Thursday, October 23, 2008

Socialism and American Public

I have been following the election campaign here in the United States. One thing that stands out is the American public’s fear for words like ‘welfare’ and ‘socialism’! these words seems to have derogatory connotations! It is so surprising, that one presidential candidate should criticize another because his plans amount to ‘welfare’ and sounds ‘socialistic’. I don’t believe that this could even happen. Personal ideological longings apart, what is the harm in taxing those who can afford to pay and spend the money thus raised so that the less privileged could have a better life. After all the richest in this country are indeed the richest in the entire world, if they cannot part with their accumulation for the betterment of their own fellow citizens, what is the hope for the rest of the world which is evidently so much less privileged than all these people?

The first question that arises is why do people fear ‘welfare’?
The first thing to strike me is that this country made enormous gains in the past few decades from free enterprise, much more from open global trade and from low tax regime that now they are scared of higher tax rates? No not convincing enough. Liberalising health care sector, meant hardship to a lot of people but Insurance, Medical care providers, Pharmaceuticals and hospitals made a lot of money. Similarly, in financial sector, investment banks, hedge funds and those rich enough to invest a lot of money made much more money than they had ever done. Now what is the result? Who is bearing the brunt? The ordinary tax payers, small investors who lost money at the stock markets, bonds (issued by companies like Lehman) people who are being laid off left right and centre and those who brought homes at the peak...Why does ‘welfare’ scare even this subset of the population? Does not ‘welfare’ mean cheaper healthcare and cheaper education and better infrastructure for all these people? Is it not the duty of the state to ensure that its citizens can afford these basic facilities?

Before coming to this country I strongly felt that the Indian government is not doing enough to provide healthcare and education to its population, but now I feel it is doing a much better job. Being one of the richest countries in the world and for the small population they have, this country is not taking care of those who cannot afford the expensive healthcare, or the expensive college; whereas in India, there still is something to fall back upon. However poor you are there are charitable hospitals, government run hospitals that provide somewhat inferior quality care, but do offer something which is better than nothing- total exclusion! And education in India! I studied in a government run free school, a government aided college and a government university. The cost of my entire 20 + years of education cannot be more than the fee charged for a single course in the cheapest possible university here in United States! Indeed with all the scholarships that I got, I must have made a lot more money than I paid up in fees. I am glad we do have the option to do that in India. Of course with the increasing richness, there are so many more choices than before, but competition is good for all of us. I strongly feel we have this option in India because our resource constrained Indian governments feels obligated to have ‘welfare’ in mind! The State still feels responsible for the welfare of its citizens, just that they should not be producing cars and incense sticks, but concentrate on schools and hospital.

Why are Americans scared of ‘welfare’? The question still remains to be answered!
Does it have something to do with the cold war era mindset? When it was believed that ‘right’ is ‘right’ because it is opposite of ‘left’? Is it because it is so very easy to obfuscate communism, socialism into sounding similar? That reminds me of the presidential debate in JNU-2004, when a candidate from one of the smaller parties took on the task of differentiating himself from the left-backed major party candidates and did a wonderful job. May be American public needs to hear one good lecture on the topic. Though the aim of this post is not actually to differential between the two ideologies, I will try and do it in may be a few lines!

Socialism could also be a part of a democratic ‘welfare’ state. No doubt the communism had its roots in socialism but socialism is not just communism. In a democracy, there are enough checks and balances to avoid the trap of communism. And what is wrong in providing free health care (education)? The Scandinavian governments do, the French and the British do it. They do not have to shell out $ 700-800 on their health insurance each month. They do pay higher taxes and their economic growth has been slower. But what is the use of having faster economic growth rate that just benefits the rich and leaves the underprivileged worse off? Every research that studied inequalities in the recent decades concludes that inequality has risen; so why do we need growth if it cannot benefit a majority of the population? Life in Scandinavia and Europe is much better than that of United States, is it not? Here it would not take long for a hardworking salaried taxpayer to become homeless and not afford heath care; the possibility is so much more muted in Europe.

Communism on the other hand is a setup which seeks to establish a classless society. Everyone owns everything and everything belongs to the communes. So there is no scope for private ownership, no private enterprise, no private profits, everything is for everyone and people simply disappear never to come back. True this experiment has failed; the proof is Russia and other eastern European states. It kills enterprise, incentive to work hard and breeds a discontent and violence. True, communism and its lack of liberty scared me like hell! I even have nightmares about it. I was never as disturbed as I was when I went through George Orwell. It is scary, but it has nothing to do with welfare.

A ‘welfare’ state can exist very well without even coming kilometres close to communism. They are successful welfare states which encourage private enterprise and private ownership of assets, have vibrant democracies and their citizens are better off that way. Why should social welfare be scrutinised under the leans of communism?
What ever it is the spin doctors are doing a good job of scaring the hell out of American public. The bottom line is, in our enthusiasm for certain jargons and prescription; we forget the aim of ‘society’, ‘government’ and ‘democracy’ themselves. The primary aim is wellbeing of all citizens, if all is impossible; the aim is the wellbeing of a majority of the citizens (Bentham still rules!!!) and it should always be remembered. What ever promotes the wellbeing of the majority should be promoted, cheered and accepted. What reduces wellbeing of the majority should be feared, discouraged and snubbed. It is not easy get lost in the jungle of jargons?

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