Meet the Real Socialists

Some very intelligent, successful conservatives strongly believe President Obama is a socialist, based largely on his health care reform plan and comments he’s made about wealthy people paying their fair share of taxes.

But I don’t think they understand what socialism really is, maybe because it was never as powerful a political movement in the US as it was in other countries.

Here’s the Merriam-Webster Free Dictionary’s definition:

a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.

True socialists, like the postwar British Labour Party, believe government ownership of industry is the best way to organize an economy. British Airways, British Telecom, and others were actually controlled by the state until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privatized them.

We have nothing like that in the US. Banks and auto companies that got government bailouts during the financial crisis are now nearly all back in private hands.

Even health care reform, in which for-profit health insurers would compete with government-sponsored insurance exchanges, wouldn’t meet the definition of socialism, although a government-controlled “public option” probably would. (The individual mandate is borderline: People are free to buy health insurance from private insurers, but they’re compelled by the state to own something.)

But look beyond our borders and you can see the genuine article—in France, for instance, the first round of whose presidential election takes place Sunday.

The leading candidate is a Socialist, François Hollande. He wants to roll back the retirement age to 60 from the current 62, boost marginal tax rates to 75% for those earning €1 million a year, and in a more extreme version of the Volcker rule, ban important national banks from engaging in speculative trading

Leftist French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/tangi_bertin.

But he’s got an even more radical candidate to his left. Former Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is surging in the polls, and he may get in the high teens in Sunday’s balloting. But he isn’t likely to make it to the run-off. He has assembled a zombie coalition of the Old Left—trade unionists, radical students, and even the Communist Party. Thousands of attendees wave red flags at his rallies and think it’s 1968 again.

Mélenchon’s policy proposals include rejecting the European Union’s fiscal discipline, raising the minimum wage by 40% and confiscating all income above €376,000 (almost $500,000) a year. Confiscating? That’s what we mean by socialism, folks.

But wait—there’s an even better example south of our border.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Expectativa Online.

In a stunning move this week, Argentina’s president Cristina Fernandez issued an emergency decree to nationalize Argentinian oil company YPF by seizing nearly all of Spanish oil company Repsol’s controlling stake in the company.

The Fernandez government had battled Repsol for months, demanding it ramp up production as Argentina was forced to spend billions on oil imports. But critics said the problem was overspending by Argentina itself, a country that had defaulted on its debt 11 years ago.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said it best: “No one in their right mind is going to invest in a country that expropriates investments.”

“I am a head of state and not a thug,” President Fernandez declared.

But her thuggish actions are just what conservatives have rightly criticized about statist, socialist regimes.

Still, this is a long, long way from the Buffett Rule or eliminating the Bush tax cuts for top earners. Those may or may not be good policies, but they’re not socialism, either. Thank God.

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