Acton Institute Powerblog

Socialism in America

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A great deal has been made in recent weeks about Ronald Reagan‘s critique of nationalized or socialized health care from 1961:

We can go back a bit further, though, and take a look at an intriguing piece from 1848, a dialogue on socialism and the French Revolution and the relationship of socialism to democracy, which includes Alexis de Tocqueville‘s critique of socialism in general.

One interesting note is that Tocqueville identifies one of the traits common to all forms of socialism as “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man,” including the exhortation, “Let us rehabilitate the body.” Reagan’s point of departure in his broadcast is the observation that “one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.”

And here’s Tocqueville on socialism in America:

America today is the one country in the world where democracy is totally sovereign. It is, besides, a country where socialist ideas, which you presume to be in accord with democracy, have held least sway, the country where those who support the socialist cause are certainly in the worst position to advance them[.] I personally would not find it inconvenient if they were to go there and propagate their philosophy, but in their own interests, I would advise them not to.

It may well be that ideologically democracy (as Tocqueville conceived it) and socialism are opposed, as Tocqueville claims. But historically they may well be linked. Lord Acton connected “absolute democracy” (something like majoritarian rule) to socialism: “Liberty has not only enemies which it conquers, but perfidious friends, who rob the fruits of its victories: Absolute democracy, socialism.” And once the majority discovers that it can use the power of the State to plunder the wealth of a minority, the road is well-paved toward socialism.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    Very interesting points. I have thought for a long time that the secret to socialism was the death of Christianity. In spite of our “democracy” in the US, we showed no interest in socialism until traditional Christianity began its decline in the late 19th century. Traditional Christianity, what used to be called fundamentalist Christianity, promotes the sanctity of property and envy as evil. Socialism promotes envy and the destruction of property rights. Christianity affirms original sin and that only God can do something about human nature. Socialism promotes the idea that man is born good and only become bad because someone oppresses him, although they never explain how the oppressor went from being a good boy to an evil oppressor. So socialism claims to be able to usher in the kingdom of God without needing God, while traditional Christians knew that only God can usher in the kingdom.

  • I’m thankful to Jordan for the YouTube access to President Reagan’s 1961 warning and the trove that “click” produced. “The Speech” as Reagan’s address to the 1964 Republican Convention in support of Barry Goldwater is famous but not viewed or recalled as much as it should be. I encourage all to probe around the link and watch it.

    One of the things you discover watching old events is reference to the current events of those days gone by. Reagan’s reference in “the speech” to two Lyndon B Johnson associates — Billy Sol Estes and Bobby Baker — took me to Googling the names and what I discovered was very interesting.

    Check it out. Even if only half of what is reported was true, it’s still quite a story of massive corruption. Almost as exciting as I and II Kings.

    Billie Sol Estes
    Bobby Baker

  • I have been considering my thoughts about the current American political scene quite a bit lately. One reason I have been contemplating all this is that I have been sent, frequently of late, a lot of negative e-mail and video clips about President Obama’s supposedly Socialist agenda. Many of the YouTube style videos out on this have the comments either cut off or moderated pending approval. This is kind of funny when the videos are often accusatory about president Obama and/or representatives of his administration being asked and supposedly tough questions and then supposedly dodging answering them sufficiently.

    I was also sent this video you have posted from old recordings of Reagan. At first listen it does seem to make a strong case against the healthcare proposal being debated today. It was intriguing enough to make me dig further on the subject and Reagan’s views. Then I realized something that many of the people circulating this clip as part of the present debate have flatly ignored or perhaps even suppressed. Reagan was speaking specifically about Medicare in this recording. It is worth noting that the medicare legislation that he was addressing was passed. Subsequently, none of the things that Reagan was prophesying came to pass. There has been no collapse of freedom and democracy and none of us are as of yet, slaves. Now, one could make the case for slow erosion of freedoms I suppose- but, to simply ignore or suppress that Mr. Reagan was predicting doom and gloom over what has been a beneficial program that FEW Americans, conservative or otherwise want to surrender, is disingenuous and/or opportunistic.

    People often see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. This is an innate feature of humanity it seems. Those that are observant will see many prime examples of this in the political discourse of nearly every single day right now.

    Here is what I have seen transpire over recent years.

    First, when former President George W. Bush wanted to implement his tax cuts for the wealthier American citizens and businesses, McCain opposed it and voted NO (neaux).
    McCain said it would hurt the middle class and the less fortunate. Go check the voting records.

    During Obama’s campaign for the presidency he explained that he was seeking to essentially roll those same tax cuts that John McCain opposed back and instead give them to the middle class and less fortunate (ironically, like Joe the plumber). Suddenly Obama was labeled a socialist and commie according to the McCain- Palin campaign and right wing America. This, I thought to myself, was an insult to the intelligence of EVERYONE.

    Secondly, there was this from the Constitution:

    Passed by Congress July 2, 1909. Ratified February 3, 1913.

    The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever sources derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration. The income tax is collected yearly on a percentage basis. The higher the earnings, the higher the percentage collected from them. This changes article 1 section 2.
    So then, we have had a progressive income tax in America for many years. That’s the way its been done for a couple of lifetimes. Considering that, these charges of socialism and the evils of wealth redistribution and revolutionary radicalism levied against now President Obama regarding his taxation plans and programs don’t really have much teeth after all. Anybody that yet believes that President Obama is a total socialist/communist obviously has not really read the Communist Manifesto and does not really know what the definitions of socialism are. The best one can come up with is a few quotes by Karl Marx that seem to parallel some quotes by President Obama. I can produce quotes from any American leader in the last 200 plus years that parallel ideas by many other notorious dictators from Saddam to Stalin to Hitler. So what? Such comparisons are usually just political gamesmanship or shortcuts to actual analysis.

    I have discovered in my own studies and research that President Obama is not a socialist if you ask a socialist; Greg Pason, National Secretary of the Socialist Party USA and David Schaich, Socialist Party Campaign Clearinghouse Coordinator both say he’s …definitely not. Schaich says: “The idea that Barack Obama is socialist, or quasi-socialist, or semi-socialist, or socialist-light, or anything of the sort, is far-right nonsense. Barack Obama, like John McCain, is very much a ‘politician as usual,’fully committed to the continuation of the capitalist system and the expansion of its empire.” A socialist agenda (even a reformist one) would not prop up capitalism and capitalist economies or companies when they fail, but rather sieze upon the opportunity to radically transform the economy. None of President Obama’s proposals or programs offer any perceptible threat to capitalism. These quotes and many others were easily found in cursory research of the actual question of whether president Obama is a socialist- rather than a blind acceptance of the precept that he is or a search for evidence to prove a pre determined premise.

    I will also say that it is kind of hollow to be complaining about socialism and/or communism or using words like “liberal”, “socialist” or “communist” as pejoratives when our homes and store shelves are jampacked with goods made in COMMUNIST China and nearly every dollar we spend at places like Wal-Mart fattens up China with its terrible human rights record and its RED, NUCLEAR CAPABLE ARMY. Unless you do not buy, sell, trade, consume or own anything from China you simply cannot gripe about socialism and/or communism without being a hypocrite.

    Now, communism or capitalism are both worldly systems flawed by fallible humanity and self interests and vested interests of the wealthy and/or powerful. Neither system is really, intrinsically more or less evil than the other. I have seen no convincing evidence that God is a capitalist. In fact, as As C.S. Lewis pointed out in “Mere Christianity”, a great deal of what is condemned nowadays as leftist or subversive is found in the teachings of Christ as in the Sermon on the Mount and also in the New Testament as written by Paul- like sharing, concern for fellow man, love of enemies, the peaceable as opposed to militaristic nature, the humility and meekness as opposed to crassness, the aversion to worry and fear, etc. The “religious right” which is participant in much of this cant and fear mongering and worry about the evils of socialism would do well to remember some of that. Now get this straight, I am neither capitalist or communist- both systems are worldly and ultimately doomed to failure by human factors- not to mention the natural cycles of history and/or God’s intervention and plan for human history, if one believes in that sort of thing (I do).

    With all of this hullabaloo about wealth redistribution, many “conservatives” seem to have forgotten what Sarah Palin did in Alaska:

    Palin’s criticisms of President Obama’s “spread the wealth” remarks are ironic to put it nicely and plain old campaign Bull in the street vernacular. She recently characterized Alaska’s tax code in a very similar way. Just last month, in an interview with Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker, Palin explained the windfall profits tax that she imposed on the oil industry in Alaska as a mechanism for ensuring that Alaskans “share in the wealth” generated by oil companies:

    And Alaska—we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs. … It’s to maximize benefits for Alaskans, not an individual company, not some multinational somewhere, but for Alaskans.

    In fact, Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES) program, which manages the redistribution of oil wealth in Alaska, brings in so much money that the state needs no income or sales tax. In addition, this year ACES will provide every Alaskan with a check for an estimated $3,200.

    Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it?

    Perhaps the McCain- Palin supporters or “conservatives” see some important distinction between what Obama is talking about and what Palin has done to redistribute wealth in Alaska that I am missing it and I need a far greater intellect to tell the difference? I submit, though, that it is at least possible, if not very likely, that just as McCain and Palin were trying to win a campaign, many “conservatives” and/or “conservative” politicians are now simply trying to cost the current President some political capital so as to increase their chances at regaining seats of power and they are in fact self contradictory and just don’t know it or don’t care. I submit that ascertaining that really only only requires the analytic skills of say… a sincere fifth grader with a speck of curiosity, objectivity or self critical analysis.
    It seems to me that the American system has long been a sort of hybrid of capitalism and so called socialist ideas, what with things like Social Security, Medicare, corporate subsidies and bailouts, welfare, and all sorts of other programs designed to make our system work more smoothly and not implode upon itself due to imbalances in it. “Liberals” certainly seem to idealize and overestimate the amount of actual good and prosperity can be achieved by way of good intentions and throwing money at problems. Conversely, “liberals” tend to underestimate how much the flaws of human nature can be suppressed using these same means. In the end, both “conservatives” and “liberals” both seem to have Utopian ideas about the perfectibility of human nature and how good things could be if they could just convert or eliminate each other or the “others” they fancy as “them”. I myself am an idealist- but not as much of one as those who proudly wear the labels of “conservative” or “liberal”…. I do try to stay grounded in a reality based world view.

  • Roger McKinney

    Scott: “I have seen no convincing evidence that God is a capitalist.”

    God is the original Capitalist. He commanded “Thou shalt not steal.” That command applies to all governments, including democracies, as well as individuals. The will of the majority does not trump the will of God.

    Scott: “In fact, as As C.S. Lewis pointed out in “Mere Christianity”, a great deal of what is condemned nowadays as leftist or subversive is found in the teachings of Christ as in the Sermon on the Mount…”

    The Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s writings are directed at personal behavior, not state policy.

    Scott: “Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it?”

    Many of us have known for a long time that Democrats are socialists and Republicans socialist-lite.