All-American Socialism?

From Huffington Post:

Professor, Duke Law School; Author, ‘A Tolerable Anarchy’
Posted: 12/ 8/11

Is socialism’s value as a meaningless scare-word played out yet? If so, maybe we can give it a second chance as a real idea. By treating the word as an all-purpose insult, we’ve lost touch with essential strands of American political thinking.

These ideas were vital to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, among others, and were friends, not enemies, to democracy and personal liberty. They aren’t usually called “socialism” — Americans have never been big on -isms, left or right — but they add up to an eclipsed tradition that would do the old word proud. Today they might help us make sense of the discontent that has turned Occupy Wall Street into a national phenomenon — and maybe even do something about it.

I’m an odd person to make this argument, which I hope is a good thing. I’ve written books and articles about the good that private property does, and some of my favorite thinkers are Adam Smith (the patron saint of capitalism), Edmund Burke (a touchstone conservative), and Henry David Thoreau (a conscientious would-be anarchist). Temperamentally I’m conservative, and I pretty much agree with Justice Robert Jackson that “the philosophy of the law and the culture of the democratic order come close to being the soul of the American people,” and that this is a good thing. But I think there are essential insights that we lose track of when we let “socialism” be turned into a slur.

One big idea is that, in a good country, people should have good work. In the nineteenth century, there was nothing odd or left-wing about this thought. Abraham Lincoln insisted in 1858 that American democracy included a vision of economic citizenship: no one should do degrading work, everyone should have the chance to use both his hands and his mind (otherwise, Lincoln asked, why were we created with both?), and any American who wanted it should be able to earn economic independence. Franklin Roosevelt sounded the same theme in 1932, calling for an “economic bill of rights” that would include the power “to make a comfortable living” for anyone willing to work. Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, “where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor” was in Lincoln’s spirit: the economy should serve the human needs for dignity, personal growth, and connection with other people. Degrading work can undermine all three as surely as no work at all.

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