A Philosopher's Blog

Transition Savings Incentives

Posted in Humor, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 7, 2014
Social Security Poster: old man

Time for transition? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Faced with the coming Boomsday, Cassandra Devine suggested a modest solution to the problem of funding Social Security: incentivizing voluntary suicide among the baby boomers. The gist of the proposal is that if a person voluntarily “transitions” at age 65, those inheriting the person’s estate pay no taxes. The incentives for transitioning later are lower, of course. Given that Boomsday is approaching rapidly, it seems the proper time to revive Devine’s proposal. The challenge is, of course, to properly sell it so that it can become a reality. Since American political ideology splits neatly into two camps, the liberals and the conservatives, the sale is made easier.

For the conservatives, the sales pitch is obvious: incentivizing transitions is a way to reduce the number of takers taking from the makers. This idea thus sells itself. There are, however, two potential worries here. The first is that some conservatives have religious objections against voluntary suicide and will vehemently oppose anything that smacks of voluntary euthanasia. Two solutions are proposed. One is that conservatives like the death penalty and killing people they regard as being in need of killing. As such, these takers could be cast as being punished for being a threat to America, freedom, and security and perhaps as criminals of some sort. The other is that conservatives are generally fine with heroic sacrifices, at least when those sacrifices are made by others. As such, the transition can be cast as a great heroic sacrifice.

The second worry is that many conservatives are old people. Hence, incentivizing them would reduce the number of conservatives. The solution is to emphasize that this solution is for the poor and pass a special exemption for the wealthy. By casting the poor as takers from the makers, people will embrace the idea of the poor needing to die to get what the rich get for nothing. Since this is the natural order, it makes perfect sense.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a harder sell to liberals. This is because one primary objective of liberals is to ensure that the takers get as much of the makers’ money as possible for as little effort as possible. However, there are two ways to sell the liberals. The first is that liberals are liberal with other peoples’ money and not their own. After all, Liberal Lucile drives her Prius to Starbucks to Tweet, blog and post on Facebook her rants against corporations using her iPad.  None of that liberal lifestyle comes cheap. If Lucile knows that she’ll get her parents’ wealth without having to pay taxes herself, she’ll write a rant about that and Tweet it.  The second is that liberals really like to kill old people—as shown by the Death Panels of Obamacare to the liberal love of assisted suicide. So, this should be an easy sell.

As with any good idea, it makes perfect sense to extend it to cover everything. Why not extend this saving measure to other areas so as to trim the takers that are taking from the makers? One obvious area to address is the whole social welfare system beyond Social Security. People, regardless of age, could be incentivized into transitioning early—at least those who are takers rather than job creators. For example, spouses and family members could be offered a percentage of the benefits of each person in return for the person agreeing to transition at any age. Job creators could also be offered comparable incentives for transitioned employees—this would lower costs and provide new job openings. However, this program should not be pushed too hard: a reduced work force would increase the value of labor and be damaging to the job creators while assisting the unions. Since unions are almost transitioned, it would be tragic if they were revitalized.

Conservatives would surely embrace this proposal on the grounds that takers were being transitioned and jobs were being created. Liberals would, sadly, be more of a problem: as noted above, they are driven to ensure that the takers maximize their take from the makers and they want the poor to be able to lay around all day, watching TV and eating Cheetos. However, the liberal love of fattening the takers is exceeded by their greatest love: maximizing abortions. If this Radical Incentive Program is presented as a matter of a woman’s choice to have a very, very late term abortion, then the idea would be embraced by the liberals with great enthusiasm. However, great care must be taken when handling the conservatives: while they will gladly support any transitions for kids (to reduce the costs of school lunch programs, for example), they will balk at any suggestion of allowing any actual abortions. Conservatives must, as always, be sold by presenting the youth as takers and not makers. Fortunately, people have shown an inability to engage in rational examination of politics and will, as always, see what they wish. For examples, liberals reading this will be enraged at the accurate description of the villainous conservatives, but enraged by the descriptions of the liberals. Likewise for the conservatives.

Working together, we can transition everyone—thus lowering costs and taxes to zero. Transition now for a better tomorrow.

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Obamacare Ruling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2012
HR3590-Patient-Protection-and-Affordable-Care-...

HR3590-Patient-Protection-and-Affordable-Care-Act_1 (Photo credit: Obama For America – California)

The big news today is the ruling on Obamacare. While I am not a constitutional lawyer, the ruling seemed to be fundamentally sound. First, it does seem accurate to say that the commerce clause does not explicitly empower the federal government to compel citizens to buy commercial products. As such, this view is in accord with a narrow interpretation. Second, it also seems accurate to say that the constitution provides congress with broad powers of taxation. The health care tax seems to be comparable to Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid taxes and they set a clear precedent for the ruling.

Interestingly, this ruling is also a victory for conservative principles. First, it validates Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts as well as what his position was on health care until he changed his mind. Naturally, the fact that Obamacare is based significantly on Romneycare and Romney used to be for this approach does not prove that Romney is wrong now. That inference would be fallacious. However, all the arguments that Romney gave in favor of his earlier view still stand on their own merits. As do the reasons that he gives now against his previous view and the view of Obama. Second, it validates the constitutionality of the individual mandate which is not only the product of a conservative think tank but is also a conservative principle. After all, this mandate addresses the current free rider problem that I discussed in an earlier post on this mandate. It is, of course, ironic that the  Republicans are dead set on going after the aspects of the law that have the best conservative foundations. But, politics does not seem to be about holding to a consistent set of principles but rather about saying the other guy is wrong in what he says, even when one used to say the same thing and even gave the other guy the idea.

Obviously, this ruling is not a defeat for Obama. However, it is not a complete victory and the Republicans have the material they need to fuel some serious political rhetoric. First, the ruling makes it clear that it is about the constitutionality of the law and not its wisdom. On one hand, this can be seen as a case of explicit neutrality. However, it can also be seen as innuendo. After all, the assumption is that the court just rules on the constitutionality of laws and to pointedly say that the ruling is not on the wisdom of the law can be taken as implying that the law is unwise. The Republicans should be able to milk those remarks for some small political points. Second, the ruling makes it clear that the mandate is grounded by the power of congress to tax. As such, the health care law adds a new tax and potentially increases taxes (for people who chose to be potential  free-riders on the system by not having insurance). This can be a rhetorical silver mine for the Republicans-they can push the line that Obama went against his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class (while steering clear of the idea that the taxes are to help offset the cost of medical care for the uninsured) and they can hammer away at the whole tax thing, which should be music to the ears of the Tea Party folks.

While condemning Obama for spending so much time of health care, Romney says that his first act as president would be to get Obamacare repealed. This indicates that he thinks it is a matter of top priority. Of course, he can counter by saying that he has to get rid of Obamacare to save the economy. Whether that would work or not is rather an open question.

One rather obvious question is this: what would the Republicans and Romney offer in place of Obamacare? At this point, we have a great deal of vague and empty rhetoric and little in the way of specifics. This is not surprising. After all, Romney has repudiated his long-time views on health care and the conservative idea of the mandate has been bashed. As such, the Republicans and Romney need to start from scratch and that takes time.

I must admit that I have not read the entire act and I do not know what impact it will have. I do, of course, have concerns that it will have unintended negative consequences and I do believe that there are fundamental problems in health care that the law does not seem to address. I do think that we all agree that health care needs fixing. Unfortunately, we also seem to agree that the other guy is always wrong and hence there can be no meaningful compromise.

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Health Care & Compulsion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2012
President Barack Obama's signature on the heal...

President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court will soon be ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. This ruling will, of course, settle the legality of the matter-at least until it is challenged. While the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of the act is certainly interesting, my main interest as a philosopher is the ethics of the matter.

While the law is 2,400 pages long, I will just focus on the ethics of a key part, namely that the law requires people to purchase health care insurance. Opponents of the law assert that this is the first federal law that requires citizens to purchase a product and they typically assert  that this goes beyond the legitimate power of the state. Proponents of the law retort by arguing that the state is acting legitimately. As such, a key moral issue is whether or not the state has the right to compel citizens to buy a product in general and insurance in particular.

On the face of it, the idea that the state has a right to compel people to buy a product seems to be absurd-even when such a purchase would be a good idea. After all, buying and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables is a good idea, yet one would be hard pressed to present an argument in favor of compelling this by law (the Broccoli and Orange Act, perhaps).

To present a more substantial argument, I will begin by noting that I favor a a presumption in favor of liberty. That is, the burden of proof is upon the state to show that the intrusion on liberty is legitimately warranted. While spelling out the various conditions under which intrusion would be warranted goes beyond the scope of this essay, one obvious justification is that the intrusion prevents an individual or group from inflicting unjust harm onto others. Thus, the restrictions on murder, theft and defective products are warranted. Intrusion that are done merely for the good of a person would not be justified, at least if we follow John Stuart Mill’s classic arguments regarding liberty. After all, if I am sovereign over my self, then the state (and others) have no moral right to intrude on my actions when they impact only me. As such, while the state can justly prevent me from selling tainted broccoli, it would not seem warranted in compelling me to eat broccoli-despite the fact that doing so would be good for me. This line of reasoning, interestingly enough, would also forbid the state from making the use of marijuana illegal and would also make laws forbidding same sex marriage morally wrong since they impose on liberty solely to impose a specific religious/moral view rather than to prevent people from harming one another. In fact, the principle that the state cannot compel except to prevent harm would entail a host of libertarian positions on various issues-something that should be duly considered when using such a principle.

Of course, it could be argued that while the state has a right to compel people to not do various things even when they are not harmful to others, it does not have the right to compel people to take positive action. That is, the state can be justified in telling me what not to do, but it has no legitimate right to tell me what to do. As might be imagined, this approach is often taken by folks who want the state to compel people to not do various things (like smoke marijuana or marry someone of the same sex) but who are against this specific act.

While justifying specific acts of compulsion can be challenging, this approach does seem consistent. After all, the principle is that the state cannot compel taking action and can only compel people to not do things. As such, while the state can, for example, forbid abortion, it cannot morally  compel people to buy health insurance.

Naturally, if this principle is used to argue that forcing people to buy insurance is wrong, it must be applied consistently-namely that the state is wrong to compel action and it can only forbid. This would entail that compelling young men to sign up for selective service is wrong. It would also entail that compelling people to pay taxes is wrong. Forcing automakers to include seat belts, air bags, and brakes would also be wrong. Forcing women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion would be wrong. So would forcing children to attend school. Compelling people to serve on a jury would also be wrong.  And so on. Naturally, this might have considerable appeal to some people, but this path would seem to take us into the realm of the absurd (although some, such as the anarchists, would say we are already there and doing this would take us out of the absurd).

The obvious counter is to insist on narrowing the principle from “the state has no moral right to compel” to “the state has no moral right to compel people to buy a specific product.” The challenge, of course, lies in justifying this principle. As might be imagined, the reply that “the state has not done this before, so doing it is wrong” is not a good argument. After all, the mere fact that something has not been done before is no indication of whether it is good, bad or indifferent. This sort of “reasoning” could be seen as a variant on the appeal to tradition fallacy, in that the idea is not that something is good because it is a tradition but that something is bad because it is not.

What, then, is needed is something that shows that the state lacks the legitimate authority to morally compel people to have health insurance while it does possess a right to compel people to do things. The challenge is to show a relevant difference between the insurance case and the other cases in which state compulsion is (allegedly) morally acceptable. The obvious thing to point to is that the state would be forcing people to buy a  product. However, the mere fact that this is different does not entail that it is a relevant difference that make this specific compulsion wrong. After all, the state does compel us to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and is thus compelling us to buy what amounts to health and retirement insurance.

Naturally, it could be argued (as some have) that the state should not do this-that being forced to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security involves an unjust compulsion and thus the state should not do this. This view would allow someone to consistently oppose the Affordable Health Care Act’s compulsion to buy health insurance but at an obvious price-namely the need to be opposed to these three things.  As such, those who do not want to be rid of these things will need another line of attack.

The most fruitful one is that the the health care coverage is a private product rather than a state product. This, of course, does provide a significant difference between the state’s “products” and health care coverage. Of course, it does not provide an argument against the state compelling people to pay into a national health care insurance (as it does with the current national health care insurances, Medicare and Medicaid). As such, focusing on the fact that the product is a private one would seem to help shore up the view that the state should instead compel people to buy national health care-after all, this seems to be well within the legitimate power of the state (at least as it is currently conceived).

Nations other than the United States do, of course, have national health care. Of course, this sort of thing is presented as a worse demon than forcing people to buy private insurance. But this is a matter for another time.

 

 

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Delusions of Self-Reliance

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2012

When the Tea Party movement was in the upswing, comedic critics of the movement loved to point to the wonderfully inconsistent command to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While it is easy enough to dismiss this remark as being an aberration, it actually seems to represent a relatively common ignorance regarding government assistance.

Paul Krugman notes that some of the people who are very vocal in their opposition to government assistance and who often support politicians who promise to eliminate such assistance are themselves recipients of that assistance. This is based on the research of Suzanne Mettler:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

Since all of the above are government social programs, 100% of the people using them have, in fact, used government social programs.

Tea Party

Tea Party (Photo credit: nmfbihop)

In some cases, such as the tax deductions or tax credits, people might believe that these are not government social programs. After all, when most people think of a government social program they think of the government handing out food stamps, cheese, health care or money. However, these programs are government social programs. While people no doubt think that they have earned the credit or deduction, they are actually getting a financial benefit from the government at the expense of the taxpayer. For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same. Naturally, it can be seen as a negative program (paying less) rather than a positive program (getting something) but the results are the same-either way, the person gains from a government social program.

As noted above, people who are opposed to government social programs seem to often be unaware that they themselves are beneficiaries of such programs and they are, as in the quote above, often inclined to want to keep these programs. As Paul Krugman contends, these folks can hold to inconsistent views because they simply do not realize that the programs they wish to keep benefiting from are the programs that they also think they wish to eliminate. That is, they are operating under a delusion of self-reliance when they are, in fact, benefiting from the very thing they profess to loath. This creates an interesting epistemic and ethical problem. That is, they do not know they are doing wrong by their own principles.

To be fair, there are obviously people who are well aware of that these programs are government social programs and they oppose them. Perhaps some of these people even refuse to avail themselves of such programs and live in a manner consistent with the principle that the state should not provide assistance to people.

Even if there are not such people, the arguments against such programs can still have merit. After all, the mere fact that many (or some) people who are against  government social programs in principle also use such programs does not prove that the arguments against such programs are flawed.  To think otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). They might, in fact, be excellent arguments.

That said, the fact that people avail themselves of these programs in seeming ignorance of their true nature is rather interesting. It does suggest that at least some of the people who are critical of said programs are critical from ignorance and that perhaps they would modify their views if they were aware  that they benefited from what they have been attacking. At the very least informing these people would allow them to act consistently with their principles by refusing to avail themselves of such programs. They could simply refuse to claim the deductions and credits, mail back any checks they receive from the state, and refuse to use Medicare. After all, while not practicing what one preaches does not show that the preaching is incorrect, one should (morally) follow one’s own sermons or at least have the decency to remain silent and thus avoid compounding one’s sin with hypocrisy.

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Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2011
Charles Ponzi (March 3, 1882–January 18, 1949)...

Image via Wikipedia

While Social Security has stood up to many challenges, it has often been compared to a Ponzi Scheme. In some ways the comparison is apt and in some ways it is not.

Crudely put, a Ponzi scheme works in the following way. First, a con artist gets people to “invest” in his scheme by promising a (usually very good) return on their investments. Second, to pay off his initial investors, the con artist recruits more investors and uses their money to pay the previous investors. Third, the con artist then repeats the recruitment process to get the money needed to pay off each level of investor. As long as the con artist can continue to recruit enough new investors, he can keep paying the previous investors. However, to keep this system going an ever increasing number of investors will be needed since they are the primary (or only) source of money for the investors (who are typically ignorant of this fact).  In theory, such a scheme could expand to include a vast population, but they typically end before then-usually due to the con artist fleeing with his money or getting caught by the authorities. In any case, a Ponzi scheme has the seeds of its own destruction built into it: eventually it would reach the point when it would not be possible to gain enough new investors to sustain the scheme.

On the face of it Social Security does seem to be Ponzi like. After all, the people who are paying into the system now are providing the money used by the people who are getting the payout now. Also, the system is sustained by new “investors” entering the system. Of course, on these grounds a bank would be Ponzi like: in order to have money to loan out banks need to take in money. As such, they need a constant influx of new money to stay in operation. Of course, banks also get revenue from fees and interest-as such they have a way to avoid the Ponzi fate. In theory, Social Security could operate in a bank like way, perhaps by generating interest on the money and investing it. If so, Social Security could avoid the Ponzi fate.

One major difference between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme is that Social Security does not seem to be operated like a scam: its mechanics are not hidden, it does not seem to be aimed at making a con-artist money, and it is aimed at what is typically regarded as a social good. These seem to be factors worth considering.

Another difference is that Social Security does not offer the sort of returns that schemes typically promise. Rather, people pay into the system and then get back from the system based on their contributions. There is no promise of great returns. Rather, the promise is that people who pay in will get some modest amount back over the years in return for paying into the system. While the money that is paid out now comes from the people paying in now, they will have their turn when they retire. Provided that there continue to be new generations of Americans, the system can be sustained in a way that Ponzi schemes cannot.

Yet another critical difference (which was noted above)  is that while a Ponzi scheme is aimed at bilking everyone involved (aside from the con man), Social Security is intended to provide people with a form of retirement security. That is, its purpose is to provide a social good. As such, it is no more a Ponzi scheme than any other government expenditure, such as defense. Naturally, people can be opposed to this sort of spending (be it Social Security or defense), but calling it a Ponzi scheme is inaccurate in many key ways.

 

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Cutting Entitlements

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2011

One wit recently claimed that America is an insurance company with an army. While this is not completely accurate, it does nicely present our large expenditures: defense and entitlements.

Our defense expenditures are clearly rather excessive. Not only do we spend more than any other nation, we spend more than the next few nations combined. As such, unless we are planning to fight the world, then we can probably trim back a bit. At the very least, we should get the countries we defend to pick up more of the tab. Otherwise, they are just receiving fate entitlements from the United States.

Some defense contractors also receive what might be considered entitlements: being paid far too well for contracts that are rather questionable in nature.

Of course, when people think of entitlements, they tend to think of things like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In general, politicians have been loath to mess with these. After all, they are jealously guarded by a very strong lobby and almost everyone (even Tea Party loyalists) want the government to keep its hands off these sweet, sweet benefits.

While I am in favor of helping out folks who deserve help, these entitlements are often pouring money towards folks who do not, in fact, need it. Of course, it can be legitimately argued that since people pay into the system, they are entitled to get back what they put in. Of course, this view would mean that the people who would need it least would get the most and those who need it the most would receive little or nothing.

If we see these services as “pay in and get back”, then we should dispense with them in favor of private services that offer better returns. However, if they are to be social safety nets, then they should be changed so that the benefits go to those who need them and so that those who need them less receive less. Those who do not need them at all should, of course, not receive anything.

While I would certainly like to get my money back when I retire, I would be willing to forgo this if my own retirement plan (a big part of which is retiring with everything paid off and a substantial financial reserve) turns out to be adequate. After all, I am willing to contribute to the general good-even if this means that I have to do without what I do not actually need, though might be “owed.”

Arguing By Example

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2010
Al Capone. Mugshot information from Science an...
Image via Wikipedia

Like most people, I often argue by giving examples. Also not surprisingly, people often take issue with my examples. As such, I thought it would be useful to say a bit about arguing by using examples.

Not surprisingly, an argument by example is an argument in which a claim is supported by providing examples.

Strictly presented, this sort of argument will have at least one premise and a conclusion. Each premise is used to support the conclusion by providing an example. The general idea is that the weight of the examples establishes the claim in question.

Although people generally present arguments by example in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

  • Premise 1: Example 1 is an example that supports claim P.
  • Premise n: Example n is an example that supports claim P.
  • Conclusion: Claim P is true.

In this case n is a variable standing for the number of the premise in question and P is a variable standing for the claim under consideration. Naturally, people generally do not lay out the premises and the conclusion so formally. Rather, they will say things like “Obama is a socialist. For example, he supported socialized medicine. He also supports other social programs like Social Security.”

So, that is how to build the argument. What tends to concern people the most is how to attack them.

The strength of an analogical argument depends on four factors First, the more examples, the stronger the argument. After all, if you are trying to make a case by weight of example, the more weight the better.

Second, the more relevant the examples, the stronger the argument. Examples that really do not fit or just weakly fit do not provide much in the way of support.

Third, the examples must be specific and clearly identified. Vague and unidentified examples do not provide much in the way of support.

Fourth, counter-examples must be considered. A counter-example is an example that counts against the claim. One way to look at a counter example is that it is an example that supports the denial of the conclusion being argued for. The more counter-examples and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument.  As such, counter-examples can be used to build an argument by example that has as its conclusion the claim that the conclusion it counters is false.

When assessing (or attacking) an argument by example it is important to note that attacks on them generally tend to just weaken them rather than conclusively refute them.  For example, if an example used to support the conclusion is show to actually not be relevant, then the argument only loses the support of that conclusion. If the other examples remain “unharmed”, then the conclusion would still be supported by them. To use an analogy, refuting an argument by example is a bit like trying to take out a building-removing one support will generally not make it collapse. Also, as with structures, some supports are more important than others.

It is also important to keep in mind that showing that an example is flawed or mistaken does not show that the conclusion the example was used to support is false. To use a silly example, suppose that someone claimed that Al Capone was criminal and one of the examples used was that Al Capone rustled camels and sold them as dog food. Pointing out that this example has no basis in fact would not, obviously enough, prove that Al Capone was not a criminal.

One should also be aware that examples are often used in conjunction with other arguments. A person might, for example, present a causal argument linking tax increases and job losses and then provide various examples. Merely attacking the examples does not (in general) harm the other argument. After all, while having a bad example or two to illustrate an argument can have a significant psychological impact, it need not have any logical impact on the actual argument. Obviously, having bad examples in an argument by example would be bad for that argument.

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Does Obama Have a Socialist Agenda?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 5, 2010
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)

Image via Wikipedia

Obama has often been accused of being a socialist and has sometimes been accused of having a socialist agenda. I thought I would take a few moments to sort this out a bit.

The classic form of socialism is an economic system in which the state controls and owns the means of production. In more modern terms, the state would own and control the economic entities of the nation. This is, of course, consistent with private ownership of personal items.

Economic socialism is, of course, consistent with many political systems ranging from democracy to totalitarianism.  After all, there could very well be direct voting by the people while the state owns and controls the economic entities.

There is a tendency to confuse socialism with totalitarianism. Under totalitarianism, the state has complete (total) control over all aspects of  life. Obviously, complete totalitarianism would also be socialist in character, since the state controls everything and thus controls the economy. But, this does not entail that all socialist states would be totalitarian (the fact that All Ss are Ps does not entail that all Ps are Ss). Not surprisingly, some folks accuse Obama of also having a totalitarian agenda, but that is a subject for another time.

There is also a tendency to take almost anything the state does as socialism. These cases typically involve the state using tax revenue to provide public goods. For example, Social Security is often cast as socialist because of this.

Getting back to the main point, does Obama have a socialist agenda?

Under the definition of classic socialism, clearly not. Obama’s actions seem to point towards a clear desire to keep the economic system in private hands. Obviously, folks will point towards GM as an example of his socialism. True, the state did take control of GM. However, the plan is for GM to eventually be private again. In this case, the state is acting like a corporation-providing cash in return for control.

It might be argued that Obama as a socialist agenda under a very broad definition of socialism: he wants to expand state power and use the tax payers’ money t0 fund social programs. Under this definition he would be a socialist. But, of course, every government would also be socialist. In this case, the charge of socialism would be as meaningful as accusing Obama of being a politician or a human being. After all a charge that applies to everyone really cannot be a special problem for anyone. So, Obama is a socialist on this view. So was Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes.

But, one may ask, what about his secret agenda? Well, if it is secret…how do you know he has it?

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