Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cotton Eye Joe

The correspondence of a certain confused LGM reader, who goes off on a rant about how horrifying socialism is and how the country is divided between hard working Americans and lazy moochers of the public dole, would be funny enough in its own right. But tack on the fact that her example of her membership in the ranks of the independent, don't need no government, work for a living crowd is her successful cotton farming operation, just adds a whole new level of hilarity.

For those curious, the amount America spends on (illegal, under international trade agreements) cotton subsidies is $3 billion yearly.

In related confusion about what socialism is, Mark Olson explains that while Barack Obama is not, technically, a socialist, under a more "casual" usage of the term he is, in fact, socialist, because on the continuum of government regulation he is somewhat closer to actual socialism than the speakers making the allegation. There is, of course, incongruity of labeling tax cuts for most Americans (but hiking top income rates from 36% to 39%) socialism, but identifying massive government buyouts and bailouts of entire industries and nationalizing the means of production as, well, something else. But even casting that aside, if Barack Obama is socialist under a definition by which we could call the Cato Institute "socialist" because it is more interventionist than Murray Rothbard, or the Bush administration is legitimately "fascist" because it is more relaxed about civil liberties than the Democratic Party, then it's hard for me to get all worked up about it.


Mark said...

I did not make the claim that McCain was not also a socialist. I also didn't claim that this was a useful remark in the context of the campaign. I was only pointing out that in a common usage of the term the term was being used correctly, contrary to your claim.

Especially regarding the current buyouts and bailouts, in which there is little to no distinction between Mr Obama and Mr McCain's responses ... that is they are both being quite the socialist in that regard (at least in the notion that they are more socialist than me regarding that matter).

Is this a debating thing? You snark up a clever a response but don't actually respond logically to the point made?

If you were to call the Cato Inst. socialist that is not without meaning. It means, apparently for I don't know who Mr Rothbard might be, that you have either located your personal notion or your personal perception of the common notion to be more capitalist than the Cato Institute. That is to say, either your view or what you perceive to be the average view of economics principles places the Cato Institute to the left of that point.

That is the "casual" meaning. You apparently didn't get it what I was saying, which charitably I will ascribe as my failure to make myself clear. For I fail to see how your remarks address that viewpoint in the slightest.

PG said...

But what does this "casual" meaning of the word socialist actually mean? For example, is it used consistently; considering that Obama is simply ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and raising the top marginal federal income tax rate to 39.6%, the same rate it was under Clinton and a great deal lower than it was for most of the 20th century (Eisenhower had it at 91%, goddamn Commie that he was), can I check back on the records of everyone now calling Obama a socialist and find that they described all prior presidents except Reagan and Bush II as socialists too?

In the absence of a consistent usage of the term to describe what it currently is describing (Obama's 39.6% top marginal federal income tax rate), I am skeptical that this is indeed its "casual usage."

Using a word that has a specific meaning simply to mean "more to the 'left' than I am" is an insult to the English language. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's complaint in Mere Christianity that "gentleman," which used to have a quite specific denotation of a man of property from which he derived an income that meant he was not obligated to work, had been rubbished into another synonym for "nice." There are plenty of synonyms for "nice," just as there are plenty of correct terms for Obama's tax plan, redistributivist being the most accurate I know. "Socialist" doesn't make the grade and betrays lazy thinking and writing.

Mark said...

Ah, but it is a common meaning. Consider "liberal/conservative". I recall a quote (lost now) by an liberal arts academic who cited NPR as horribly conservative. This is not an isolated case. Calling one liberal or conservative commonly mean that, on the political spectrum, they are to the left or the right of center (or often ones self). And center in this case of course can really only mean one's own view of where "center" lies.

My contention is that capitalist/socialist are terms used this way as well.

PG said...


Again, on what basis do you claim it is a "common meaning"? Are you willing to bet on whether National Review called Eisenhower a socialist for the top marginal federal income tax rate of 91%? Or do you mean the "common meaning" of socialist is "A Democrat who wants to raise the top marginal federal income tax rate?"

David Schraub said...

No, you made your point rather clearly Mark, it was just a really foolish point. The common meaning of a political term like "liberal" or "conservative" or "socialist" is not commonly used, and certainly not correctly used, to connote "someone closer to that position than I am". Yes, sometimes extreme folks rant about how the Democratic Party is basically an extension of the American fascist regime, or that Republicans are only friendly forms of communists, but we laugh at those people. The common meaning of saying someone is socialist is not that they are "closer to socialism", but that they are actually in the orbit of what socialism is.

Mark said...

So, if someone prefers more government intervention in markets and the economy than is the norm, how is that commonly denoted, if not to suggest that they are trending to socialism, i.e., socialist? Conversely how does one commonly denote someone who prefers free markets, if not as a capitalist? Oh wait, those are the common terms used.

I await your correction was to what terms are more common.

I readily admit and agree that this usage is not "correct". But alas, that's not my point. My point it is a common usage.

Do you really imagine that most people consider an academic definition of liberal (conservative, capitalist, or socialist) when they use those term. Or perhaps do you actually notice that if one is called a "liberal" it denotes their position relative the political center (and the definition of "center" is a highly personal notion as well). Likewise with the other terms.

PG said...


Define 'the norm' of government intervention in markets. I find ridiculous in the extreme any person who denotes Obama's tax plan (which doesn't intervene in markets at all -- they go right on functioning) as socialist, but refuses to apply the same label to having the federal government intervene in the financial sector by buying up its bad assets or buying equity in weak banks. And that is exactly what the McCain/ Palin campaign has done; when anyone points out that the bailout looks awfully socialist, they say, "Oh no, it's isn't socialist because it's necessary."

I have no inherent problem with saying that "socialism" has a more expansive meaning than appears in dictionaries; I simply want to see your evidence for the claim that it consistently is used in the ways you claim it is. So far, you've offered bupkus in the way of proof. Joe the Plumber believes that a progressive income tax system is "socialism," which means Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist.