Friday, March 22, 2019

Pruning Back an Ideological "Re-Definition" of Socialism

Should language lose its integrity for ideological purposes? On Fox News in the wake of the passage of Obamacare, Brit Hume and Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, both (re)defined socialism as “government control of private property.” Their rendering falls short, however. According to the Random House Dictionary (via, socialism is “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole” (italics added). Whereas government regulation of privately-owned means of production and distribution involves some of the control being in the hands of the community as a whole through its government, socialism includes the vesting of both ownership and control with the government. 
Hume and Gingrich doubtless believed that words can be redefined to suit ideological objectives. Public discourse is difficult enough in a democracy. The dialogue "across the aisle" becomes more difficult when one or both sides decide that language can (and even should!) be subordinated to ideology to the extent that dictionary definitions (and common usages) are presumed to be changeable simply by applying a new meaning to the words on the public airwaves or speeches. Ideologically akin people will doubtlessly follow along, and soon the word has a meaning that contradicts the dictionary definition.  
Going further, to intentionally scare people by redefining a word in such a way that the word appears worse than it actually is nothing short of misleading manipulation. Even in such a case, not even the opposing partisans alert the people through the media or speeches that X means Y rather than Z according to dictionary definitions. No one stands up for language, so ideology can have its way and prey on words.
If government control via regulation is not convenient to the business sector and its advocates, what about government ownership without control! As per the definition of socialism, government ownership without formal control does not constitute socialist enterprise. Ownership and control can indeed be separated. Bearle and Means, in their classic treatise, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, point to the separation in modern large corporations, wherein stockholders as a group are the owners and control is maintained by managers. Theoretically, a government could own a company that is controlled by its management. Perhaps public policy would be served by the ownership alone, or the managers could have taken de facto control away from the government officials.
Therefore, the definition of socialism is more delimited than typically thought. To be sure, the meaning of words can change naturally, but such shifts are gradual as per changing times and thus uses, rather than sudden, as from being artificially interlarded for short-term political use. In the case of socialism, the term has historically applied to an entire economic system, such as those of the U.S.S. R. and China before capitalism made such inroads. A person would not say that healthcare is socialism, or even that taxes are socialistic. In Arizona, the dominant ideology has viewed taxes as theft.
With the fall of the command-and-control economic systems of the U.S.S.R. and China, socialism has come to be increasingly applied to governments owning and controlling particular enterprises rather than every means of production and distribution. Hence a capitalist economic system can contain socialist enterprises. For example, the Green Bay Packers’ football team in Wisconsin has been socialist because the citizens of the Green Bay together have owned the team. The community need not transfer ownership formally to a government for an enterprise to be socialistic. So too has the China National Tobacco Corp. 
In short, socialism can be distinguished from government regulation of privately-owned economic enterprise. Conflating the two by effectively redefining the word, socialism, muddies the public discourse and sows confusion, neither of which is helpful to viable republic. Furthermore, socialism can be applied to particular enterprises as well as to an entire economy whose means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by the community as a whole (often through its government). The application to particular enterprises does not reduce socialism to control alone.