Socialism—a word astray in the USA

Photo: Social Security Administration Early (late 1940s) Social Security card.

Photo: Social Security Administration
Early (late 1940s) Social Security card.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In everyday American vernacular, “socialism” has become a tainted word. The roots of that aberration lie in recent history.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office. As a Republican, he in part pledged to counteract President Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, which he contemptuously labeled “creeping socialism.” That term caught on quickly and became part of mainstream lingo.

Though Eisenhower popularized the term, he didn’t invent it. Austrian and British economist Friedrich August von Hayek did, in The Road to Serfdom, a book published in 1944 in which he warned of the threat of totalitarianism that may result from governmental socialist practices. That F.A. Hayek (as he abbreviated his name) was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics together with Swedish economist and politician Karl Gunnar Myrdal further entrenched the term.

The Road to Serfdom became a benchmark work in economic theory, but nonetheless reflected the era in which it was written. In 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Hayek was in Britain. He chose not to return to his native country, as he clearly saw the threat of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National-Socialist German Worker’s Party,” abbreviated “Nazi” in English from the German pronunciation of its first syllables). At the time, another totalitarian country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also had the word “socialist” in its name.

So the genesis of “creeping socialism” being used to mean an unwanted evil best held at bay might well lie in the use of the word “socialist” in the names of these two totalitarian countries of the mid 20th century. If so, the meanings of other words associated with the governing of countries might be imperiled. As enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance, the U.S. is a republic. It practices democracy. Yet these two words are used in the names of two repressive countries, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (“German Democratic Republic”), the former “East Germany” of 1949-1990, and “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the name of North Korea since September 1948.

Misuses of the word aside, socialism actually is a school of thought in economics, as is capitalism, its opposite. The U.S. is considered to be the stronghold of capitalism. The Scandinavian countries and most Western European countries are considered to be socialist democracies. Even so, the economies of most developed countries are mixes of capitalism and socialism. For example, five incentives carried out within the U.S. rank among the world’s largest socialist undertakings:

• The Social Security Administration, an independent agency of the Federal Government, was established in 1935. With an annual budget approaching $750 billion, it now is the world’s largest agency of its sort.

• The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly called the G.I. Bill, offered extensive benefits to returning World War II veterans. The benefits included higher education for millions of veterans, many of whom would not otherwise have been able to afford it. Economic historians consider the G.I. Bill to be the incentive that raised the level of human capital that in turn supported the country’s long-term economic growth.

• The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 funded the Interstate Highway System, then the largest ever public works project in the U.S.

• From 2008 on, the Federal Government poured $200 billion into the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) to rescue and then nationalize them.

• In October 2008, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was enacted. It authorized government expenditure of $700 billion to buy up “toxic assets” choking the financial system.

Interestingly, these five gigantic socialist incentives were enacted independent of politics, the first two under Democratic administrations, the last three under Republican administrations. Curiously, the word “social” was applied only to the first, and the last two were said to be extensions of American free enterprise.

Clearly, there’s no threat of socialism creeping in, as it’s already in the U.S., not always in name, but in quantity and scope, for the benefit of the citizenry. The core difficulty then must be not basic principles, but rather the ways in which words are used. Lewis Carroll pondered that in Through the Looking-Glass (1872), in which Alice discusses word meanings with Humpty-Dumpty:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Humpty Dumpty’s argument was eristic, aimed to win rather than arrive at a truth. Eristic arguments are often heard in court cases as well as in political debate. They may or may not be based on fact. So maybe the time has come to abandon deriding arguments about socialism in the U.S. and face the fact that when applied, it works well.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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