In discussing the McCain campaign’s bizarre fascination with socialism, this week’s New Yorker takes us down a path that labor historians trod often:
There is a whole shelf of books on the question of why socialism never became a real mass movement here. For decades, the word served mainly as a cudgel with which conservative Republicans beat liberal Democrats about the head. When Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan accused John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of socialism for advocating guaranteed health care for the aged and the poor, the implication was that Medicare and Medicaid would presage a Soviet America. Now that Communism has been defunct for nearly twenty years, though, the cry of socialism no longer packs its old punch.
Say what you will, at least Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan understood what the word “socialism” means: government ownership of a firm that competes with business in the private sector. Presumably, government-run health care would make the survival of private companies harder. Those of us who advocate for such a program do so because we care more about assuring every American coverage than we do about the profits of HMOs.
Progressive taxation, on the other hand, has nothing to do with socialism no matter what Sarah Palin tells you:
“See, under a big government, more tax agenda, what you thought was yours would really start belonging to somebody else, to everybody else. If you thought your income, your property, your inventory, your investments were, were yours, they would really collectively belong to everybody. Obama, Barack Obama has an ideological commitment to higher taxes, and I say this based on his record… Higher taxes, more government, misusing the power to tax leads to government moving into the role of some believing that government then has to take care of us. And government kind of moving into the role as the other half of our family, making decisions for us. Now, they do this in other countries where the people are not free. Let us fight for what is right. John McCain and I, we will put our trust in you.”
It’s taken me 24 hours to figure out what that quote reminds of and it’s Henry Ford’s $5 day. This is the 1914 Ford press release from that momentous announcement as quoted in David L. Lewis’ book on Henry Ford’s public image:
In order that the young man from 18 to 22 years of age may be entitled to a share in the profits he must show himself sober, saving, steady, industrious and must satisfy the superintendent and staff that his money will not be wasted on riotous living.
Lewis goes on to quote a French intellectual I’ve never heard of:
“Let me speak plainly: I consider that what Henry Ford accomplished [in] 1914 contributed far more to the emancipation of workers than the October Revolution of 1917.“
Let’s recap: when government takes care of us it’s a nightmare. When employers take care of us it’s standard operating procedure. Scratch that: A big part of the problem today is that employers don’t take care of their workers any more. In a democracy, we can actually control how government treats us through the ballot box. In Henry Ford’s day, all the workers could do is quit and starve. Now all most workers can do is keep working and eventually starve anyway.
No wonder nobody’s afraid of socialism any more.