The Colors of Socialism

Big government, in green, gray, baby blue, and khaki


No more May Day worker rallies. No more sing-alongs of "The Internationale." No more pin-up pictures of John Reed and Emma Goldman. Old-fashioned red socialism has faded into memory, except in such distant outposts as North Korea and Santa Cruz, California.

Yet socialist ideals survive in new guises. In the 1990s, the rhetoric of class struggle has given way to the language of sustainable growth and economic justice. Leftists still speak of anger and vengeance, but nowadays they are just as likely to talk about compassion and sensitivity. Joe Hill, meet Barney the Dinosaur.

Socialists and socialist wannabes haven't really changed their goals–they've just changed their colors. When you look to the left, you won't see red. Instead, you'll see a spectrum of greens, grays, baby blues, and khakis. At first glance, these shades of ideology all seem different. But beneath the surface, they all pay devotion to the same master: a more powerful government. What follows is a brief spectroscopic analysis of our varied modern socialisms.

Green Socialism. Everybody likes clean air and lush landscapes. If you want to sell statism, you might want to wrap it in green. In 1996, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader gained 651,771 votes (outpolling the Libertarian Party's Harry Browne), and a handful of Greens won local offices. The party's national program puts its philosophy forthrightly: "Concepts of ownership are provisional and temporary, to be employed in the context of stewardship and of social and ecological responsibility." While claiming to disown Soviet economics, the Greens also spurn competitive capitalism "because it creates a dynamic of endless growth that is incompatible with ecological sustainability and that fosters greed and domination in society."

The Greens support public ownership of major industries, a guaranteed minimum income, a mandatory maximum wage, and free health care "under democratic public ownership and control." They occasionally praise decentralization, but all their talk of public control suggests that their model is not the United States under the Articles of Confederation, but Yugoslavia under Tito.

The Green Party program might be too bold for mass consumption, but paler versions are flourishing. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Vice President Al Gore says that capitalism's blindness to ecology is "the single most powerful force behind what seem to be irrational decisions about the global environment." Gore proposes a worldwide accounting system "that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies, and larger, macroeconomic choices by nations." He foresees treaties embodying "the regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement mechanisms, sharing arrangements, incentives, penalties, and mutual obligations necessary to make the overall plan a success."

Throughout the book, Gore keeps repeating that he believes in free markets. Right. And Strom Thurmond believes in term limits.

Gray Socialism. The American tradition of individualism holds that able-bodied workers should take care of themselves. Decades ago, supporters of the welfare state realized that they could bypass this resistance by focusing benefits on the elderly, a group with whom everybody sympathizes. Programs for old people, in turn, would create constituencies for more of the same, by creating both a bureaucracy eager to perpetuate itself and citizen pressure groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons raring for more. Social Security thus begat Medicare and SSI.

Large-scale programs for the aged, however, end up affecting everybody. Social Security numbers, which began as a tool for tracking wages, now enable various government agencies to keep an eye on all of us, all the time. Medicare started as a limited effort to help old people with medical bills, but to control costs and prevent fraud, Washington has spread bureaucracy and red tape throughout the health care industry. The feds have turned Dr. Kildare into Dilbert.

Proponents of gray socialism want to give the government even more power. The AARP would solve Medicare's problems through a "comprehensive health and long-term care system that provides access for all," with the money from a value-added tax or increased corporate profit taxes. As for Social Security, gray socialists shudder at the idea of letting individuals choose how to invest their own contributions. One alternative is for the government to put much of the Social Security trust fund in the stock market. Many gray socialists favor this approach, since these stock holdings would give Uncle Sam effective control of large swatches of the private economy. President Clinton says the proposal is "quite interesting."

Baby-Blue Socialism. According to a recent poll commissioned by a group of children's organizations , two-thirds of voters are willing to spend additional tax dollars to ensure children's welfare, and three-quarters are more likely to back candidates who support children's programs. Baby-blue socialists take advantage of these sentiments by framing every issue as a children's issue. Unemployment? Parents need jobs to buy food and clothing for their children. The environment? Hey, children breathe!

If you think I exaggerate, check out the 1996 Democratic platform, which mentions the words child, children, or childhood 89 times. It says America needs the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities because "investment in the arts and humanities and the institutions that support them is an investment in the education of our children." Government-subsidized television is essential because "we want our children to watch Sesame Street, not Power Rangers." The Consumer Product Safety Commission is "an effective guardian of children and families in and around their homes."

Even arms control becomes a children's issue: "Today, not a single Russian missile points at our children." All that time we were trying to protect the Pentagon and Fort Bragg, the Soviets were really targeting Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Khaki Socialism. During the Cold War, most Americans worried about those Russian missiles. This fear was justified, but it had the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to let down their guard against government power. After all, who wanted to oppose measures that served our defense needs? The khaki cloak of national security not only led to the growth of the Pentagon, but also provided cover for the expansion of domestic programs. We had to expand education in order to keep up with the Sputnik-launching Russkis, hence the National Defense Education Act. We needed to make sure military vehicles could cross the country quickly, hence the National Defense Highways. Many even argued that poverty and welfare were national security issues, since U.S. slums provided the Soviets with propaganda material.

This political strategy may have seemed outdated at the end of the Cold War, but it's making a comeback. In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton uttered the phrase "national security" only once–and not in regard to the military. "I ask parents, teachers, and citizens all across America for a new nonpartisan commitment to education– because education is a critical national security issue for our future."

During the Cold War, supporters of government defense policy liked to say that "politics stops at the water's edge," implying that dissent was unpatriotic. Adapting this line to his own situation, President Clinton added that "politics must stop at the schoolhouse door." Mind you, he does not want government to stop at the schoolhouse door–he opposes vouchers. Rather, he wants to declare that Washington's role in education policy is off- limits to fundamental debate and disagreement.

Not every issue lends itself to a national-security justification. But big government's friends can disguise this by using military language as a metaphor. In his Depression-era first inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." Following FDR's lead, politicians would later declare a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, and a Moral Equivalent of War on energy shortages.

Such language is supposed to be inspirational, but its implications are disturbing. During wartime, combatants obey orders and civilians set aside their personal misgivings in support of the national effort. Armies and navies are strict hierarchies that administer rewards and punishments based on bureaucratic rules, not marketplace demands. Indeed, former Navy Secretary James Webb calls the military "a socialist meritocracy." If the whole country ran on that basis during peacetime, it would look like…well, a socialist state.

Khaki can be an attractive color. So can green, gray, and baby blue. But once the paint wears off, you might be stuck with something very ugly indeed.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.