Opinion | Political actors distort economic system definitions
September 26, 2019
Misconceptions, inconsistencies and contradictions can be ubiquitously found in the political world. Rhetorical fallacies riddle the noise clamoring from pundits, talk show hosts, journalists and politicians themselves. Interpreting political terminology can be difficult, such as the many definitions the word “liberal” can possess.
This problem becomes even worse when ideas are misconstrued or terms become weaponized and abused in order to make a partisan point. In American politics today, the highly politicized term is the word “socialism.”
Both the republican and the democratic parties routinely misuse the word “socialism,” except perhaps the wing of the Democratic Party that has imputed itself to the philosophy known as “Democratic socialism,” but even this is a dangerous choice in a country that maintains such strong opinions on economic systems it often obfuscates. It is not just disconsonant attributions to socialism; both parties also appear to be inconsistent on their feelings toward capitalism of varying degrees.
It is unrealistic to expect all Americans be well-versed in political theory, but it is ignoble of those who should be — politicians, journalists, pundits or others who relay political messages — to mischaracterize these theories. There are stark contrasts between capitalism, social democracy, socialism and communism. Even categorizing political thought into those four schools is incredibly restrictive.
Capitalism, while broad, often entails limiting obstacles to trade, increased privatization and optimizing competition and profits.
Social democracy is a liberal ideology with a greater focus on equality.
Socialism, at its most fundamental level, is characterized by public ownership of the means of production, substantial wealth redistribution and a robust welfare state. It should also be noted that given the broad scopes of capitalist and socialist thought, the two ideologies are not necessarily divergent.
Communism is a far-left ideology that rejects social democracy and socialism and instead advocates for swift and violent revolution that ends with extreme equality and a collectivist restructuring of society.
While pointing out the minutiae of differences between these ideologies might seem peripheral, it helps provide context as to why the broad labeling of “socialism” is counterproductive and the loud denunciations of “capitalism” are regressive. No new ideas are encouraged when every suggestion is marred by depictions and mischaracterizations of a more radical ideology.
Scandinavian countries, long held as the bastions of successful socialism, are not socialist. They are capitalist countries that emphasize social welfare through many government-sanctioned programs and increased government spending. This does not make them socialists, but proponents of social democracy.
While many Democrats do have aims that would make America more similar to these countries, they should not be so quick to label them as examples of “socialism” or label their own aspirations as “socialist” either. It is not faithful to the ideology and only scares away American voters who have been conditioned to wince at the very suggestion of socialism.
Republicans misconstrue the ideology all the same. Venezuela is a country that made an honest attempt at socialism. However, Republicans are mendacious when comparing Venezuela to Democratic policy proposals. Claiming that Venezuela’s political and economic turmoil is tantamount to the Democratic socialism Democrats have promoted is an unfair characterization.
Neither side seems completely steadfast in its opinion toward capitalism. While many Republicans unconditionally preach the superiority of capitalism, they are often found supporting a protectionist approach while opposing free trade, a manifestly anti-capitalist stance.
While many Democrats claim capitalism is the root of all society’s evils, they tend to support globalization, a fairly pro-capitalist stance that can end up helping the very corporations they despise.
Furthermore, in the past two years, Republicans have supported tariffs, trade wars, bailouts to farmers and the withdrawal from free trade agreements — all arguably anti-capitalist ideas. Democrats have supported measures that have led to the increase of automation and the loss of blue-collar jobs, supported free trade and opposed government intervention when it came to shielding farmers from the blast of the trade war. These stances break with the presupposed criticisms of the capitalist system.
Both parties often turn to straw men when it comes to attacking economic proposals and posture themselves as indisputable supporters of one system. Both champion the merits and condemn the drawbacks of economic systems when they feel it is politically advantageous to do so.
“Socialism” and “capitalism” are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. They have been polluted by conservatives and liberals for decades. It is time for the country to be honest with itself: Society needs some of both in order to be great.
Andrew is a sophomore in LAS.