Socialism and PRRI Value Study

The new PRRI Value Study covered lots of subjects. I previously reviewed CP’s coverage of some of their findings in evangelicals (Christian Post on new Values Survey). Their findings on socialism are also of interest, and show that Democrats and Republicans are talking past one another, defining socialism in very different ways. Most people simply don’t understand what socialism means – including the researchers at PRRI.

Here’s what PRRI has to say about the subject:

“Americans are divided in their understandings of socialism. While a majority (54%) identify socialism as a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education, about four in ten (43%) say socialism is a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation, and communications industries.

 

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say socialism is about providing citizens with services (61% vs. 43%), while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say it is about government control of industry (54% vs. 36%).”

The standard definition says socialism is about the state owning the means of production. PRRI changed ownership to control, which is incorrect, as governments also control industries through regulations, without any ownership. Back in the days of Ma Bell, the government controlled nearly every aspect of phone service through regulations. Government used to control airlines in much the same way.

It turns out that for most people, the definition of socialism has undergone a major change. Words have a way of doing that. The word liberal has undergone a series of changes, and its original meanings are obsolete today. Economists general use an older 18th century version which has nothing to do with the usual definition as “progressive” or politically left of center.

Most people now think of socialism as a system providing lots of “free” services, whether or not the government owns the businesses providing those services. This is especially true of Democrats. Republicans think of socialism in a more traditional way, but one which tends to equate regulation with socialism, a potentially dangerous source of confusion.

One implication is that you shouldn’t speak in generalities about socialism - people are likely to misunderstand you. It is better to talk about specific proposals and not use the term socialism at all. Which is, in fact, what most people do. Another implication is that this is a potentially rich area for demagogues to mine.

My guess is that most of the 54% of the people who define socialism in terms of the provision of social services would not consider the U.S. a socialist country even though it provides Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – although these services fit their definition of socialism.

One strange aspect of the PRRI survey is that they did not ask how people felt about “socialism.” How strongly do they approve or disapprove of it? I’m pretty sure it would depend on how they define socialism, but I suspect there would be some additional value added.

 

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