Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do

Every once in a while, Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher) warns against calling Obama a socialist. Here’s a sample:

It is a tactical mistake for libertarians and conservatives to label Obama a socialist. For what will happen, has happened: liberals will revert to a strict definition and point out that Obama is not a socialist by this strict definition. Robert Heilbroner defines socialism in terms of “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.” To my knowledge, Obama has never advocated such a thing. So when the libertarian or conservative accuses Obama of socialism he lets himself in for a fruitless and wholly unnecessary verbal dispute from which he will emerge the loser.

It is enough to point out that the policies of Obama and the Democrat Party lead us toward bigger government and away from self-reliance, individual responsibility, individual liberty, and sound fiscal policy.  If you want to use the ‘S’ word, you can say that Obama & Co. are pushing us in the direction of socialism.  But calling him a socialist is tactically inadvisable.  Never forget that the whole point is to remove him and his gang from positions of power.  To achieve that goal we need to persuade large numbers of fence-sitters that  that he is leading us down the wrong path.  That persuasion is less likely to happen if we come across as extremists who misuse language….

It’s good advice, and not just for the reasons given by Vallicella. It seems to me that persons of the left — and I mean to include so-called left-of-center “liberal” moderates as well as their “bomb-throwing” brethren on the hard left — suffer a not-fully requited passion for government control of almost everything. As long as it’s their kind of government and as long as their livelihoods are unaffected by what that government controls, of course.

How can so-called “liberal” moderates and “bomb-throwers” be brothers under the political skin? Simple. The so-called moderates like to say that they are against socialism — saying that is what makes them so-called moderates. Yet, whenever a something comes to their attention that they consider unjust, unfair, inequitable, and so on, their knee-jerk response is that government ought to “do something” about it, or to endorse (without thought) the usual and inevitable call for government to “do something” about it. In sum, so-called moderates differ from “bomb-throwers” mainly in being less honest with themselves and others about the depth of their attachment to socialism.

As Vallicella says, leftists will argue that Obama isn’t a socialist. But they will do so only because they know “socialist” is a scare word. And they don’t want their “boy” tainted by a scare word. So they will get technical and defend him (and themselves) by denying that he is in favor of something scary

But, really, they don’t care. To be a socialist is a good thing, even for the so-called left-of-center moderate who tries to conceal his true feelings from himself.

And that is the real reason why it is counterproductive to call Obama a socialist. To be thought of as a socialist (i.e., a lover of big, all-powerful government) is high praise to a large chunk of the citizenry. Daniel B. Klein explains:

Government creates common, effectively permanent institutions, such as the streets and roads, utility grids, the postal service, and the school system. In doing so, it determines and enforces the setting for an encompassing shared experience—or at least the myth of such experience. The business of politics creates an unfolding series of battles and dramas whose outcomes few can dismiss as unimportant. National and international news media invite citizens to envision themselves as part of an encompassing coordination of sentiments—whether the focal point is election-day results, the latest effort in the war on drugs, or emergency relief to hurricane victims — and encourage a corresponding regard for the state as a romantic force. I call the yearning for encompassing coordination of sentiment The People’s Romance (henceforth TPR)….

TPR helps us to understand how authoritarians and totalitarians think. If TPR is a principal value, with each person’s well-being thought to depend on everyone else’s proper participation, then it authorizes a kind of joint, though not necessarily absolute, ownership of everyone by everyone, which means, of course, by the government. One person’s conspicuous opting out of the romance really does damage the others’ interests….

TPR lives off coercion—which not only serves as a means of clamping down on discoordination, but also gives context for the sentiment coordination to be achieved….

[N]ested within the conventional view that government is not a mammoth apparatus of coercion is the tenet that society is an organization to which we belong. Either on the view that we constitute and control the government (“we are the government”) or on the view that by deciding to live in the polity we choose voluntarily to abide by the government’s rules (“no one is forcing you to stay here”), the social democrat holds that taxation and interventions such as a minimum wage law are not coercive. The government-rule structure, as they see it, is a matter of “social contract” persisting through time and binding on the complete collection of citizens. The implication is that the whole of society is a club, a collectively owned property, administered by the government…. [“The People’s Romance: Why People Love Government (as Much as They Do),” The Independent Review, v. X, n. 1, Summer 2005, pp. 5–37]

Which brings me to the “f” word: fascism. This is the core meaning of fascism:

Fascism is a system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism. [Morris and Linda Tannehil, The Market for Liberty, p. 18]

That is a proper definition of fascism. It is proper because it is devoid of the emotional baggage that the word carries because of its association with the (rightly) despised regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and lesser figures of the past and present. (That Hitler’s party was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei — is an inconvenient fact, and therefore one that is ignored by the left.) Fascism is not — I repeat — not synonymous with such things as concentration camps and the Holocaust. Those were vile  aspects of Hitler’s regime, but they were not fascistic as such. But — and this is a big “but” — it is the lingering memory of concentration camps and the Holocaust that invests “fascism” with its emotional baggage.

The emotional baggage carried by “fascism” can be very useful to libertarians and conservatives who want to see the back of Obama and his crew of brown-shirts. Why? Because, the Tannehills’ definition of fascism fits Obama’s regime (and that of his spiritual predecessors) like a bespoke suit.

If only Romney could find copywriters who had the skills to connect Obama and fascism — subtly but convincingly.  The evidence is there, it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. The word “fascism” couldn’t be used, of course, because it’s a smear word, and its overt use would backfire. But the word could be implied by factually describing the thrust of Obama’s policies, then adding punchlines like these: “Policies that were disgraced long ago”; “Is this the America you want your grandchildren to inherit?”;  “Utopia comes at a high price.” The punch lines would be accompanied by newsreel clips that do not show Hitler, Nazis, or Nazi rallies, but which unmistakeably depict the Germany of the 1930s. Let viewers connect the dots.

Am I going too far in calling Obama a fascist? I think not. Fascism is simply another manifestation of The People’s Romance:

Notwithstanding the arguments of political scientists – who would distinguish fascism from other collectivist –isms such as communism, socialism, or national socialism (Nazism) – these distinctions are really irrelevant because all these forms of collectivism are equally pernicious to, and destructive of, individual rights and freedom. Leftists like to use the terms fascism or fascist as pejoratives because they naively believe that socialism is somehow less evil than collectivism of “the right” – that the murder of millions of people killed by Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, by Mao in Red China, or by Pol Pot in communist Cambodia somehow was less evil than the murder of millions of people killed by Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s regime in fascist Italy. Leftists have no legitimate claim on the truth, and neither do they have any monopoly on use of the terms fascism or fascist as pejoratives. [David N. Mayer, “2008: Prospects for Liberty,” MayerBlog, January 11, 2008]

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…B.C. Forbes, the founder of the eponymous magazine, denounced “rampant Fascism” in 1933. In 1935 former President Herbert Hoover was using phrases like “Fascist regimentation” in discussing the New Deal. A decade later, he wrote in his memoirs that “the New Deal introduced to Americans the spectacle of Fascist dictation to business, labor and agriculture,” and that measures such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, “in their consequences of control of products and markets, set up an uncanny Americanized parallel with the agricultural regime of Mussolini and Hitler.” In 1944, in The Road to Serfdom, the economist F.A. Hayek warned that economic planning could lead to totalitarianism. He cautioned Americans and Britons not to think that there was something uniquely evil about the German soul. National Socialism, he said, drew on collectivist ideas that had permeated the Western world for a generation or more.

In 1973 one of the most distinguished American historians, John A. Garraty of Columbia University, created a stir with his article “The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression.” Garraty was an admirer of Roosevelt but couldn’t help noticing, for instance, the parallels between the Civilian Conservation Corps and similar programs in Germany. Both, he wrote, “were essentially designed to keep young men out of the labor market. Roosevelt described work camps as a means for getting youth ‘off the city street corners,’ Hitler as a way of keeping them from ‘rotting helplessly in the streets.’ In both countries much was made of the beneficial social results of mixing thousands of young people from different walks of life in the camps. Furthermore, both were organized on semimilitary lines with the subsidiary purposes of improving the physical fitness of potential soldiers and stimulating public commitment to national service in an emergency.”

And in 1976, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan incurred the ire of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), pro-Roosevelt historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and The New York Times when he told reporters that “fascism was really the basis of the New Deal.” [from David Boaz’s “Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt: What FDR had in common with the other charismatic collectivists of the 30s,” a review of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933–1939]

Obama’s regime is nothing less than a new New Deal — on steroids.

Related posts:
FDR and Fascism
The People’s Romance
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Fascism and the Future of America