As a response to the profound and distributed ignorance in this country on the basic definitions of forms of government and common economic systems, as well as the widespread interchangeable use of terms describing aspects of each, I have decided to post a mini civics lesson. I am so fed up with the way words are tossed around by politicians, pundits, and citizens, with no respect for their actual meaning. Frankly, I’m sick to death of it. Apparently in America, ignorance remains sublime.
Forms of government describe the ways societies govern themselves. Economic systems describe the ways societies produce, distribute, and consume goods and services. Of course, it would be too simplistic to say that these two are not intimately intertwined, but they are different things.
Herein lies the problem. Because political leaders and pundits use the terms interchangeably, most citizens haven’t a clue that the two are not the same. For instance, the US claims it wants to “bring democracy” to a certain country. However, the US has helped to topple democratically elected governments that were not capitalist. The truth wasn’t that the US wanted democracy, but that the US wanted capitalism. Two different things, but to most people, democracy equals capitalism, and that is okay.
Another word that is bandied about with little regard for what it really means is socialism. This is the bad buzzword today, along with terrorist. People use this word with no knowledge whatsoever of its meaning. This one particularly irritates me, along with the misuse of communist. Socialist and communist are used pretty interchangeably by people who don’t know what they are talking about. They just heard on television that socialism and communism are bad things, so they go along with it.
I wonder if any of these people who think socialism is so bad realize that public education is a form of socialism. Public roads? Socialism. Want the government to help you with health care? Socialism. All socialism means is that we, as society and through our government, pay for certain things so that all of us benefit. Each society gets to decide which of the things it pays for. In the US we have decided to let the government manage road systems and public education. We haven’t yet figured out it might be better to get profit out of health care, but that is because everyone is so afraid they might have to pay taxes, and the capitalists in our country do their damndest to make sure citizens stay afraid so they can continue to profit. The irony is that people will scream and yell and have a fit about spending .25c of each dollar on taxes, yet these same people fork over .65c of the same dollar to a private company who skims .40c off the top before applying the other .25c to the actual cost of the good or service received. It’s inane.
Do you hate it that your HMO makes a profit off your heart attack? Does it bug you that insurance companies make a profit off your illnesses, or that children go without basic health care because their parents can’t afford it? Can you stand it that energy companies, phone companies, airlines, and banks can all mostly govern themselves and profit off of you, regardless how fundamental some of their services are to your survival? Well, you can thank capitalism, the economic system based on supply and demand, for all that profit. Capitalism is not democracy. It is not a form of government. It is an economic system, as is socialism. It describes the exchange of goods and services. It is not the way a government runs (although a government may partake in a capitalist system). Governments are intrinsically linked to economic systems, but the two are not synonymous.
Forms of government are the institutions societies, as states, use to govern themselves. Democracies and dictatorships are forms of government. A dictatorship is an autocratic form of government where the leader enjoys absolute rule, free of laws or other political factors within the state. Democracies are forms of government in which citizens govern themselves. There is no hard and fast definition of the term, but democracies invariably include two principles. First, all members of the society have equal access to power. Second, all members enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.
It would be nice if Americans were educated as to the real meanings behind all these words they so carelessly spew, democracy, socialism, communism, et al. Sound bites are easy; they can make you sound like you have a clue when you really don’t know what you are talking about. Dictatorships (a form of government, not an economic system) are easy too. The dictator tells you what to do and you do it. No thought required.
Democracy, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult. It requires citizens educate themselves on things in order to make wise choices. The problem is that many Americans don’t actually partake in the education process, they partake in the sound-bite process. They hear a word and react to it without any idea what the hell it is they are talking about. Because of this, I fear we are headed for disaster.