The very usage of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” has evolved past the point of clear meaning.
The United States has never had a meaningful socialist tradition or even a semi-serious socialist party. Socialism in the United States is a fringe movement at best and always has been. This makes the sudden acceptability of socialism all the more surprising. But with one avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, campaigning for the presidency for a second time, and another, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, rising to national prominence from her post in the House of Representatives, American socialism is more mainstream now than at any point in our history.
Socialism Is a Response to Capitalism
Complicating matters, socialism exists entirely as a response to capitalism, as has been the case from the time Marx first put pen to paper. And as if that weren’t enough, the very usage of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” has evolved past the point of clear meaning.
These terms were once very clearly defined. Socialism is state control of the means of production. The intent is that these means are to be used for the public good. By contrast, capitalism is simply private ownership of the means of production. The intent is that these means are to be used to advance the interests of those who own them, which will in turn create conditions of general prosperity that can be enjoyed by all.
When polled, Americans express relatively well-defined views on both. And while nowhere near a majority of the American electorate favors a completely socialist system, a recent Gallup poll indicates that more than four in ten Americans think “some form of socialism” is a good thing. But what is “some form of socialism?” A society is either socialist or it isn’t. The state either owns the means of production or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground. Even our openly socialist politicians rarely advocate anything near as drastic as government control of the means of production.
It appears that what Americans really have in mind when they think about socialism is not an economic system but particular economic outcomes. And their thoughts seem to focus most often on the question of what people should have. The answer they arrive at most often? More than people typically get in a system based on the pursuit of profit. Capitalism, they believe, is immoral because it is a system in which some do without while others have more than they could hope to use in multiple lifetimes.
Transferism Is a More Accurate Term
These four in ten Americans, and the politicians who speak for them most vocally, are not advocating socialism at all; they are advocating what we should really call “transferism.” Transferism is a system in which one group of people forces a second group to pay for things that the people believe they, or some third group, should have. Transferism isn’t about controlling the means of production. It is about the forced redistribution of what’s produced.