Obama favors a public option to provide most Americans with health insurance; for this he has been labeled a socialist. In fact, what Obama is suggesting is a far cry from socialism. Here is what Obama would be saying and doing if he were a socialist.
If Obama were a socialist he would try to change the system of property rights that allows wealthy individuals to own the means of production on which we all depend for our livelihoods. He would argue that by owning and controlling these means of production, the wealthy are able, systematically, to take advantage of us as working people.
If Obama were a socialist he would point out that each of us, in our work, produces more value than we receive but that this extra value becomes the property of the owners of the firms. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics an unskilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. produces about $160,000 of new value annually and receives $30,000 in wages. The extra value of $130,000 is claimed by the owners and used to meet the operating expenses of the firm. As working people we don’t get to participate in decisions concerning how the extra value we create is used. We also don’t get to participate in decisions concerning how the work we do is organized or how much of the value we create we get to keep.
If Obama were a socialist he would know that owners comprise a very small segment of the population and their ability to confiscate this extra value allows them to make themselves wealthier at our expense. The very wealthy, just a sliver of the population, own and control most of the business wealth. It gives them enormous power and placing us, the working people who created that wealth, in a situation of subservience. Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and other advocates of capitalism celebrate ‘free choice’ and ‘freedom from tyranny’ but in reality, those who control the extra value we create have considerable power over the rest of us – power to determine how the workplace is organized and controlled, power to influence the laws that regulate the market, power to withhold access to the means of production on which we all depend if their interests are not being served. If Obama were a socialist he would work to reduce or eliminate the influence of these owners on our elected representatives and on the powerful constituencies of government including the military and prisons.
If Obama were a socialist he would try to change our undemocratic and exploitative system by giving working people a say over how the extra value we create is used and by giving us real influence in politics. He would advocate for publicly funded elections so that we could elect representatives to take real steps to curb corporate power. He would also argue that we have a right to participate on the boards of directors of firms because the extra value we create results from our work effort and thus should belong to us. He would say that when you or I do something or make something we ought to have the right to have a say in what happens to it; if we are denied that right we are being treated as an object, not as a subject imbued with a conscience and a will. He would point out that giving working people these rights is entirely feasible, as has been demonstrated by the productivity and viability of worker-owned enterprises both at home and abroad. If Obama were a socialist he would want to use his considerable influence to convince working Americans that we are being duped when we think our system is democratic or that it makes us free.
Obama is not a socialist. In the health care debate he is not fighting the stranglehold that insurance and drug companies have on politics. He is not arguing that doctors, nurses, technicians and staff should own and operate hospitals; that insurance companies should be run by the adjusters themselves, or even that as citizens and taxpayers we have a right to form a state-run single payer health insurance provider – a right that is enjoyed by working people in every other industrialized nation.
You may not like what Obama is doing; you may not approve of the modest protections he is trying to include in our wasteful and immoral privately owned health care system. But don’t call him a socialist.