Thursday, January 5, 2012

Democratic Socialism, the Social Contract and other things you love whether you realize it or not.

2011 was a year where social and economic issues have been a bigger part of the average "dinner table" conversations than they have in many years.  With the "Great Recession" has come a lot of passionate debate from all sides of the aisle about what policies and ideologies are best for getting the country back on track and moving us forward as a nation into a new era of prosperity.  There are as many different ideas for what will best accomplish this goal as there are people to state their opinions.  Obviously, the opinions about what policies will work the best vary wildly depending on whether the person proposing that idea is a conservative or a liberal and it has been the partisan debate on that subject that has spurned the most confrontational and impassioned exchanges.  However, for the average American, who statistically shares both liberal and conservative ideologies on different social, economic and political issues, the argument isn't necessarily so black and white.

Elizabeth Warren became a figurehead on both sides of the aisle in 2011 for her famous speech about the "social contract" that we all share as Americans.  She has been held up as a hero by Democrats and a villain by Republicans, who both eagerly share her speech as either an example of the wisdom of the progressive agenda or proof of it's insidious socialist undertones.  However, there is a deeper statement in Warren's speech and the broader message of the progressive movement that is finding increasing popularity among the working class.

When conservatives vilify the progressive agenda, they typically use their favorite label - socialism.  The idea being that progressives hate wealth, hate the wealthy, want to "punish" success by forcing the rich to redistribute their wealth to everyone else and so on.  The conservative spin machine has done an admirable job of equating words and phrases that are normally quite agreeable with the average American with ideas that are inflammatory and negative.  Words like "fairness" and "shared sacrifice" are held up as buzzwords for the socialist agenda and other words like "class warfare" and "envy economics" have popped up in the lexicon to dismiss those who are critical of our current socioeconomic climate.  The reality is that there's a little bit of truth to the conservative label of progressives.  There is, in fact, a "socialist" element to the progressive agenda, but it's not the evil and insidious "wealth redistribution", neo-Marxist ideology that is so often and inaccurately attributed to those who aren't among the conservative rank and file.  Rather, it's a distinctly different type of "socialism" altogether, and it's even got a name - Democratic Socialism.

Democratic Socialism is an ideology popularized by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and it's quite unlike the traditional definition of socialism.  Under traditional socialism, government controls all the means of production, capital and so on, and gives the people jobs and a salary.  In traditional socialism, the government owns everything and allows the people to work for them, sharing the profits based on the work done by each individual.  There are many examples of "socialist", or government-run, businesses in this country, as well as privately-held businesses that are subsidized by the government.  Examples range from our military, the IRS and regulatory agencies to the post office, the airline industry and emergency response agencies.

Under Democratic Socialism, the people own the means of production.  The people are allowed to pursue individual success and wealth under the traditional capitalist model.  From an industry standpoint, things are not unlike the way they are in our country today, in fact.  The difference is that the people all agree to participate in the "social contract" with America.  The "socialism" in Democratic Socialism isn't government control of production and capital, it's the participation of the people in giving the government the resources it needs to provide essential services that benefit our society as a whole.

For example, in Elizabeth Warren's speech, she said "Now look, you built a factory and turned it into something terrific, or [had] a great idea?  God bless, keep a big hunk of it."  That's the basic truth of the progressive ideology that many conservatives either don't understand or intentionally ignore - that nobody wants to take away the wealth from those who are successful, no one wants to "redistribute" the wealth from the rich to the rest of the country.  The truth of the progressive platform and of Democratic Socialism is contained in the part of her speech where Warren points out "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."  

This is the message of the progressive argument for "fairness" and "shared sacrifice".  The accurate assessment that everyone who is able to attain wealth and success in America does so because of the unique freedoms and opportunities available here to allow anyone with a good idea and the grit and determination to turn that idea into reality and if they have the willingness to put in the hard work and effort to make that reality a successful one, then they can reap the lion's share of the reward for that work. However, in exchange for the opportunity and freedoms that are available in America to empower the average individual to make their own wealth and success comes the understanding that these freedoms and opportunities come with a price and it's the responsibility of all who have benefitted from the policies of our country to "pay it forward" so that future generations can enjoy the same benefits and share in the same opportunities to create their own wealth and success and, in turn, pay it forward themselves for future generations.

It's not about being "forced" to "redistribute" your wealth by the government.  In fact, it shouldn't have to be about that at all.  As Americans, we should all just understand that we are only as great of a nation as we are today because we are "One nation, under God, indivisible."  However, human nature is what it is. People, by nature, are greedy and selfish to a degree, some much more than others.  There needs to be a role for government in preserving that essential social contract that has allowed America to be the prosperous land of opportunity that it has been for centuries.

Now, I can hear my conservative friend's heads exploding right now, but statistically speaking, this isn't a wildly divisive notion for the average American.  Most people see the logic in the idea that, because America provides the opportunity for every citizen to seek their own fortune and find success, that there is an inherent obligation for those who achieve that wealth and success to reinvest a tiny portion of their gains into continuing that promise of opportunity and unfettered success to the rest of society and future generations.  Maintaining the roads upon which the factory owner ships his goods to market and upon which the consumer drives to get to market to buy those goods.  Maintaining the police and emergency response services that protect those goods as they travel to market and once they get there, who protect the people so that they can feel free and safe to earn a living and buy those goods.  Maintaining the public education system, so that we can continue to produce skilled workers to be employed by the "job creators" or to become "job creators" themselves.  Maintaining essential social services so that the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged can still maintain a decent quality of life and continue to be productive members of society and, wherever possible, be given the tools to enable them to rise above their current situation and enjoy positive social mobility.  These are ideas that the vast majority of Americans agree with to at least some extent.  Everyone wants to have good, safe roads.  Everyone wants police and fire protection.  Everyone wants the security of knowing that, should they fall on hard times and be a victim of bad luck, there are safety nets in place to keep them from losing everything they've worked for and being cast into the streets to die like animals.  These are things that benefit all Americans to some degree, regardless of their standing.  Sure, the millionaire probably has little or no use for welfare or unemployment programs, or social security, but they probably depend on public road and railways or they benefit from publicly-educated employees or the product of publicly-funded universities and the military - such as the creation of the internet and other technologies or the discovery of medicines and life-saving medical techniques.  There is no one who lives in America who does not benefit in some way from the underlying social contract whereby every one of us chips in what we can to help continue to make America great.

The modern conservative ideology of "every man for himself" simply doesn't fit with the template upon which our country was founded and built into the superpower that it is today.  Our country didn't become great because a bunch of guys got rich all on their own and refused to use any portion of that wealth and success to invest in the growth and prosperity of the nation as a whole.  We didn't become "One nation, under God" by adopting an Ayn Rand philosophy of "rugged individualism" whereby every man is an island unto himself and we all live in our respective bubbles.  Rather, we are a great nation today because we all work together as a society to provide the opportunity for everyone who is willing to work to find a job, to provide the opportunity for everyone who has a good idea to turn that idea into a successful reality,  to empower the average American with the tools, training and knowledge to enter society and achieve their own definition of success with the winds at their backs.  Nobody wants to take away the wealth from the wealthy.  Nobody wants to punish the success of the successful.  It's not about sharing the wealth, it's not about bringing everyone to the same fiscal equilibrium.  It's not about communism, it's about community.  It's not about socialism, it's about society.

There is a phrase that is common among working class Americans when talking to one of their own who is on the way to achieving success and improving their station in life, "Don't forget where you came from."  It means that, regardless of how rich and successful you become, never forget where you started, never turn your back on the people who helped you get to where you are today.  That is the underlying social contract with America - don't forget where you came from.  Don't forget how you got to be as rich and successful as you are today.  Don't turn your back on the people - on the nation - that helped you get where you are.  No man is an island.

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