Is Having Public Services Socialism?

Are public services such as police and fire departments, and public libraries examples of socialism? Was the public influence in the development of the interstate highway system and the invention of the internet socialist? Here, we will attempt to take on the considerable task of solving these questions without becoming lost gratuitously defining terms.

We will begin on firm ground by asking, “why are we asking these questions?” Well, apparently there is a debate about whether or not the United States should become a socialist country. The people who say that it should have this tactic that they use to suggest that there isn’t really an alternative to socialism, or that the United States is already a socialist country. A notable example is Michael Moore, who said in his 2007 movie, ‘Sicko’, that while thinking about the British National Health System, “it occurred to me that back home in America, we’ve socialized a lot of things. I kind of like having a police department and fire department and the library. And I got to wondering, why don’t we have more of these free, socialized things?” Similarly, comedian Sarah Silverman, in her video endorsement of Bernie Sanders, said, “Fire fighters? Is that something you like to have around? That’s socialism. That’s a socialized program. That’s a program the government pays for so everyone can have it. Not anti-American. In fact, it’s wildly American.”1

And so it turns out that our subject is really an attempt to dismiss the choice between socialism and non-socialism as a false dilemma. We might sum it up, “Doncha know that your opposition to socialism is essentially meaningless?” The opponent of socialism might say that the issue is picking a limit: after all, the socialist wouldn’t support “going as far” as other socialists have gone. A socialist in America doesn’t typically believe that he or she is advocating for America to implement government control on the scale of the USSR (i.e. the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Dennis Prager often says that America could produce the greatest form of Islam, as he believes it did for Christianity and Judaism. But if so, then why can’t it produce the greatest form of socialism? Lenin said, “[w]e know that it may take a long time before help can come from you, comrades, American Workingmen, for the development of the revolution in the different countries proceeds along various paths, with varying rapidity (how could it be otherwise!)”2 There is, then, a time and a place, to note that ‘Nazi’ stood for ‘National Socialist‘, and all the other horribles, but noting them is not really a substantive basis on which to oppose socialism in America. We have, however, reached our first conclusions: the debate over socialism in America is a debate about degree: whether or not a country is socialist is determined by how it is generally characterized. Opposition to socialism is not, then, essentially meaningless.

But we have taken a questionable premise for granted: Why is it that something is socialist just because it is provided for by the government? To maintain this, someone would have to insist that there is no more general description of society than an economic explanation. Socialism is often described as an economic system in which the people at large control the means of production through a democratic process. But that isn’t really a satisfying explanation, or at least it presupposes what it lacks. We have to ask the question: The people control the means of production to do what? For what purpose? If the people control the means of production in order to create an elite, wealthy class, is such a system properly called socialist? Certainly it becomes questionable that such a society is socialist, certainly any socialist activist like the ones in our society would consider such a society to be phony and that the people merely, as Tocqueville said, “console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.”3

We can no longer ignore the considerable advantages of resorting to Classical thought. There can be no doubt that the ideal city Plato creates in the Republic was audacious and bizarre. It is susceptible to a lengthy analysis, but one particular point should be noted here. Plato intends his process of the creation of the city to be a demonstration of the necessary questions that must be answered in creating a city in real life, and therefore in analyzing society. One of the first questions that Plato confronts is what kind of stories will be told to children—he places this on a high pedestal. The city cannot be ruled by philosophers unless it has banished the writings of one of their greatest enemies, Homer. Even if in real life these decisions aren’t simply made deliberately (and so for this reason among others, Plato’s ideal city is impossible, or at least improbable), it is nevertheless inevitable that this question can be answered in the course of analyzing a society. The way people live their lives can be reduced to such considerations without obscuring the substance too much. In this way, a people receive their common education (Greek, paideia) in its most general form—a common education that is actually inevitable in human society. It is this common education that bonds a society together and creates the singular aim that the Greeks knew as the politeia. For an example, consider the recent controversy over the difference between New York values and Iowa values.

For these reasons, we have to conclude that whether something is socialist depends on the answer to the question, “What is its purpose?” or variants of that question. We have to ask, “What is the purpose of a public-run fire department?” just as we have to ask, “What is the purpose of socialism?” Actually, “What is the purpose of socialism?” is the question that is common to any such consideration, whether we are pairing it with “What is the purpose of public-financed highways?” or “public-funded research?” or any such question. So, the essential question here is, or could be stated, “What is the purpose of socialism?” We will only touch on the answer here, since the subject requires considerable analysis. We will ask, What Would Aristotle Do?, and ask, “What is it without which something cannot be said to be socialism?”4 Of course there are tons of answers. Certainly, the socialism that we have as an option is stubbornly linked to the questionable idea of one person, one vote. There is, then, a kind of desire for equality that apparently characterizes socialism. It seems as though I could oppose one person, one vote, but support public services such as a fire department, and thereby oppose socialism while supporting public services. Its not even a matter of degree: its a disagreement about what stories we want to tell children as they grow up. Its a disagreement about what values we want people to have and how we want people to live their lives.

It seems that we have to conclude that it is not substantive to generally characterize public services as socialism. When we consider individually all the public services and projects, we notice that we already have a category for them from economic thought: planning—as in, central planning. Our pair of questions then, is, “What is the purpose of this and that particular act of planning?,” and “What is the purpose of socialism?” As we have seen, planning isn’t necessarily socialism.


1. Vladimir Lenin, A Letter to American Workingmen

2. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America (II, 319)

3. “[‘Primary being’] may mean whatever is intrinsic to primary beings… limiting them and marking them as a this-something, or whatever when destroyed destroys such a primary being,” Aristotle, Metaphysics 1017b15 (translated by Richard Hope).

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