuters.com, Jan. 10, 2020
22.Tommy Beer, “Top 1% Of U.S. Households Hold 15 Times More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Combined,” forbes.com, Oct. 8, 2020
23.Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochhar, “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” pewresearch.org, Jan. 9, 2020
24.Brian Riedl, “America Might Be Ready for Democratic Socialism. It’s Not Ready for the Bill.,” vox.com, Aug 7, 2018
25.Drew Desilver, “What Does the Federal Government Spend Your Tax Dollars On? Social Insurance Programs, Mostly,” pewresearch.org, Apr. 4, 2017
26.Matthew Sheffield, “Polls: Americans Want a 70 Percent Tax Rate on the Rich, but Are Less Enthused about Applying It to Themselves,” thehill.com, Feb. 26, 2019
27.Jennifer Rubin, “Opinion: New Poll: Capitalism Is More Popular Than Socialism,” washingtonpost.com, June 25, 2019
28.Jeffrey M. Jones and Lydia Saad, “U.S. Support for More Government Inches Up, but Not for Socialism,” news.gallup.com, Nov. 18, 2019
29.Ezra Klein, “Is America’s Future Capitalist or Socialist?,” vox.com, Jan. 7, 2019
30.Mark J. Perry, “Why Socialism Always Fails,” aei.org, Mar. 22, 2016
31.Dallas Federal Reserve, “Free Enterprise, the Economy and Monetary Policy,” dallasfed.org, Sep. 2005
32.Policy Circle, “Free Enterprise and Economic Freedom,” thepolicycircle.org (accessed Apr. 2, 2021)