Submitted by Marvin Miller
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate in January, said he was a socialist. So does Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose presidential candidacy has resurrected “socialism” from the deep oblivion in which it has rested for a long time in the U.S. (Elsewhere, people calling themselves socialists or social democrats hold major public offices, but they rarely put forward proposals to move important productive activities from private to public ownership. Indeed, as in Greece, they are often unable to resist transitions in the opposite direction.)
Socialism is the provision of goods or services by an agency of government, rather than by a privately owned enterprise, profit-seeking or nonprofit. The U.S. has plenty of socialism, and we Americans love it. It’s the word “socialism” that bothers us, a result of a lifetime of conditioning from government, media, and other elements of our cultural environment.
The earliest instance of socialism in an English-speaking part of what is now the U.S. was the common house in Plymouth, built by the Pilgrims in the early 1620s. Another early example is the Boston Common, set aside from private ownership in 1634. The Constitution authorizes Congress to to establish post offices to facilitate mail delivery, a socialist activity. The military and naval establishments, also authorized by the Constitution, are government activities.
The coins and bills in our pockets and purses are goods provided by government — the mint and the Bureau of Engraving. The bills are Federal Reserve Notes. The water we use in metropolitan areas comes from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and similar agencies around the country. The food grown with irrigation, like Nebraska corn and California fruits and vegetables, depends on government water projects. It comes to us over government-provided roads and streets and government-maintained waterways. Large cities could not exist without public transportation systems. Air travel is, as it must be, controlled by government. Many local electric power systems are owned by the people they serve and run by local government agencies.
Our local, state, and national parks, playgrounds, beaches, and other recreational areas are socialist services that we enjoy. The Weather Bureau, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helps us plan our days and warns us of hurricanes and tornadoes. It depends on information from satellites launched by NASA. So do our GPS devices, cable and satellite TV, and radio transmission. The Internet was invented by DARPA, a government agency.
Most Americans get our elementary and secondary education from public schools, and major higher education and research are carried on at public universities and colleges. Much private research is financed by government agencies. Our public libraries are beloved institutions.
After the financial catastrophe of the great depression, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was established to provide security for bank deposits. Social Security was established in 1935. Medicare and Medicaid came thirty years later.
Though Sen. Sanders calls himself a socialist, he didn’t propose socializing the big banks that almost destroyed the world’s economy through their risky speculation. Eugene Debs, five-time Socialist Party candidate for president a century ago, might have deemed Sanders a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.
Modestly increasing the amount of socialism in the US, as, for example, by expanding Medicare to cover everyone, would be beneficial and popular, but it wouldn’t fundamentally change the economic or political structure of the country. We don’t need to be afraid of it, nor should we have excessive hopes for it.