Is Welfare Socialism?

An interesting idea has been allowed to take hold in the libertarian community. The idea is that the word "socialism" should not be used interchangeably with the phrase "social welfare spending." On that narrow and somewhat semantic point, I agree.

However, on the broader point that welfare spending isn't really socialism, I can only ask, "What the hell are you talking about?" Of course social welfare spending is socialism. What else would it be?

Now, don't get me wrong. I do understand the purpose of trying to make the case that social welfare spending isn't socialism. It's sort of a two-pronged attack.

The one prong involves libertarians' collective self-awareness about the fact that no one in the 21st Century appears to be prepared to relinquish the welfare state. It is now too entrenched in modern society to simply swipe it away. Savvy libertarians, then, have moved on to spreading more popular notions of liberty, such as marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, and small business deregulation. This enables libertarians to present ourselves as being less quixotic than the reputation that precedes us. We can say, "No, no, I'm not coming after your food stamps. I simply want to prevent crony capitalism." That's a much more appealing message than, "Trust us, the poor will be richer if we stop giving them free food stamps and health care. No, I mean it, trust us."

The second prong is a little more elegant and requires a long-run vision, but the idea basically comes down to this: If social welfare spending is inevitable no matter what libertarians say, then we may as well do the least-disruptive form of social welfare spending, i.e. transfer payments. Ergo, various "libertarian cases" for the Universal Basic Income, welfare reform, and so on. First, the proponents say, we implement a negative income tax; then, we gradually phase-out other forms of social welfare spending and rely entirely on the UBI. I question the wisdom of this from both strategic and practical sides, but that's the argument in a nutshell.

Of course, all of this really dodges the question: Is social welfare spending "socialism" or not?

Those who claim that it is not, reason like so: Socialism is defined to be "government ownership of the means of production." Since it is entirely possible for private parties to own "the" means of production, and then just tax their money away and redistribute it, welfare is thus not incompatible with capitalism. And so it can't  be socialism.

I raise two important objections here. The first is, what do we suppose the communists meant when they said, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"? Was that the rhetoric of a capitalist who just happened to recognize that social insurance was not necessarily incompatible with free market economics? No, of course not. Wealth redistribution is, was, and always will be the calling card of socialism. Actually, that is why socialism exists. The whole point of socialism is to redistribute wealth from the privileged class to the lower classes. It strikes me as odd to suddenly suggest that wealth redistribution is no longer socialism, provided the means of production in the nation's economy are still owned by the private sector.

But that brings me to my second objection: Who do we suppose owns the means of the social welfare spending production? To whom are our taxes paid, and from whom are these welfare payments doled? Why, the government, of course. Private wealth distribution means the non-government not-for-profit sector, organizations like Catholic Social Services, the Red Cross, and your local soup kitchen or food bank. But these are precisely not what anyone has in mind when they say "social welfare spending."

So, let the argument rest. Because social welfare spending is owned and operated by the government, and because wealth distribution is an explicit objective - if not the primary objective - of socialist economic organization, then therefore social welfare spending is socialism. Period.

Now, this doesn't mean that it's a sin to favor social welfare spending or that libertarians are wrong to focus their energies on more popular policies than depriving the poor of social security checks. Nor does it mean that any nation that has a social welfare system "is a socialist country." Socialism is not a single policy, after all, but rather a consistent pattern of economic organization.

Even so, let's not go coo-coo here. Social welfare spending, regardless of its relative merits, is socialism. It is incorrect to say otherwise.

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