The Rationalist Papers (4): Is Joe Biden a socialist?

Photo: AP

Donald Trump has called Joe Biden a “Trojan horse for socialism” and constantly denigrates “Democrats and their socialist agenda.” Socialism, as a political term, is toxic in America — many moderates and conservatives would rather die than vote for a socialist.

So let’s examine what socialism actually is, and whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are actually in favor of it.

What is socialism? Is it actually terrible?

Merriam-Webster defines socialism this way:

Socialism: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

Every society or nation lives on a spectrum defined by how much of the economic activity and which industries the government controls or regulates, and which are controlled by private enterprise.

In the most extreme socialist or communist societies, for example, in Venezuela, North Korea, or Cuba, the government controls massive chunks of the economy, such as oil production. In China, for example, the government unilaterally plans the economy and there are many government-owned enterprises. (I was surprised to learn that the publisher of the Chinese translation of some of my books is a government-owned entity, for example.)

The socialist economic system in these nations is paired with a totalitarian, undemocratic political system. In China or North Korea, you don’t get to pick the leader and there is only one party. Socialism comes with political repression, restrictions on free speech, and a lack of political opposition. Such socialist systems are, in general, antithetical to freedom and free enterprise, and they don’t tend to prosper. The collapse of the oil-based socialist economy in Venezuela is a good example.

But socialist policies need not be paired with totalitarianism. In much of Europe, for example, there is relatively high taxation, a high level of government services (relative to the US), and government-funded social health-care and education systems. Sweden is a good example. This is the model that “democratic socialists” like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez support.

America is not socialist. But even in the American system, the government controls many aspects of our daily lives. The government runs the post office, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the military; funds the interstate highway system; and manages air-traffic control. It funds welfare and food support payments to poor citizens and Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. It also regulates private companies in industries like financial services and telecom.

The American system is not a pure free-enterprise system (if it was, you’d have to sign up for a private mail provider and pay private companies to maintain the roads).

On the spectrum of socialism to capitalism, America is towards the capitalist end, and countries like Sweden are closer to the socialist end. There is nothing inherently evil about more socialist sets of policies like Sweden’s or France’s or Canada’s. The evil arrives when a socialist government becomes totalitarian.

To sum up: there are many countries more socialist than the US that operate in a way that benefits their citizens and maintain freedom. Conservatives hoping to create division like to equate socialism with repression, total government control, and totalitarianism. This gives socialism a bad name that it does not deserve.

Biden is not socialist

When a reporter asked Joe Biden about Trump’s criticism that he is a stalking horse for socialism, he replied, “I beat the socialist.” He was referring to the Democratic primaries, in which he prevailed over Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist.

If Biden and the Democrats prevail in the 2020 presidential election, can we expect America to become a socialist nation?

Looking at Biden’s historical positions, you’d be hard pressed to find socialist tendencies. He voted to deregulate the banking industry, decrease welfare payments, and amp up criminal justice.

But are there socialist positions in his current portfolio of policy plans?

He wants to increase federal spending on low-income housing assistance and education.

He wants to make community college free.

He wants to fund public transit.

On health-care, he wants to expand the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and add a “public option.” In essence, this would allow people of all ages to sign up for a Medicare plan, but would continue to allow people with private health insurance to keep it. (This is a significant contrast with “Medicare for all,” which would eventually abolish private health insurance.)

And he wants to make continued investments in weaning America off of fossil fuels as a way to mitigate climate change. He plans these changes over a period of decades.

Remember that these plans will require legislation and must get through Congress. Even if Democrats take control of the Senate and abolish the filibuster, they will have to balance the views of the more progressive wing of the party (including a few socialists) with the more moderate members. It’s unlikely that all the programs described here will be implemented fully. (Consider how hard it was for Trump to pass what he wanted, even when Republicans controlled both branches of Congress in the first two years of his term, and how he failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act.)

Is this a socialist agenda?

No.

We are arguing about how involved government will be in programs like mass transit, health care, and education — not whether there will be a complete government takeover of the means of production. This is not a Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez socialist agenda. This is not even turning America into Canada, let alone turning America into Cuba.

If you are a conservative or a libertarian, this is certainly not a description of a set of policies you would pick. But if you vote for Biden, what you will get is an America that’s a lot like what it was under Obama. Free enterprise will continue, and there will be no socialism.

The other thing you’re likely to get is competence. Biden is a coalition builder (as demonstrated by his outreach to so many of the Democrats he competed with in the primaries). The government ran effectively in the Obama-Biden administration. And he didn’t demonize and declare war on everyone who opposed him, as Trump has on both Democrats and ex-members of his own administration.

As I wrote yesterday, what’s at stake here is the continuation of American democracy.

Trump would have you believe that there is a choice here between a patriot and a socialist. But look at the actual positions of the candidates, and their history. This is a choice between a candidate who is attempting to consolidate personal power and squash all opposition, and one who has some plans to increase government spending.

You can fight the spending after Biden is elected. You can roll it back in two or four years by electing Republicans. But if you elect Trump, the checks on his power will continue to erode. You will no longer have the means to fight anything. Is that really where you’d like us to end up?

8 responses to “The Rationalist Papers (4): Is Joe Biden a socialist?

  1. When we “prove” that Biden is not a socialist, Trumpers fall back on Argument B: “Maybe so, but he’ll be controlled by / beholden to the socialist-leaning left.”
    Without evidence, of course.

  2. Canada’s economic system is typically described as a highly developed market economy. The private to public ratio is 60:40. Has the 10th largest GDP. Significantly globalized. One of the best in the world with respect to economic freedom. Belongs to and is active in a number of global associations. After WW2, created many social support programs, such as universal health care in the 1960s. We do pay some small fees here and there but for the most part we can depend on help from the medical system without accumulating huge expenses. Our parliamentary system works relatively well given the diversity of viewpoints represented. We all have an opportunity to vote usually in person (Federal Government mails to us where to vote and validates our right to vote).

    We still have a long way to go in supporting people to succeed. Child care is ridiculously expensive. Dental care benefits are scarce. Pharmacare is talked about but not with us yet. We have much work to do on poverty and inequality in general. Our post-secondary costs are out-of-reach for many. We are working on battling racism and righting the wrongs of past generations. Perpetual beta.

    Let’s call “socialism” targeted social support so that the majority have a chance to achieve economic and health well being.

  3. This blog is the best. It is informamative and professional. It brings in great comments such as the previous one by Linda Pickard. It provides accurate information concerning Joe Biden and Donald Trump!

  4. A good read, thanks. I think an interesting point to follow further is the issue of being “paired with a totalitarian, undemocratic political system.” Yes, we have arguments about how much of the economy we put under government control, but the anti-socialist rhetoric leans less on economic arguments and more on totalitarianism. Current brazen statements about not respecting the outcome of elections is the threat people worried about totalitarianism should be concerned about.

    1. I had the same thought as I was writing this. I didn’t include it because I wanted to concentrate on socialism, but your point is completely valid. The putative “socialist” Biden is far less of a totalitatian threat than Trump is.

  5. I suppose that I am a kind faced capitalist. I believe in a mixed economy (somewhere between the views of Bernie and Rand Paul). I am certain that “rugged individualism” is not the answer to California’s fire problem. It needs a collective response in the present and in the future. Miami and Fort Lauderdale have serious water and sewage problems that must be addressed by government. Social Security is a great social program that has prolonged and enhanced the lives of countless seniors. Public schools have their problems ( Duh), but they might be the best baby sitters in the history of humankind. Public schools can be excellent and they do crank out many lawyers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, business managers, teachers, great parents, and brilliant bloggers.

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