"Barack Obama is a socialist."
Heard that one before? Of course you have. In fact if polling is to be believed, it's more likely than not that you have accepted this premise at some point in the not too distant past.
Two summers ago a poll conducted by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg found that 55 percent of registered voters nationwide believed the term socialist accurately applied to Obama. In fact 33 percent of respondents -- a third of all registered voters in the nation -- believed the term applied to Obama "very well."
More recently a Pew Center survey on some of our nation's most commonly used ideological labels revealed that 60 percent of Americans have a negative impression of the word "socialism."
But is Obama a socialist? And if he's not -- what is he?
Certainly there is a compelling case to be made that Obama is a socialist in the contemporary sense -- much like the French Socialists, who are proposing massive tax hikes on the wealthy after securing the presidency and majorities in France's Sénat and Assemblée Nationale.
Europe is littered with such tax-and-spend parties -- including Germany's Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands and Spain's Partido Socialista Obrero Español (both of which ruled coalition governments in their countries until 2009 and 2011, respectively).
But is 21st century European socialism -- which has led to a full-blown recession and pushed the world to the brink of a second global financial crisis -- really socialism in the way that Karl Marx envisioned it?
Obama has never advocated doctrinaire socialism (which is based on government ownership of private property and the means of production). Certainly he has made good on his promise to "spread the wealth around" via unprecedented government intervention in the free market, but he cannot be called a socialist in the mold of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro or Kim Jong-Il.
"What President Obama has been pushing for, and moving toward, is more insidious: government control of the economy, while leaving ownership in private hands," columnist Thomas Sowell wrote recently. "That way, politicians get to call the shots but, when their bright ideas lead to disaster, they can always blame those who own businesses in the private sector."
Sound familiar? This is precisely what happened during the recent recession. For example, government-mandated loans aimed at boosting homeownership were clearly among the root causes of the economic downturn - but when the sub-prime bubble burst blame was placed exclusively on "corporate greed." Of course at the same time politicians were absolving themselves of any responsibility, they were forcing taxpayers to subsidize massive bailouts of these "greedy" financial institutions.
So if Obama isn't a socialist, what is he? Economically speaking it's far more accurate to say that he is a fascist -- a supporter of dirigisme, in which government manages the economy through central planning, not collective ownership. Fascism did not seek to stamp out the innovative, wealth-creating potential of profit-seeking investment and entrepreneurship - instead it sought to channel those innovations (and funnel that wealth) to the good of the state.
"In fascist Italy the state pays for the blunders of private enterprise," Italian social critic Gaetano Salvemini wrote in the mid-1930s.
When business was good, "profit remained to private initiative." However when downturns came (as they inevitably do), "the government added the loss to the taxpayer's burden."
"Profit is private and individual," Salvemini wrote. "Loss is public and social."
This is the basis of fascism's "third way" between laissez-faire capitalism and Marxism. It's also precisely the economic system we see at work in America today, a centralized bureaucratic oligarchy in which farm subsidies, investments in "green jobs," Wall Street bailouts, Export-Import Bank subsidies and numerous other taxpayer-funded incentives manipulate the market to serve specific political purposes.
Obviously the fascist analogy isn't perfect. Unlike Obama, fascists abhorred class warfare (and labor's efforts to foment it) because such societal divisions ran counter to their nationalist ideology. And while fascist economic policies can certainly perpetuate the redistribution of wealth, they also tend to create powerful privileged elites that leverage tax dollars and political favors so as to manipulate the market in their favor.
So is Obama's brand of 21st century socialism/ nouveau fascism really "more insidious" than pure socialism, as Sowell suggests? Yes, because unlike socialism - the public sector never "takes a loss," as the recent bureaucratic bailouts made clear.
Also consider this: Is any property really "private" if the government can take it based on little more than a whim? And is any sector of the economy really "private" as long as government can swoop in and set its prices and production quotas? And finally, is any market truly "free" if government can compel citizens to make specific purchases?
Of course not -- all of which makes Obama's ideology dangerous no matter what label we slap on it.