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The Many Perceptions of Socialism

Socialism has a complicated history across the world, especially in the U.S. and Europe

By Joel Smith/Editor-in-Chief

The origins of Socialism are not easy to pinpoint. The concept of Socialism began with the infamous Communist Manifesto, written by the even more infamous Karl Marx. This book led to the organization of two factions: the Socialists and the Communists. Communists held that they had a more “pure” version of the ideology described by Marx in his book. Socialists, however, held a different tone.

...The Socialists have greater openness to working within the political framework of liberal democracy,” as the Dallas Learning Cloud explained. “For example, [they did this] by contesting elections and following constitutional processes.”

When talking about the U.S., the most influential examples of Socialism are the failed Socialist countries involved in the Cold War, from the 1940s to the 1990s. Countries like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the USSR at the time, were ultimately authoritarian governments. The main concept of how the USSR’s government was run is best summed up by Karl Marx himself,

“From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

The problem with true Socialism is that someone needs to determine what each person’s abilities and needs are. This generally resulted in an authoritarian government pulling the strings. In countries like Cuba and the USSR, the ruling party was a regime that acted more like dictatorships than a fair government. This inherent problem with true Socialism is why it has such a negative connotation in the U.S, and much of the world.

This negative perception of true, absolute Socialism or Socialist policies is very common, and justifiable, especially in first world countries because of how the disastrous 20th-century Socialist and communist regimes turned out to be.

Moving to modern times, there is a more pressing issue revolving around Socialism: The differences in perception of certain Socialist/capitalist hybrid policies when comparing the U.S. and Europe. Currently, the modern Socialist-capitalist policies seen in Europe and to a lesser extent, the U.S., are often called “welfare policies.” Countries utilizing these welfare policies to any degree are often called welfare states. Currently, a welfare state is defined by Auburn University as,

“A state whose government devotes a very large proportion of its activities and expenditures to the direct provision of personal benefits to be consumed by qualifying individuals or families.”

It’s important to remember that the term “welfare state” is also currently used as an umbrella term for any governmental policies that devote moderate to large expenditures to individual or family benefits for a country’s citizens.

In the U.S., people who consider the difference between the U.S. and Europe’s welfare policies largely have different views of the people who would benefit from redistribution. In the U.S., the people in lower economic classes who are considered poor are also considered lazy, as researched by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research (HIER),

“Reciprocal altruism implies that voters will dislike giving money to the poor, if the poor are perceived as lazy, which they are in the US,” the authors explained. “In contrast, Europeans overwhelmingly believe that the poor are unfortunate. This difference in views is part of what is sometimes referred to as “American exceptionalism.”

This difference in views of the poor is largely what determines public support for welfare policies. For now, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that this “reciprocal altruism” is a large part of why the Europeans have a larger welfare system. Now, the authors clarify that this does not mean that European nations are more charitable or have large welfare policies because they are just “nicer;” It’s more out of pity and the view of the poor and lower classes as unfortunate.

The U.S. and Europe also have different systems for covering the costs of welfare policies. In the U.S., a large portion of healthcare and benefits come from private corporations, but assistance for the poor is often governmental. These governmental programs are things like SNAP food benefits and Medicaid.

In Europe, the primary source of funding for public welfare programs is taxes. The European income tax system is considered more “progressive” than in the U.S. This is shown in how higher income brackets are much more heavily taxed, and those who are in lower-income brackets are taxed less. This means that most European countries have a higher amount of discretionary income for the government to put towards things like governmental child benefits and universal health coverage.

It’s also been shown that the tax system in Europe saves much more money for the average citizen in the U.S. For instance, because most health coverage in Europe is covered by the national governments, citizens don’t have to worry about losing health coverage between jobs.

Although the tax system in Europe is generally considered more effective, Europeans generally have slightly lower wages than their U.S. counterparts in exchange for increased benefits.

All this goes to show that the welfare policies in the U.S. that are considered “Socialist'' are common in other countries. Another aspect of this debate over welfare policies is that the U.S. and Europe are considered the extremes of policies, the U.S. being the extreme conservative when considering welfare policies, and Europe being the extreme progressive of the debate. The HIER found that the vast majority of other countries aren’t as far to either side,

“The average of the non-European, non-US OECD countries falls somewhere in between the US and Europe. Thus in comparing the US and Europe we are comparing two extremes in the OECD group.”

The whole pinnacle of the debate around welfare policies is concluded by public perception. The leaders of groups who oppose welfare policies use the terms “Socialist” or “Marxist” to describe the policies. In Europe and among other first-world nations, the debate about welfare policies generally revolves around how necessary the policies are and the concept of Socialism isn’t applied.

This demonstrates there is a large difference in the context and perception of what Socialism is and how it may or may not be applied globally.

Welfare benefits as a percentage of the average wage for a single parent of two children

Courtesy of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

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