Sunday, August 30, 2009

National Policies, the Market Economy, and "Socialism"

This book (and blog) is about more than agricultural policy; it’s really about national policies, in general. Of course, I explain many details about the politics surrounding the formation and development of agricultural policy in the United States.

But, the explanation that the book offers for why we have this particular agricultural policy – one that relied heavily on national regulation for most of the twentieth century – applies in varying degrees to other national policies, including labor, social security, welfare, and health care policies. The case that I examine just happens to be agriculture.

My focus is how the market economy prompts political coalitions (sometimes unexpected coalitions) that can reshape national policies. I see these same dynamics in recent policy debates.

This perspective leads me to find much of the debate around health care to be overly simplistic – especially the references to “socialism.” Critics of the Obama administration have called the president and his policies “socialist” for some time now, but the charges have grown more frequent and more vocal in the battle over health care.

Why are the president and his policies socialist? At least part of the answer is because the policies bring more regulation and government oversight, more government influence over businesses and their practices, and more taxes (at least to some degree) and redistribution of wealth. In other words, government policies are socialist to the degree that they limit the operation and functions of the market economy.

There are important parallels to be found in past arguments about federal policies, which often revolved around similar questions: Is a policy “socialist” if it intervenes in the market economy? Are people/groups who favor such policies “socialist”? Do such policies lead to “socialism”?

We might pause, therefore, and ask if these attributes (e.g., more government regulation and influence) really make a person or a policy “socialist.” Stepping back for a moment and considering some of our own political history suggests that these charges are typical political name-calling. By taking this perspective, we can see that more is going on, and we can look a little deeper into the underlying political context.

For instance, we might ask, who receives and advocates for such government support and regulation? And, who makes the charges of “socialism”?

Over the next couple of weeks, I will draw on several historical examples of policies that have seen such charges of socialism. My first essay will focus on an example from agricultural policy in the 1950s, which is the story with which my book begins.

But, other forthcoming essays will also draw parallels with policies related to the coal industry, economic policies surrounding the civil war, and of course the last attempt at health care reform in the Clinton administrations.

What I will show that who opposes the market economy is sometimes quite surprising. Quite often, the proponents of such national policies hardly qualify as “socialist.”

So, stay tuned.