Well, let’s define “socialist” first—at least for the purpose of this short essay. A socialist is someone who believes that the community at large, the community of citizens, should provide via the government for the needs of each and all.
That some needs of fellow citizens should be provided for by the rest of the citizens is a given—at least in our society. No rational person believes their fellow citizen should starve, thirst, freeze or bleed to death when the means to avoid this may be readily given by another without risk of life. In other words, we all believe that each person is morally entitled to life-saving acts and goods from others who can provide these without giving up their own lives.
The debatable point is: What other acts and/or goods–beyond those of saving life–are citizens morally entitled to from their fellow citizens, and by virtue of what data and reasons? And a secondary is: What is government’s proper role in providing these?
The providing of acts and/or goods to which another is entitled to is known as positive rights. I believe that the ultimate purpose of life—all forms—is to realize to its fullest possibility its unique potential. In other words, each being is created and called “be all it can be.” For human beings this realization of potential brings joy.
In order to realize this potential persons need to be as free from fear and desire, worry and greed, as possible. This happens when they are provided not only with what keeps their body alive but what keeps them healthy, feeling secure, hopeful about their future and significant to others. Specifically, persons need safety, health care, education and liberty to act in order to fulfill their potential.
Thus they should be provided with a police/security force and justice system; with health care that provides not only life-saving care but care that, to the degree possible, delivers them of pain and disability and prevents these as well; with education through adolescence and opportunities to learn throughout their lives. And liberty defined and secured as individual (or negative) rights.
History shows that we will not provide these things for one another without either strongly identifying with those in need, e.g. family members, or by the voluntary coercion1 of the government. Thus, to the degree these things are needed and can be provided, government should be given the means and authority to act on behalf of the entire citizenry in ensuring they are available to each citizen to the degree they are unable to provide them for themselves.
Though some citizens, through effort, accident of birth, talent and/or fortune will be able to provide for those things necessary for the realization of full potential, some citizens will not be so situated. It is the role of government to provide for these things for three reasons—
a) It is their positive right to have them as members of a community that can provide them.
b) It is fair and just that every citizen be equally enabled to realize their potential to the degree it does not deny other citizens the same.
c) The community as a whole benefits from such an exercise of rights and justice and does so in the most efficient manner. In other words, such care provides “the greatest good for the greatest number”.
In addition to the moral concerns above is this reasoning. As I mentioned above, for those of us who have means the quality of our lives is secured and enhanced by our ability to purchase. For the poor life is secured and enhanced by what is provided by the public, you and me. It is an untrue myth that whatever we have we have earned ourselves. Truth be told, most of what most of us have we have by virtue of accident—We were born into a certain class, a certain set of values, with certain talents, physical abilities, race, etc. To be more specific, I am an able-bodied, white, middle-class, American male who grew up in a two-parent, fairly sane, religious home where humor was valued, religion was practiced and stories were told and listened to. I grew up in a multi-generational situation, learning to be comfortable with elderly persons. Given all that—and ‘given’ is exactly the right word—I would succeed as a pastor unless I made some really stupid decisions. In other words, I enjoy a middle-class life that has come to me to a far greater extent than I have attained through my own effort.
There are those among us who are not “gifted and talented”, for whom providing the necessities of life is difficult if not impossible, and through no fault of their own. These persons should receive what we can provide, not because of rights or justice or utility, but because our lives are enhanced by our giving—yes, even if it is a voluntary coercion.
People of faith, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Moslem are called to live beyond our possessions, to live compassionately. Jesus—the one I follow—has more to say about the attachment to material goods than any other subject! It is in being non-attached to our possessions, in our being generous to others, that we find “a peace the world cannot give”, and a joy that is complete.
Capitalism does not give us this. Capitalism encourages the acquisition of material wealth, of capital. It encourages competition more than cooperation. And its underlying value is that of material possession. Granted that competition can produce excess value, but this value is irrelevant to the poor if it is not shared. And my observation has been that it is not shared without encouragement and/or compunction.
Socialism compels us to secure and enhance the lives of others, even beyond their basic necessities, providing the means for their intellectual and spiritual growth as well.
Was Jesus a socialist? No. Jesus’ primary concern was the relationship between persons and God. Economic justice was secondary on his agenda, a social consequence of faithful discipleship. But I find in this nation, nominally capitalist, that the ways that we are socialist, the ways that we provide for the common good, are ways that bless our neighbor and ourselves most fully. These are such things as public infrastructure, parks, police, schools, etc. And that these ways of being fellow citizens are most consistent with Jesus teachings about the will of God for us. If there is a “Christian” system of economics it is one that encourages, even compels, care for fellow human beings and delivers us from the spiritual burden, even death, of material acquisition.
1 “Voluntary coercion” may seem at first to be paradoxical but it the decision by individuals to place power in the hands of another to be used in their own best interest eventually though it may have some cost in the mean time. It’s like hiring a personal trainer.