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Don Boudreaux asks is Obama a socialist? and says, correctly,
The answer is no, if by “socialist” is meant someone who advocates government ownership of the means of production.
Boudreaux goes on to talk about something else, but I wanted to stop here. This government-ownership-of-the-means-of-production definition of socialism is a popular one, a comfortable standby especially in online debates. I wonder why, because it’s meaningless.
What in the heck is a ‘mean of production’? I suppose this term made some sense in the middle of the 19th century, when people were bandying about these concepts, in the same way that ‘proletariat’ made sense. But what on earth does it mean now?
Facebook is a gigantic private company that rumor has it is worth about $100 billion. What, I ask, are its ‘means of production’? Some Macbooks, cubicle walls and Red Bulls? If the government came in and took those things, would it ‘own the means of production’ and thereby control Facebook? Seems like that curly haired nerdy kid could just buy everyone more Red Bulls. On the flip side, is the government non-socialist and free-market as long as it stops short of doing that?
What this illustrates is that your brain is a ‘mean of production’. Your time is a ‘mean of production’. And yes, your money is also a ‘mean of production’. Increasingly, these are going to be the main ‘means of production’. Factories my ass. Yet the 19th century definition of socialism is silent on these things because it arose in a world of newly-conspicuous factories and giant machinery, and ‘capitalists’ from non-noble families getting wealthy off their use, in a way that revulsed and frightened some envious, good-for-nothing Nth generation semi-noble reactionaries (whom we call ‘socialists’) into a propaganda-and-terror response to try to restore their former social standing.
There’s almost no such thing as a ‘mean of production’ today. Yes, there are still factories, but it is not there that the locus of industry resides (and arguably never was; from our vantage point the socialists’ obsession with ‘means of production’ almost seems like forest-for-the-trees, cargo-cult style thinking). Thus, applying the ownership-of-the-means-of-production definition of socialism literally, you can practically never conclude that anyone or anything is ‘socialist’.
But of course, perhaps that’s exactly the point.
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