Saturday, December 13, 2008

Where socialism works in the United States ... and why ...

There is a huge, fully socialized segment of our society that works extremely well: the United States Armed Forces.

Soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coasties inhabit a world in which the pay is lousy (mimicking an exhorbitantly high tax rate), but the benefits--aside from the risk of dying young--are great: no-cost medical care, subsidized housing, cut-rate shopping, cheap travel, free education, equal opportunity.

National military organizations are inherently socialized enterprises--at least in the modern world. Once you pass the initiation rituals, you are accepted into a parallel society of entitlements and benefits of which the Swedes and Finns could be jealous.

Moreover, as anyone who is well acquainted with our military will tell you, we accomplish this without killing the spirit of excellence, the concept of competition, or the eye toward innovation that so often is suggested to mark socialist societies.

So why does this work? And--more to the point--why won't it transfer to American society as a whole?

Three reasons:

1) The trade-off is voluntary. Military personnel go into this society at will, by specifically signing up for it. They are told up front that they are trading away certain rights in exchange for these privileges, to include: a large measure of their freedom of speech; control of their appearance; inability to negotiate for better terms once they are inside; inability to quit except at specified intervals; not being allowed to refuse shitty assignments; etc. etc. etc.--and there are a lot of etceteras here. But the key point is that entrance into this society IS voluntary and that if you truly cannot abide the trade, you can get out.

2) The organization is focused on an overriding, shared goal. Everything from uniforms to social activities to the way in which formations are regimented within the military is designed to foster a common culture centered around excellence at specific things--mainly, killing people and breaking things when so directed. This common goal is so thoroughly and even subliminally reinforced by everything in the military that it effectively substitutes for either (a) the profit motive; and (b) a common social culture (ala the cultural homgeneity that allows socialism to function in Sweden).

3) The US military is subsidized by the larger society. This is critical. The US military performs a function, but it does not generate wealth, except in the very indirect sense of protecting others while they generate wealth. Virtually everything you see on a military base, or in a war zone, has been purchased by the tax dollars from the people who are not in the military. AAFES--the Army/Air Force Exchange System--can rival Wal-Mart as a bulk purchaser, and can sell to military folks for less, because everybody else subsidizes it.

[Please note that I am NOT suggesting our military does not deserve this support, even though I believe we should have a significantly smaller military establishment, and close hundreds of foreign bases. That's not the point of this post.]

THIS is the point of the post: the three reasons why socialism works in the US military, are exactly the reasons why socialism in the US would be a dramatic failure.

1) It would not be a voluntary system. The decisions about which freedoms to trade and which to conserve would be made for you at birth, and there is no opt-out, because your enlistment never ends.

2) There is not enough of a common, shared culture in the United States. As an increasingly heterogeneous nation of more than 300 million people, we have less and less any idea or ideal of American exceptionalism, or common American identity which could be used to spur people to excellence in lieu of the profit motive of capitalism.

3) If everybody is in the system, there's nobody left to subsidize it. Thus many of the artificially sustained benefits enjoyed by the US military could not ever be extended to the full population. Example: by and large the food products available in military commissaries are subsidized to the point where they are actually sold to military customers at a slight loss. You can't do that kind of thing in a system that includes everybody, or the system will shut itself down right quickly.

Sweden has a population of 9 million.

Finland has a population of 5.2 million.

The US military has 1.4 million active service members, .85 million reservists, and (probably--the exact number seems to be damn near classified) another 2 million military dependents, along with at least .5 million civil servants entitled to all the perks and benefits of military life. Add to those numbers at least 1.8 million veterans who continue to receive significant socialized benefits after their active service is up, and you get a fully or partially socialized military population of 6.5 million people--enough to make a decent-sized Scandinavian welfare state.

But it takes the other 296 million American citizens to support it....

11 comments:

Bowly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bowly said...

I think you're right on all three points, but #1 is usually the one I try to hammer across to these thieves. In a social democracy, "the people" don't choose anything. "Some people" do. The rest are trampled over.

Hube said...

I feel like I'm in Colonel DuBois's "History and Moral Philosophy" class! ;-)

Delaware Watch said...

World War 2 was fought with soldiers who were drafted. The military didn't work well then by your standards?

The military doesn't generate wealth? Surely, that is mistaken. What about the weapons manufacturers whose wealth is generated by the military or all those business in Dover that are benefiting from the air base? A former brother-in-law makes the metal strapping used to bind freight hauled over roads. His biggest client is the Pentagon. He's living in high cotton thanks to the wealth generation of the Pentagon.

Besides, the Pentagon itself--which I take is part of the military--is notoriously wasteful. The examples are legion. Here is a new one:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/world/middleeast/14reconstruct.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Why do you, then, say that it works well?

Delaware Watch said...

"and you get a fully or partially socialized military population of 6.5 million people--enough to make a decent-sized Scandinavian welfare state.

But it takes the other 296 million American citizens to support it...."

This statement is misleading because the American people don't just ONLY subsidize the military. They subsidize a lot more as well. It's not as though the American people are only working to underwrite the armed forces.

Delaware Watch said...

"If everybody is in the system, there's nobody left to subsidize it. Thus many of the artificially sustained benefits enjoyed by the US military could not ever be extended to the full population. Example: by and large the food products available in military commissaries are subsidized to the point where they are actually sold to military customers at a slight loss. You can't do that kind of thing in a system that includes everybody, or the system will shut itself down right quickly."

I don't know what the point is here and I wonder if it is a straw man. I don't know of anyone who thinks a state can run taking as loss on everything, not even the most tenacious egalitarian. So what's the point?

Bowly said...

"The military doesn't generate wealth? Surely, that is mistaken. What about the weapons manufacturers whose wealth is generated by the military or all those business in Dover that are benefiting from the air base? A former brother-in-law makes the metal strapping used to bind freight hauled over roads. His biggest client is the Pentagon. He's living in high cotton thanks to the wealth generation of the Pentagon."

No. No no no no no. The Pentagon is not generating anything. It is consuming. Your brother-in-law is doing the generating. The Pentagon is taking money from me and you and giving it to him.

Bowly said...

And the Pentagon can only take our money and give it to him because we generated it in the first place. The government does not create wealth. It consumes it, or takes it from citizens.

Bowly said...

"World War 2 was fought with soldiers who were drafted. The military didn't work well then by your standards?"

Also...

1) The outright murder of non-volunteers is hardly an argument in favor of socialism. Vietnam had a draft too. Was that hunky dory in your book? What about Korea? Millions of famine victims in North Korea could not be reached for comment.

2) The relevant question is not "Did it work?" but "Did it work better than an appropriately paid volunteer military?" There's no way to know the answer, but I've got a damned good guess.

Bowly said...

For more discussion of how the Pentagon is not generating wealth, read about the Broken Window Fallacy. You're committing that fallacy.

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