The charge that Barack Obama is a socialist comes from several different sources: journalists, politicians, and many Objectivists among them. "Socialist" is used as a negative pejorative term, meant to associate Obama with bloodthirsty savages like Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao. Most who make the charge do so in an attempt to differentiate Obama from John McCain, ostensibly to advocate a McCain presidency. McCain may be a Big Government Republican with a Neo-Con running mate, the argument goes, but at least he's not an outright socialist like Obama.
But does the term apply?
Before one can answer that question, he must first determine what socialism is. (Note that this process is very different from determining what the meaning of the word "is" is.) So what is socialism? The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines socialism this way:
"1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done"
Socialism is a political-economic system in which the government owns and controls all property. This theory is based primarily on the work of Karl Marx, an influential German philosopher who has achieved iconic status in communist countries. Marx believed that capitalism was part of a historically inevitable series of political-economic systems that would eventually result in a classless, stateless society of communes. Socialism, he thought, was a transitionary system between capitalism and communism in which the working classes (the proletariat) would violently revolt against the wealthy (the bourgeoisie), and establish a dictatorship in which the government owned and distributed all property.
So in asking whether Obama is a socialist, one is really asking: Does Obama believe that the government should own and distribute all means of production? Does he believe that rule by the proletariat is historically inevitable? Is he planning for a violent overthrow of the incumbent capitalist system?
One could argue that the answer to the first of these questions is "yes." Obama is pushing for higher taxes and more government controls. He wants to take money from the bourgois to give it to the proletariat. But a desire for bigger government does not make one a socialist. There are many different belief systems which advocate government control over property: Facism, Sharia Law, and other forms of theology, just to name a few. All these political systems are collectivist and statist, but they are not all socialist. Socialism is something very specific, as outlined above.
My conclusion is that Obama is not a socialist, any more than McCain is a socialist. Though their rhetoric differs (in non-essential ways), they both advocate some mixture of statism and capitalism. Both will increase the size of the federal government. Both support government intervention in the banking system, as we saw a few weeks ago. Both support welfare, Medicare, and Social Security. Both support reducing "emissions" to save Mother Earth. On nearly every major policy issue, Obama and McCain are indistinguishable.
Why do I make this point so strongly? Well for one, because it makes no sense to base one's vote on misapplied terminology. The term "socialism" is being tossed around as if it's synonymous with statism. Socialism is an emotionally charged word which incites visions of the dictatorships in U.S.S.R., North Korea, and China. If you are planning to vote against Obama simply because you think him a "socialist" while McCain is not, then I advise you to reconsider.
Also, as rational men we should be specific in our identifications of ideologies and their adherents. If Ayn Rand was right, and I believe she was, then it is ideology (philosophy) which moves the world. Properly identifying ideological movements is critically important to determining in what direction a nation is moving. In my opinion, socialism is dead, and has been dead for decades. No one believes in the historical inevitability of communism any more. No one believes that the proletariat will initiate a violent overthrow of government all over the world. These ideas have been so thoroughly discredited (and even demonized in the U.S.), that no one in the Western World takes them seriously any more.
But that does not mean that statism is dead. Statism is alive and well, but in the U.S., it still lacks an integrated, organized ideological movement to serve as its vehicle. Some have argued that the Neo-cons, with their "compassionate conservatism," now qualify as the most integrated movement advocating statism. I don't know if this is true or not, but it is definitely something we should be thinking about. Throwing the "socialism" charge around only muddies the issue further.