This is a brief examination of the essence of the concepts of egalitarianism and socialism. While capitalism is mentioned, I think most people are all too aware of what capitalism is and how it is playing out in our world. I am very confident that, in the world today, there are many people who claim to want a socialist society when, in reality, the concept they have in their mind is of a more egalitarian society. In 20/20 hindsight, I know I have made that semantic error. Words are powerful. Using the correct term to accurately express the concept we have in our mind is important. I think we often fall into the error of the misuse of a term, especially when that misuse is common around us.
According to Merriam-Webster, “egalitarian” is defined as:
“: asserting, promoting, or marked by egalitarianism“.
Egalitarianism is defined as:
“1: a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs
2: a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people”
I think, when a lot of people use the word “socialism”, the above qualities are actually what they have in their mind. One other notable aspect which I think often accompanies the use of the word “socialism”, is that when thinking of increased equality, it is common for a person to be thinking only in terms of the rewards, the benefits, available within a society. True equality also means sharing in the work involved in developing and maintaining a society. There is much needed, in many different areas, to maintain a healthy society. Everything from picking up the trash on the side of the road, to brain surgery. It all matters. There cannot be viable equality in a society in which some only receive, or in which some only give. The imbalance will cause the society to topple. It’s such a simple principle, yet one that is so often overlooked: imbalance engenders instability which can, and will, result in a toppling.
All that being said, Merriam-Webster’s definition of socialism is as follows:
“1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
I do not believe that this is what most people today who are using the term “socialist” or “socialistic” have in mind. I have a great deal of confidence that most people in the United States who use this term do not have “no private property” in mind. I know I don’t. I want to be able to leave my home in the morning and return to find it is still my home. The same with my car, tools, and essential personal property. On the other hand, sometimes working and contributing together to see that essential goods and services are available to all is a very good thing. Such a method is used widely to provide schools, police, fire fighter, and emergency response services. There are more essential goods and services which using a similar societal/cooperative approach in the provision of, could stand to benefit humanity greatly. That is another topic, not for this article.
It seems to me that the common use of the term “socialism” in the United States is a reaction to the extreme economic imbalance which is only increasing under the current capitalistic economic system. In every city, I venture every town, in the United States today we see people being marginalized. People are experiencing their needs going unmet, often not for a lack of actively contributing to the wellbeing of their community. We are seeing the end result of allowing the predatory reality, which is a purely capitalist system, to determine our economic reality. However, in contrast to egalitarianism, socialism opens the door just as wide as capitalism does to an extreme imbalance in economic reality and political power. I recommend those using the term “socialism”, as an alternative to “capitalism”, more closely examine it’s definition. Then examine the definition of “egalitarian”. Words matter. What term more accurately describes the reality you want to see emerge in the world?
I just looked up “socialism” in a copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1991. It does not have the same definition as what I have above which came from the online version of Merriam-Webster. Most significantly, it does not include the idea of no private ownership. It does include the phrase “…in which the private ownership of the means of production and distribution has been eliminated.” I cannot help but wonder if the more extreme version has something to do with weaponizing the word? We live in a world in which we are seeing our language altered, definitions changed, sometimes clearly to benefit one group or another. We need to have greater reverence for our language, which is a significant part of our cultural, intellectual, environment.