Donald Trump says he is. There already have been Republican ads promoting Trump’s reelection that say Biden is a socialist. You can be sure there will be a flood of such ads in the next two months.

So is Biden a socialist?

It all depends on what you mean by the word “socialist”.

Historically, there have been two basic  definitions of socialism: Socialism One as in communist countries like the Soviet Union; and Socialism Two as in democratic “socialist” countries like Sweden. (See my blog of February 5, 2019 for a lot more detail).

In Socialism One (as in the  communist Soviet Union), the government owned virtually all property and set wages and prices. That system united political and economic power and resulted in totalitarianism. It also was inefficient.

Under “capitalism” or a free market economy, most property is privately owned and supply and demand determine the bulk of  wages, prices, and the amount of production of specific things. That system fits better with the biblical doctrine of human sinfulness (concentrated power is dangerous in a fallen world) and human freedom. And it is more efficient. Most economists report that the lifting of billions of poor people out of poverty in the last 50 years is due significantly to the widespread embrace of market  economies around the world (see my Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (6th ed, 2015),pp. 147-160,231-239).

Socialism Two is what many people associate with countries like Sweden. Almost all property is privately owned and supply and demand determine the majority of decisions about wages, prices and production. But the government taxes people more highly than in the US in order to provide things like universal healthcare, generous unemployment benefits, paid medical leave, etc. 

Libertarianism is perhaps best understood as the opposite  of both Socialism One and Socialism Two. Libertarians think government should do almost nothing except provide for  national defense, the police, the judicial system and the setting of  basic rules. Private companies should do almost everything else including healthcare, education, prisons, roads, etc. etc. Libertarians tend to label any government activity in these areas as “socialist”.

So is Biden a socialist?  Yes according to a libertarian definition. He thinks government should play a substantial (albeit still limited) role in guaranteeing healthcare, quality education, good roads, etc., for everyone. But on that definition, Donald Trump, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate and indeed the vast majority of all Republicans are also socialists! Republicans have and continue to support substantial government activity in the economy – – they support Medicare, Social Security, food stamps (although they often try to cut them!), the earned income tax credit, government regulated healthcare that forbids private healthcare companies from refusing to ensure people with pre-existing conditions, etc. Republicans generally have more  reservations than do Democrats about expanding government programs but they vigorously support a vast number of government programs that libertarians reject aa socialist.

Biden explicitly rejects the label “socialist”. He explicitly affirms the market economy with mostly private ownership of property and  the setting of the majority of wages and prices by supply and demand. Both Biden and Elizabeth Warren (who ran for president on a platform to the left of Biden) explicitly, publicly say they embrace and promote a market economy.

If Biden is a socialist, so too are almost all Republicans.

Where Biden and most Democrats differ from most Republicans is on whether, in some specific areas, government should play a somewhat more expanded role: for example in developing a national policy to deal with COVID-19; in raising the minimum wage; in guaranteeing health insurance for everyone, etc. Debating those differences is important. If one believes that in a fallen world, all power must be limited, then one believes that both the power of government and the power of business and wealthy people must be limited. It is right and important to debate whether specific legislative proposals offer genuine improvement or would be a dangerous concentration of government power.

But in order to have an honest, productive debate about that question, we must be specific  and not  dismiss  (or promote) any proposal as simply “socialist”. That kind of sweeping labeling hinders honest democratic debate. And finally is dishonest.

It is also not the case that Biden simply accepts Socialism Two in the sense of modern Sweden. He rejects some Swedish programs and is willing learn from others.

It is true that today younger Americans feel much better about the label “socialism” than do older Americans. It is also true that today many Americans are less hostile to the label “socialist” than 40 or even 10 years ago. The May 20, 2019 report of a Gallup Poll showed that 43% of Americans believe socialism is a good thing; 51% consider it a bad thing. But the same Gallup Poll found that a sizable majority of Americans preferred a free market approach rather than government control in many areas including the economy overall ( 62%), higher education (56%) and technological innovation (75%).

Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, almost all Americans will have forgotten the historic association of the word socialism with a communist, state-owned, state-run (and inefficient) economy. Perhaps sometime in the future most people will use the word socialism to refer to a society that combines two things: both  mostly private ownership of property and the setting of the majority of prices by supply and demand; and also  healthcare for all, a livable minimum wage, excellent education for everyone, higher taxes for the wealthy, etc. But that is not what the word means to most Americans today.

Biden is not a socialist according to what the majority of Americans mean by the term. To call him that is slander.

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