By Any Other Name

October 8, 2015

I’ve been a little confused by some of the stuff I’ve been reading in Christian Democracy lately. It seems there’s an idea going around that it’s fine for a Catholic to be a Socialist so long as he doesn’t believe in the kind of socialism that the popes have condemned.

Now the kind of socialism that the popes have condemned is the one that tells us that all productive property (the “means of production” the socialists call it) ought to be owned by the government (or by the public, to make it sound kinder and gentler). That’s different than a lot of things that get called “socialism” today.

Some people seem to think that things like welfare and food stamps are socialism. But things like that aren’t socialism, they’re just ways of redistributing income to help out those who wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves otherwise. The popes have never condemned anything like that, except to say that people shouldn’t be stuck in that situation, but have the right to decent paying jobs. So if someone is saying that the sort of Socialism where people get welfare until they can get decent paying work is fine by Catholicism, then they’re right. Except that isn’t Socialism. A better name for it would be something like Basic Human Decency.

One other thing that I’ve heard being referred to as socialism now and then is worker owned businesses. But that’s not Socialism either. As a matter of fact, it’s sort of the opposite of Socialism, because in those businesses the workers have something that Socialism tells them they can’t have: ownership of productive property. Now maybe I don’t have the right to tell someone that he can’t call that “Socialism” if he really wants to, but he’s sure confusing me if he does. And I just don’t know why he wants to confuse me.

Picture by Alex Akindinov
It might be that someone who thinks that worker owned businesses are a kind of Socialism are getting Socialism confused with collective action in the business world. But people coming together to run a business or make a profit aren’t being socialists because of that. Otherwise, every business partnership would be at least part socialist, and wouldn’t some stockbrokers be surprised.

On the other hand, it may be that I’m assuming something that I shouldn’t. See, when I talk about worker owned businesses I’m thinking about voluntary associations. But some people might think that worker owned businesses are such a good idea that the government should force everyone into one of those businesses. Now the problem with that is that owning property means that you have some measure of dominion over it, and it just doesn’t seem possible that you could be forced to own something and, at the same time, really own it. Sure, you might get a piece of paper saying you’re a part owner of the business, but it seems to me that, in that situation, the government would really be the owner, and you would be the unhappy subject of forced labor. You might be better off financially than you would otherwise be, but that’s one of the things that the popes criticize about Socialism: it presumes that material benefit is all there is to life.

So I get nervous when I hear the word “Socialism.” The person using the word might have a good heart, and be thinking of a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of. But I’ll bet that a whole lot of my needs would be taken care of if I was put in a zoo, and when someone comes at me with the word “Socialism” I can’t help but worry that he’s thinking about pushing me around.

Louis Rose