Is it socialism? | Guest column

by David Kobrin

Orcas Island

As a boy, it was right for me to fantasize, to imagine possibilities, to think grandly about what I might become.

Now, my goal is to be realistic; to be right-sized; to see myself as neither less nor more than I am. The present is my time to understand what is happening around me as it is, rather than as what I most want, or most fear.

So it’s especially disturbing to hear false stories about the United States that are strongly held, even so fiercely believed that their adherents are willing to die to protect us from a threat that, in fact, doesn’t exist.

A striking example for me of such a belief is that our nation’s economic system, free-market capitalism, based on competition, is now under threat from those who want to replace it with “socialism”. From this perspective, in the United States our economic system depends on decisions that individual entrepreneurs and individual consumers make about what to produce and what to purchase. It is largely free from government intervention. The government doesn’t decide what products are made, or how many, or in what variety, or how much they will cost, or who must buy them.

But is this an accurate description of our nation today? Is the United States strictly a free-market capitalist economic system, rather than an economy controlled by the government? Many people do feel this way.

What I see is much more complex than the simple dichotomy of either “capitalism” or “socialism”. The reality I see is an economic system that is generally competitive markets when times are good; and increased government control and intervention when difficulties arise.

A closer look reveals that “free markets” are not — have never been — perfect. In fact, in many situations, a free-market organization fails. During those difficult times, we the people expect the government to step in and help small businesses and families in financial trouble.

In the past year, for example, the United States government spent almost three trillion dollars to support businesses, corporations, and, to a lesser extent, wage earners, from the economic downturn that threatens us now. It provided direct cash payments, made forgivable loans, lowered interest rates, and revised other regulations to ease the burdens of the troubled economy. In the past year (as it did 12 years earlier during that economic crisis) smaller businesses and larger corporations — including banks, airlines, auto manufacturers, farmers, oil and gas companies — have been saved from crippling losses or even bankruptcy by the government economic decisions.

I want to be explicit that I’m not arguing the question of capitalism vs. socialism; or even whether governments ought to step in with grants, loans, price supports, and new regulations when our economy tanks. What I am saying — with open eyes, I believe —is that the United States clearly has a mixed system with both capitalist and socialist elements. We are not either/or.

Why pretend differently? Why think it is a “fight to the death” to save our nation from the government’s role in the economy when we already benefit from government support, control, and intervention — as needed?

I think the questions we should be asking are:

When is government intervention appropriate?

What form should government intervention take?

These are difficult questions. They cannot be answered with “yes” or “no” responses. But we must start by asking those general questions, using specific, actual examples, case by case.

As for myself, I don’t want to live in a dream world that creates consistency when there is none.