During the 2008 campaign, the Net began a tentative reverberation around the concept of "socialism," which had been an unfamiliar theme in recent presidential contests. The early reaction was often the print equivalent of blank stares, as many people took a moment to look the word up in the dictionary. I recall many discussions of whether President Obama's goals, whatever each writer guessed they might be, actually lined up well with the classical definition of socialism.
Over the last four years, the controversy has developed a louder drumbeat. More and more writers decline to split hairs over the precise definition of socialism and instead concentrate on the relative merits of centralized vs. dispersed control over economic decisions, as well as the central question of how a society most fairly rewards the contributions of its members. Ann Althouse is hosting a discussion of the issue this week. One of her readers demanded to know whether she truly thought Obama was a socialist. She replied that it was a question of whether his policies were leading in that direction, rather than whether his convictions met a doctrinaire definition. Other readers are chiming in with methods of describing the spectrum, using the "You Didn't Build That" argument as part of their base. As one noted, it's important to look at the traditional functions of business owners and to examine to what extent government is usurping them. Business owners decide which products they will push and at what price. They hire the workers they need and make their own determination of what price they need to pay to get and keep the workers they want. When the government sets prices, when it subsidizes products it approves of, when it orders consumers to buy products, when it mandates wages and benefits, when it interferes in business-labor negotiations, when it bails out business failures, when it invests directly in failing businesses and picks new executives -- then government may not technically own the means of production, but it's swallowing up the function of owners bit by bit.
The "You Didn't Built That" controversy is inspiring a fresh look at how the members of a society reward each other. Everyone knows that a commercial transaction in a complex society doesn't take place in a vacuum. The most rugged free-market individualists acknowledge the importance of law and order to support a secure and predictable commercial system. Wealthy families are not sending their young heirs to Somalia to get in on the ground floor of profitable trade opportunities. Roads and bridges are a good thing if you want to get your products to willing buyers. Every factory owner depends on supplies and labor to develop into marketable products. But does that mean our system will work best if the factory owner shares more of his profit with whatever group we think is most under-rewarded this season?
The free-market system appears too mercenary for many tastes, because it rests on the assumption that no one should get anything without paying for it. The socialist system, though, is even worse: it assumes that we should all pay for the same things repeatedly. The business owner somehow scraped up initial capital (by saving it, or by persuading others to save it and risk it on him) and spent it to build his plant and hire his workers. It's not as though he passed the hat and asked his neighbors to provide him with their time and goods out of fellow-feeling. If his business was successful, he asked people to part with money before walking out the door with whatever useful product he put out -- but he did part with a valuable product rather than taking the purchase price at gunpoint. He used the public roads and courts and schools, but those had previously been built with taxes on businessmen like himself, and taxes continue to supported the ongoing costs of operation. Must we all be taxed to pay for this valuable infrastructure, and then still listen to complaints that we're getting it for free, and that we owe and owe and owe for the privilege until the day we die (and even then our estates owe)? Must employers pay wages and still feel an undischargeable debt to their workers, or society in general, for the value of the goods they produce?
That's what's wrong with the "You Didn't Build That" speech. We actually did build that, or at least we've already paid our share of inducing other people to build it. It's not the government's place to keep charging rent on infrastructure forever, just because its origins are diffuse. Citizens did it, if not directly then by funding a collective program to do it via government. There is no outstanding bill to pay, no debt of gratitude coming due. We all need to pay enough taxes to support whatever useful things the government is doing if we want them to continue. We don't all owe an extra duty to pay taxes in order to compensate an amorphous body of people who "got us where we are" and are now presenting a new bill for the same old service.