Crying ‘socialism’ to fit the need

Many conservatives think they’ve found a winner in tarring President Obama and his allies as “socialists.” Earnest attempts to explain why “it isn’t so” are futile, as is asking people what the heck they mean when they say raising taxes is “socialism.”

In a heroic effort to force a definition into the exchange, Princeton economist Alan Blinder reasons: “Socialism means public ownership and control of business, right? So which industries does the president propose to nationalize?”

None that anyone has noticed. Obama’s economic team won’t even nationalize the broken banks. But that doesn’t matter. The S-word can signify anything conservatives want it to.

Real-life socialists scoff at this whole back-and-forth. Obama is “a hedge-fund Democrat,” Billy Wharton, editor of Socialist magazine, writes in The Washington Post. “Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal.”

Grasping both the gut-level response to the S-word and the meaninglessness of it, urbane conservatives try to have it both ways. In a kind of bait-and-switch, The National Review plasters “Our Socialist Future” on the cover, but the story steers clear of the S-word. It’s used only once — in a misleading reference to “socialized health care.”

No fool he, author Mark Steyn replaces “socialist” as everything red-blooded Americans scorn with “European.” Obama’s Washington, he says, is offering “Euro-sized government with Euro-sized economic intervention, Euro-sized social programs and Euro-sized regulation.”

But … but even the 27 countries within the European Union differ a lot on the size and role of their governments. And if Europe is so hot to regulate, how come it let its 12 biggest banks go leveraged 35 to one? The biggest American banks were leveraged less than 20 to one; they were a model of restraint by comparison.

The label “socialized medicine” gets glued onto any national health plan. In a true socialized system, all the doctors work for the government. That’s the case in only a few countries.

The more accurate term is “socialized insurance”: The government picks up the bills but doctors work for themselves. By the way, socialized insurance has already established a beachhead on our shores. Ever hear of Medicare? And the emerging Obama health care plan, with its heavy reliance on private insurers, happens to be less socialistic than Medicare.

Now, how many of our Republican lawmakers want to dismantle Medicare? Let’s see a show of hands.

Details, details. Most European health-care systems are multi-payer. They allow both government and private coverage. Some have very strong free-market components.

Steyn frets that a stronger social safety net would strangle “the American virtues of self-reliance, entrepreneurial energy and the can-do spirit.” Workers need the whip of insecurity to go forth and conquer whatever.

There are nightmare visions of a Frenchified push for “legislated sloth” — that is, a codified right to time off. Steyn quotes the following passage in the proposed European Constitution: “Every worker has the right to limitation of maximum working hours, to daily and weekly rest periods and to an annual period of paid leave.”

Where do we sign? — I mean, what gutless little locavores those Europeans must be! Real Americans work three jobs with no health care, no vacation and no retirement benefits. They bow before the executive who nabs a quick fortune through a short-term bonus scheme, preferably completed before the taxpayer bailout. Of course, he must be lightly taxed.

As Joe the Plumber put it, “Why should they (millionaires) be penalized for being successful?”

Regulations? Progressive taxation? Secure health care? Socialism on the march! None of that Euro-puff stuff for the Joes who detest the S-word, however defined.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is

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