Saturday, June 26, 2010

Is Obama a socialist (and does it matter)?

Depends how you define socialism. Is socialism the replacement of the marketplace with government control? Is it public ownership of the "commanding heights" of the economy? Is it the search for greater equality via income and wealth redistribution? 
In Europe, the Social Democratic parties are not really to the left of Democrats in the US. The policies pursued by the Labour governments under Blair and Brown were really indistinguishable from those of Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama. But then were Blair and Brown really socialists in any practical sense?
Well, I recently came across an interesting definition of socialism. I found it in the September 1933 edition of Fortune Magazine. The article asks whether the New Deal (then six months old) is socialist. The article begins by seeking a definition of socialism:

Socialism has been defined by G.D.H. Cole, English guild socialist and famous economist, in no more obscure a document than the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:..."All socialists would that a more equitable distribution of the social income means a less unequal distribution...A desire to lessen inequality of incomes and to use the State and taxation as the means of achieving this, is all that can be safely assumed as the common doctrine of all schools of Socialists."
If one accepts Professor Cole's definition, then the Democratic party has been socialist since 1933. In other words, the US is like Europe and the Democrats are really Social Democrats (and the Republicans are Christian Democrats in European parlance). The only distinction is that the label socialist in the US is freighted with a semantic opprobrium which does not exist elsewhere. So yes, Obama is a socialist and so were all the other Democratic presidents since the Depression.

I think what is worrying the Right is not that Obama wants to use taxes to redistribute income, but rather to what extent his policies are guided by and limited by the Constitution. This concern is fed by a samizdat version of his Columbia thesis in which he supposedly wrote:

"... the Constitution allows for many things, but what it does not allow is the most revealing. The so-called Founders did not allow for economic freedom. While political freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of the document, the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned. While many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy."

Did he write this? Does he still believe it (we were all lefties in our youth)? I don't know, but I think that he does view the Constitution as a white, male, land-owning, patriarchal document (which I guess it is, considering who was at the Convention in 1789). 

So the question becomes: Does he feel bound by it in any meaningful sense? 

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