Is America Becoming a Socialist Country? The fear around this issue is that socialism implies a loss of control of individual wealth and the means of production, and may lay the basis for economic collapse.
First of all, let’s look at the definition of socialism. It’s defined as:
“Economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” (Merriam-Webster)
Socialism calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources.
Socialism and communism both build off the premise that individuals make societal contributions based on their own ability, with the government taking a big role in economic planning and controlling institutions. Both remove private business as the producer of goods and services.
Let’s note that there are key differences between socialism and communism (World Population Review).
In a Communist system, people would be given what the government says they need in terms for food, housing, and so on. Examples of this type of regime would be the former Soviet Union and Communist China.
Under Socialism, people are compensated based on individual contribution—people who work harder, receive more.
Communism sees property as public property while Socialism allows for private property—Communism is both an economic and political philosophy, while Socialism is primarily an economic one.
The idea of taking the ownership of business from the hands of individuals into those of the state is very contrary to the principles of capitalism that have been at the heart of the American experiment since its inception. America has always been known as the country where an individual has the freedom to work hard, make their own way, and become successful. Means of production in America are owned by individuals, and organizations, like companies, made up of individuals. Property is also owned by individuals, with the exception of some public lands set aside for the preservation of nature, public transportation like freeways, and lands owned by Native American tribes.
So, America does not qualify as a socialist nation. There is a Socialist Party in America—it sports 70,000 members, but no one who identifies with the party has held federal office for years (CBS News).
The United States is classified as a “capitalist” nation. This means that the economic system is based on a “free market”, where the production and provision of goods and services is almost exclusively conducted by private enterprise.
Socialism does have a history in the United States, though it has never been the prevalent political or economic philosophy of the country. In 1912, Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debbs got 6% of the popular vote for President, and 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayorships, were held by Socialists (Brookings). At this time in history, society saw the rise of the labor movement, the launch of the workers’ compensation system to protect injured workers, and other changes driven by the awareness of the way in which workers were exploited in the unfettered capitalistic system that had grown up as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Writers like Upton Sinclair and others known as “muckrakers” raised the awareness of the plight of American workers and sparked a change of opinion and a new awareness and belief that the owners of America’s wealth had an obligation to the workers who helped create it.
With the Great Depression, the United States took further steps to cushion the blows of unfettered capitalism on the population, with public work programs, public relief, and an enhanced role for government ensuring that financial institutions like banks were sound and safe. The trend continued in the 1960’s with the creation of social security and Medicare for the elderly, and Medicaid at the state level for those unable to pay for health care. Yet, today, the U.S. is definitely still a capitalist country. The ownership of the means of production remains in private, not public, hands.
Is socialism a model for social and economic success in the rest of the world? What other nations are socialist, and how do they compare to America?
Today, the nations that are classified as socialist are Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Cuba and Venezuela are famously unsuccessful Socialist countries, but Bolivia is an example of a prosperous Socialist state—it has cut extreme poverty and experiences the highest GDP growth in South America.
What is far more prevalent today are countries that are not “socialist”, but have experienced success adopting a national agenda that tempers the impact of pure capitalism with programs that provide a safety net for those in need, and access to health care, education – including higher education – and childcare. Many of the nations that went down this path began that journey in the wake of World War II. Although Europe was financially devastated, countries like the United Kingdom decided on principle that its citizens deserved access to universal healthcare, education, and basic financial subsistence.
Countries that are classified as “social democracies” include: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, Canada, Holland, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand (World Population Review).
Some Americans express concern that the United States will go down this path toward social democracy, and many others see it as a solution in the U.S. to close the wealth gap, make education more universally available without accumulating huge debts, and ending healthcare disparities that afflict minorities and other groups. Others fear that our economy will be negatively impacted, that people will suffer from losing some of their rights to succeed or fail, and that it will reward people for being lazy or unproductive.
Are social democracies successful? Nearly all of them rank in the top 30 largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP’s) around the world. And that isn’t their only measure of success. A study of twenty-two social democracies — and the United States — found that they all outstrip the US in general wellbeing as an aggregate of economic prosperity, happiness, poverty and wealth equality, fiscal sustainability, and health.
Let’s look at one metric in this comparison and how it impacts the well-being of citizens as a whole – Health care. Not only do these social democracies have overall better health outcomes than the US, but their citizens are protected from financial catastrophes caused by illness and accidents. A study by whom in 2019 found that 66% of American families who filed bankruptcy cited medical issues as a key contributor — an estimated 530,000 families. This is a stark contrast with countries with single-payer healthcare systems supported by their governments: in those nations, there are no out-of-pocket health care expenses, and thus healthcare-caused bankruptcy are virtually unheard of in those places.
So, it appears that nations that are social democracies have happier people, are doing just as well economically as the U.S., or better, and enjoy a level of personal security knowing that basic needs such as healthcare are met.
Do either of the political parties favor America becoming a socialist nation? Some parts of the Democratic party do support a movement toward social democracy, as a result of the complexity of our society today and the growing wealth gap between rich and middle/lower classes. The Republican party supports unfettered capitalism, with the belief that what is good for business is good for everyone.
Does socialism have meaning anymore? The American conceptualization of socialism is diverse and varies based on who you speak to—according to Gallup polling:
- 23% of Americans think socialism refers to some sort of equality.
- 17% say it means government controls business and the economy. Comparatively, 34% said socialism was government control of business in 1949.
- 10% said it meant the provision of benefits and services, including social services, medicine (healthcare), etc.
Interestingly, since 1949, the number who said it meant government control of business has decreased, while the number who said it meant provision of services increased (Gallup).
So, in conclusion, to answer the question, is America becoming a socialist country, the answer is no. It is capitalistic with an increasing concern for social services and economic equity. Based on the experience of other countries, if America were to move toward social democracy, the result would be positive – a leveling of economic prosperity and security, and equivalent or greater happiness of its citizens.
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