Political Labels: Use only with precise shared meaning

Summary: Most political disagreement is about misuse and misunderstanding about labels, deliberate or not. Many don’t qualify their terms or statements, leading to deep ambiguity. Socialism vs. democratic socialism (aka Human Investment Democracy (HID)) are good examples of this.

Incredibly, some folks think that socialism will work, especially millennials nowadays. It won’t. It never will. Same as communism. It goes against natural law and human nature. The general excuse that people make for the 100 million deaths attributable to socialism / communism is that “It wasn’t done right”. Well, it’s 0–40 so far, which is a pretty terrifyingly bad record that people want to keep tinkering with. — Andrew H. McMillan

I agree with Andrew that USSR-style Communism failed and shouldn’t be repeated, and even that younger people may not fully understand that. I disagree that anyone is really talking about going in that direction now. There may be many who are shallowly agreeing that “more socialism” is starting to sound like a relief from the raw, uncaring, regressive aspects of capitalism that too many are suffering from. And I agree that many would not be able to draw a clear line at where the balance should be. But trying to paint any reconsideration of the public commons vs commercial balance, or the regulated vs unregulated balance, with “But it’s Communism!” condemnation brush is being disingenuous. All Western democracies have elements that are handled by the government, part of some form of commons. It is fair to consider and even experiment with different mixes to try to do better. I wouldn’t have chosen to use labels like socialism or even democratic socialism, but it’s done and we’re well on our way to creating new modern takes. I’ve suggested both Human Investment Democracy (HID) and Democratic Human Capitalism (DHC) as better options or starting points to find a concise modern term.

People are using terms, such as “democratic socialism” vs. “socialism”, in ways that are not precise or shared consistently with others. This imprecise use of political terms, often to disparage the other tribe, is not helpful and often done with a lack of good faith. Making a hard assumption that the other side mostly believes in the worst interpretation of a term is a common mistake. Some bad actors have promulgate pet definitions as if they were generally endorsed. This is a frequent strategy from some groups, noticed by many. This is not the same as poor opinions of a group because some members are particularly odious. Nobody wants to be painted the same as those who go too far or turn some corner, but it can be fair to note lack of objection.

Avoiding that, my view is that much of the right / left divide comes down to one difference: Do you think society should invest in people or not? (In a fair way, effectively, at least from childhood until they are educated and working, etc.) The main difference in the parties right now is that one wants to invest in people in every way, seeing it as the best way to maximize human potential, reduce suffering, and often lower long-term support and maintenance costs. This is how I interpret “democratic socialism”. The other party wants to enhance the ability of people (especially the rich) to invest in things (factories, land, companies, and financial instruments) and take advantage of weaker people while minimizing investment in them overall. With predictable results, like our student debt debacle. All working societies have some things that are done using shared public methods and other things that are private; the difference is mainly in ratios, degrees of competition, feedback loops, and restrictions on one group gaming another.

Also important is whether someone sees the world, at various levels, as being a fixed pie. The fixed pie fallacy is often a problem. Cato thinks Bernie and others have this problem. I agree, taken shallowly, that some of his statements could be taken that way. But I actually see it more on the right where people lament that there isn’t enough money to fund education or pay for healthcare or absorb immigrants. And, more insidiously, some explanations for just-above-poverty voters being talked into voting against those in poverty have to do with their perceptions of unfairness in some fixed pie fashion.

Are those who promote socialism lazy parasites, living off of other people? Have they never had a real job? Are they of the victim class, always blaming others for their problems? Those are assumptions of a lot of people shocked that we’re suddenly using the word “socialism” again. Nobody is advocating for USSR Communism in the US. I think they just need a term to refer to the idea that some things may be more efficiently handled in a non-commercial way. No one wants central planning, the abolishment of companies or ownership, government taking of all assets, or similar. It seems more a movement to do something about runaway winner-take-all wealth disparity, power grabs and political moves to disadvantage the least-wealthy 50%.

I am the opposite to that parasite stereotype in every way. I have no interest in classical socialism as an overriding system (and I don’t think more than a few do). But I am unbiased when evaluating whether a particular function or need should be more commercial vs. more social / shared / governmental / non-profit / part of the commons. It all comes down to details about positive vs. negative feedback loops, healthy competition without enabling runaway gaming and takeover / winner-takes-all-permanently robber barons etc. Or to put it more succinctly, engineering the most efficient systems over the short and long term. Privatizing prisons seems obviously bad. Privatizing hospitals a few decades ago is probably a big driver of our runaway healthcare costs. Technology, communications, press, invention (outside of basic sciences and early moon shots), etc. should all be commercial with constraints that prevent gaming / runaway some of the time. I detest certain unhealthy relationships, like county licenses for cable monopolies who then overcharge for Internet access, run startups out of business, and lobby state government for restrictions over cities setting up an efficient commons-based Internet service.

Understanding where people are politically now and finding and tuning the definition of the right terms begs for a 20 or 100 questions clarification survey. Using names and labels imprecisely without defining exactly what each person means by them leads to more misunderstanding. Similarly, most people can agree with some things being commercial and some other things being done through public means. Often, disagreement is about a small subset things that could reasonably go either way, often because of irritation about the status quo which might or might not get better. We all think the DMV should be more like Target or Amazon. On the other hand, Sears had been dying a slow annoying death for decades; a large order of automotive tools for my son years ago was a terrible disaster. Cable companies had to spend several years at the bottom of customer service ranking and get some serious competition before they decided to use their massive monthly take to get better. USPTO customer support is amazing. The FAA, military, and others are very effective. There are plenty of examples in each direction, denying any simplistic proof that either extreme is always better.

So why haven’t we privatized the DMV? Do you realize that there are privatized (to some extent) versions of both the DMV and USPS in California? (Not all services, but some key ones.) There are at least 2 commercial providers of DMV services in fact. One of them won’t stop emailing me.

Do we just flip things back and forth? Is that possible? Once something flips, won’t it be impossible to flip back? Yes, that’s what we do: flip them back and forth as desired. For many things, like the DMV, it’s not really a big deal. There are a lot of models for this. For instance, at certain types of major research sites, like old / former nuclear labs, we hire a government contractor to manage operations for years at a time. If we’re unhappy or it looks like there is a better bid, we switch out the whole site. Often, probably as part of the contract, desired employees are rolled over. Sometimes I think this happens between the government vs. contractor positions.

Large government contractors are highly evolved to win contracts with the Federal government. In some cases, this is good and valuable. But it can mean crazy bad technology foot-dragging. One clear example of this was the original Obamacare roll out: a web site far inferior to the best solutions. The problems there had nothing to do with Obama or Democrats or the law. It had everything to do with the then near impossibility of hiring a group other than those big contractors who were woefully insulated from Internet app evolution. The solution ended up being to attract real modern talent, especially from Silicon Valley, to government service, bring the whole project into that government team, and to have the patience to do it right. Many things were solved, made public, and the resulting project was published for everyone, including me, to learn from. It took guts to make the decision to kick that off, but it was a stunning success and has, I hope, changed government web app projects from now on. And now commercial contractors should be pitching projects using that approach. That’s a perfect example of all of this.

If we want to solve problems, we need to engineer societal solutions. Good government is social, legal, and commercial engineering of society by adaptable choices, understandings, and agreements. Even a well-designed system will fail if people misunderstand it, abuse it, and actively work to weaken it. You can’t have a productive discussion without precisely defining your terms. Then we can understand each other and begin to address each other’s concerns.