We Already Have Socialism
As a kid, I loved going to the public library. My endless stream of books, the books-on-tape we would listen to on road trips, and the DVDs that made our Friday night nacho-and-movie nights possible were all because of the library’s massive catalogue and easy checkout system. As a teenager I walked to the library multiple times a week and spent hours there—a place to just be, to peruse, to use the computer to write, to print something out. And it was all free.
I haven’t met a single person who does not love the public library and all the books and services it offers. And no one argues with the fact that borrowing books is free: it costs no money at the point of service (and many libraries have even done away with overdue fees). The world would be a much bleaker place without them. And yet imagine the arguments that would be made if they were to be introduced for the first time today. “The government will get to control what you can read!” “Well, it’s not really free…someone has to pay for this.” “No one is entitled to all those resources if they didn’t work for them!” Since we have libraries now and they’re so deeply integrated with our lives, we fail to realize the truth: Public libraries are socialist institutions, and they do immense good in our society because they are socialized. It’s good that those without a home internet connection can get one at the library. It’s good that the vast stores of human knowledge are open to people who can’t line their homes with shelves. And it’s not just the worst off who benefit: it’s everyone!
Let’s imagine another scenario: what if we ran fire departments in the US like we run health insurance? You’d have to pay (or have it deducted from your paycheck) to be covered in case your house caught fire—otherwise, you’d be saddled with a hefty bill (and even if you did have fire department coverage, there might be a high deductible yet to pay for their services). Finding firefighter coverage would be very difficult in drought and wildfire-prone places. And when you moved or lost your job, you could suddenly be vulnerable to having your house burn down and being unable to afford firefighters to rescue your house, your possessions—perhaps even your loved ones.
Of course no one wants to live in this nightmare world, because we have the very sanely socialized institution of the fire department: no matter where you are in the US, if you call 911, you can have tax-funded firefighters come and put out the fire in your home, with no bill to pay once the fire’s put out.
But this is exactly the nightmare world we live in with health insurance in the US. No one chooses when they become sick or are injured in a car accident—these things happen to us regardless of how much money we make or whether our job offers good health insurance. And just like when your house catches fire, the last thing you want to think when you get a life-changing diagnosis or suffer a frightening injury is whether the treatment will send you into bankruptcy.
The reality is that we already have socialized institutions running key services everyone relies on in their day-to-day lives. Socialism isn’t all or nothing: we have socialist and capitalist institutions at the same time. The problem is that we don’t have enough socialism. Institutions like health insurance are not private because that makes the most sense, but because there are people who benefit from keeping it private—at the expense of tens of thousands of lives made in God’s image every year. More of our institutions should be run like fire departments and public libraries: universal programs that belong to everyone and are relied upon by everyone, especially ensuring the wellbeing of the poorest among us while bringing beauty and hope into all our lives.
This is not only true about public services like the library, healthcare, or the fire department. To have an economy that sees human beings as made in God’s image, it’s necessary to make that economy work for the human beings it serves—not the other way around. Moving toward Christian economic equality is about building the kinds of economic institutions that are subordinate to the purpose of making human lives flourish. This means giving workers a say in economic life: how we allocate resources and who makes what. It also means our economy provides for people who don’t work in the official economy but who are still invaluable images of God—children, the elderly, those with disabilities, people caring for their children and relatives.
The good news is that we already have avenues for accomplishing this goal. We have institutions that ensure that elderly people still have an income after they stop working and public services that would be unimaginably worse if they were not equally available to everyone. But the bad news is that the work is incomplete. The work will never be complete before God’s restoration of all things, but building institutions that allow for the flourishing of everyone is one way we work in anticipation of that day.