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What is socialism?

Like many Americans, I have watched with some amazement at the rise of AOC and other forces on the left, often under the guise of "socialism".

But does anyone know what it means?

“Socialism” has come to confuse two different things:

  1. A form of economy: State or collective ownership of the "means of production", meaning government planning and control
  2. Policy aims: income redistribution, state subsidies to reduce poverty, government provision of healthcare

And boy, are these extremely different. Consider, the classic book The Road to Serfdom, which argued that a planned economy (socialist under definition [1] above) would invariably lead to a loss of freedoms, also contained explicit exceptions for the policy aims of a welfare state, so long as it was done within the context of a capitalist economy.

But is this true? At the time I wrote that tweet, I didn’t have any data to back up my assertion — I had just recently read The Road to Serfdom so I had a fairly good idea at how socialism was viewed then; and I follow the political discourse so had an intuition about how it’s viewed today. Turns out, according to Gallup data from 1949 and today, that my intuition was luckily right.

Why does this matter? You might, like me, strenuously object to any movement towards socialism if it meant collective control of the economy while being comfortable with a welfare state. But the muddled definition of socialism out there does not help people draw lines effectively. According to the graph above, most people think of socialism as a set of policy aims; whereas most die-hards view socialism as a different form of economy. That can lead to this kind of confusion: