Saturday, October 24, 2009

The importance of definitions

It's interesting when I can get conservatives to talk openly without ranting - because I'm finding that part of the violent disagreement between right and left is differing definitions.  Recently this came to the forefront in two areas:  racism and socialism.  For now, I'll just look at socialism.

On socialism, my conservative friends defined public "services" those parts of our system where we pool together our money for the common good that are basic public needs, e.g. military, police and fire. These services were not deemed "socialist".  A socialist "society" was defined as "where the majority of things are gathered together and pooled and then distributed out based on need vice ability to acquire those needs."  In this view, providing those things deemed basic public needs are not socialist, even if they result redistribution of wealth or taking my money to advantage someone else's business (e.g. building roads, providing fire services to a new housing development).  While the quotes were provided by one conservative friend, a similar attitude was echoed by those who didn't see the home mortgage deduction or similar government tax breaks as socialist.  I could not get a clear sense of when "services" morphed into "socialism" in the conservative view.  I'm hoping that I've fairly characterized this viewpoint - I'm not trying to just knock down a straw man.  But I am looking for why conservatives demonize socialism while supporting what I consider socialist policies, and the above is the only logical explanation that I've found.  We simply have different definitions.  

I see this as a logical/definitional problem that is inhibiting reasonable discussion.  The conservative side sees police services as basic - while some on the liberal/progressive consider health insurance services to be basic.  In effect, the conservative "socialism" is defined so that programs they like are not socialism, and programs they don't like are socialism.   This definitional approach allows the right to use the following syllogism

Federal health insurance = socialism.
Socialism = evil.
Therefore Federal health insurance = evil.

Obviously the validity of the syllogism depends on the second statement, which requires the right to define socialism such that none of the policies they espouse can be considered socialist.

It's tough to have a clear conversation about government programs if the definition of what is a "socialist" program depends on the point of view of the individual and what they consider "basic". The only logical and clear definition of a socialist program is one in which the public combines its money to serve something that the public, through its representatives, decides is in the public good. Thus, the US has a large number of successful socialist policies and programs.  The questions of health insurance reform should be based on whether the individual policies are good or not (there's certainly enough to argue about there), and we should simply throw out arguments based on the "socialism is evil" syllogism as being fundamentally illogical.

"Socialism" shouldn't be the bogey-man; whether proposed policies will be effective or not is what we should be talking about. 

We have nothing to fear but the merchants of fear, and those who willingly buy their wares.

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