Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is Barack Obama a Socialist?

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.

--Dan Edge

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bailout Crack

This article was posted on The Undercurrent blog. Please visit The Undercurrent for other articles on the financial crisis.

In a knee-jerk reaction to panic and fear over the current financial crisis, the government issued a $700 billion dollar bailout bill last week. Rather than considering the cause of the “toxic loans” at the heart of this crisis, Congress decided that it had to immediately do something—anything.

What politicians fail to realize, however, is that they are the ones that got us into this mess, and this bailout will only further exacerbate the problem. It is government meddling in the economy that caused the mortgage meltdown. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the Fed’s ability to manipulate interest rates each have contributed handsomely to the disaster. These government policies are the primary cause of the financial crisis, yet our president and both houses of Congress agree that still more government intervention is the only solution.

It is as if a man went to the hospital with low blood pressure and a low heart rate, and the doctor prescribed crack cocaine to treat his symptoms. After all, crack will raise the patient’s heart rate and blood pressure for a while, and even give him a temporary feeling of euphoria. But over the long term, using crack will severely weaken his heart and mind, making him an easy target for any infectious disease that comes along.

This is exactly what the Bailout Bill will do: temporarily treat the symptoms while allowing the disease (government intervention in the economy) to metastasize further. The only way to preserve long-term economic health in America is to attack the disease at its source. End Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, neuter the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development, repeal the Community Reinvestment Act, and take away the Fed’s power to tamper with naturally functioning markets.

--Dan Edge

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Get Over Yourself!

Or: Selfishness vs. Self-Centeredness in Meeting New People

For Objectivists, selfishness is a moral ideal. It is proper for man to act in his own self-interest, and his own happiness ought to be his highest moral purpose. But when it comes to interpersonal relationships, some Objectivists misconstrue the meaning of “selfishness” to mean “self-centeredness.” When meeting new people, or in building relationships, they tend to ignore the values of others. This misinterpretation of the Objectivist ethics implies a failure to recognize the great potential value of other rational beings. One who commits this error can develop and reinforce a social ineptness that cripples his ability to develop relationships.

To illustrate my point, I will take a simple example that everyone can relate to: meeting new people. How does the (rational) selfish man get to know a new person? How about the self-centered man?

[Before one can get to know new people, he must be around them. One will not meet many people by sitting around his apartment all day, every day. Some self-centered men never get to the point of meeting new people because they believe that they ought to be entirely “self-sufficient,” with no need of friendships or romantic love. But I will leave this issue aside for now, and focus on the method that a selfish vs. self-centered man uses to get to know new people.]

The self-centered man (implicitly) believes that his own thoughts, interests, and values ought to be the focus of any effort to develop a new relationship. When he meets a new person, his objective is to tell that person all about himself. “This is what I do for a living, this is what I’m passionate about, these are my interests, etc.” Of course, he will listen to what the new person has to say, but that is not his primary objective. For the self-centered man, the natural course of conversation is: I tell you as much as possible about myself, and you tell me as much as possible about yourself. The self-centered man evaluates new people, not on the basis of their values, but on how they respond to his values. For him, that is what getting to know people means.

As anyone who has met this kind of person will attest, the self-centered approach can come across as aloof, snobby, rude, or disinterested. One gets the impression: “This person is not at all interested in getting to know me, only in telling me about himself.” The self-centered man does not treat new people as potential values. Potential values are to be probed, investigated, and evaluated. How can one evaluate a new person if he makes no effort to discover that which he is evaluating? Though he may not intend it, the self-centered man sends the message that he does not see new people as a value (except as receptacles for information about himself). Not surprisingly, this turns people off.

Since many aspects of one’s personality become automatized, the self-centered man may get the feeling that he is socially awkward, but he doesn’t know why. Social ineptness due to self-centeredness can build on itself, as one automatizes the impression that new people do not value him properly. If the above example describes how you get to know new people, then I advise you to reevaluate your methodology. If one takes the self-centered approach in meeting new people, then he is more likely to be a self-centered friend and a self-centered lover. A friend who doesn’t take stake in your values is not a friend. The lover who is uninterested in your interests is a shitty boyfriend.

How then does the (properly) selfish man approach meeting new people? Because he views other human beings as potential values, he aims to explore the nature of those values. His objective is not to talk about himself, but to explore the values of others. He tries to make the new person comfortable, asks questions, and strives to relate the new person’s values to his own. Of course the selfish man will talk about himself, but that is not his primary focus. Assuming that the new person is also selfish, the probing questions will go both ways: “So what do you do when you’re not working?” “I enjoy reading adventure books like The Three Musketeers. How about you, what are you into? Etc, etc.”

If it turns out that the new person is a dud, then the selfish man has lost nothing. But if the new person is a potential friend (or lover), then he has taken the first step toward treating this person properly as a value. Such an attitude is obvious to others, and is most often greatly appreciated. If you have ever met a man who tried his best to make you comfortable, showed interest in your interests, and strived to relate your values to his -- then you know what I’m talking about. These selfish men are the very definition of social aptitude. They are the men who make friends, influence people, nail the interview, and get the girl. The selfish approach also can become automatized in the subconscious, giving one a feeling of confidence in his social interactions.

The selfishness vs. self-centeredness misunderstanding is fairly common among Objectivists. It’s an easy error to make, but it can be a difficult one to rectify. If you value relationships, make sure you take the selfish approach. And get over yourself already! :)

--Dan Edge