Pro and Con: Socialism in the United States

This article was published on May 3, 2021, at Britannica’s ProCon.org, a nonpartisan issue-information source . Go to ProCon.org to learn more.

Socialism in the United States is an increasingly popular topic. Some argue that the country should actively move toward socialism to spur social progress and greater equity, while others demand that the country prevent this by any and all means necessary. This subject is often brought up in connection with universal healthcare and free college education, ideas that are socialist by definition, or as a general warning against leftist politics.

While some politicians openly promote socialism or socialist policies (Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example), others reject the socialist label (now Vice President Kamala Harris said she was “not a Democratic Socialist” during the 2020 presidential campaign) or invoke it as a dirty word that is contrary to American ideals (in the 2019 State of the Union, President Trump stated the United States would “never be a socialist country” because “We are born free, and we will stay free”).

To consider whether the United States should adopt socialism or at least more socialist policies, the relevant terms must first be defined.

Socialism is an economic and social policy in which the public owns industry and products, rather than private individuals or corporations. Under socialism, the government controls most means of production and natural resources, among other industries, and everyone in the country is entitled to an equitable share according to their contribution to society. Individual private ownership is encouraged.

Politically, socialist countries tend to be multi-party with democratic elections. Currently no country operates under a 100% socialist policy. Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, while heavily socialist, all combine socialism with capitalism.

Capitalism, the United States’ current economic model, is a policy in which private individuals and corporations control production that is guided through markets, not by the government. Capitalism is also called a free market economy or free enterprise economy. Capitalism functions on private property, profit motive, and market competition.

Politically, capitalist countries range from democracies to monarchies to oligarchies to despotisms. Most western countries are capitalist, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand. Also capitalist are Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. However, many of these countries, including the United States, have implemented socialist policies within their capitalist systems, such as social security, minimum wages, and energy subsidies.

Communism is frequently used as a synonym for socialism and the exact differences between the two are heavily debated. One difference is that communism provides everyone in the country with an equal share, rather than the equitable share promised by socialism. Communism is commonly summarized by the Karl Marx slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and was believed by Marx to be the step beyond socialism. Individual private ownership is illegal in most communist countries.

Politically, communist countries tend to be led by one communist party, and elections are only within that party. Frequently, the military has significant political power. Historically, a secret police has also shared that power, as in the former Soviet Union, the largest communist country in history. Civil liberties (such as freedom of the press, speech, and assembly) are publicly embraced, but frequently limited in practice, often by force. Countries that are currently communist include China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Worth noting is that some of these countries, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, label themselves as democratic or socialist though they meet the definition of communism and are run by communist parties. Additionally, some communist countries, such as China and Vietnam, operate with partial free market economies, which is a cornerstone of capitalism, and some socialist policies.

Given those definitions, should the United States adopt more socialist policies such as free college, medicare-for-all, and the Green New Deal?

Pro

  • The US already has many successful and popular socialist policies, and the American public supports the implementation of more.
  • The job of the US government is to enable and protect all of its citizens. More socialist policies can work with capitalist structures to undo the harm done by unfettered capitalism.

Con

  • The US already has too many costly socialist entitlements, and the American public supports a capitalist economy.
  • The job of the US government is to enable free enterprise and then get out of the way of individual ingenuity and hard work. The government should promote equal opportunity, not promise equal results.

To access extended pro and con arguments, sources, and discussion questions, go to ProCon.org.

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