Commentary: Too many are misusing the word ‘socialism’

(Byron Rollins | AP file photo) In this Nov. 4, 1948, file photo, President Harry S. Truman at St. Louis' Union Station holds up an election day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which — based on early results — mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman."

“Socialism” is currently a hot-button word that is too often misused. In 1952, President Harry Truman called the term “a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years .... Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Seems not much has changed in almost 70 years.

Here are three stories, one from each of us, about our own experiences at the intersection of free markets and public goods. They’ve helped us see that if government partnerships to promote public goods are what we are calling socialism, then a little well-placed socialism might be a good thing.

Down the river

James Glenn • Just last week I slipped my kayak into the Provo River, not far from my home, on a beautiful sunny Saturday. There were already many people out enjoying the river. At the first bend, I passed a father with his five kids floating on tubes. Around another was a group from Brazil on a large, chartered raft. There were fly fishermen in waders, catching and releasing some very nice trout, a group from one of the local universities in rafts, and people in lawn chairs along the riverbank just enjoying the sun and beauty.

But the river didn’t always look this way. Turns out that in the 1950s and 1960s it was dammed, channeled and straightened to make way for a new highway, at the cost of much of its beauty. It looks like it does today, including the gentle current for kids in tubes and deep holes for trophy trout, only because of a major restoration project in the ’90s, funded with $45 million in federal dollars. Now it’s a public treasure for thousands of us to enjoy.

Prescription drugs

Richard Saltzman • My wife and I recently returned to the U.S. after a 29-year “short-term” work assignment in England. While there, we frequently heard from friends and family back home about the high cost of medical treatment, especially for prescription drugs. But we were paying £9 ($12) for a prescription, no matter what it was, so we thought the talk was overblown — until I got a $123 prescription in preparation for a colonoscopy once we were back in the states because, I was told, there was no generic substitute.

Later, a nurse at the hospital told me there was a $6 alternative, but some people don’t like it because they have to drink more of it. In a free market system, shouldn’t that be my decision? A month later, my wife had the same procedure and was prescribed the $6 version. Now I am relieved that next year, when I turn 65, I’ll be able to get Medicare (socialized medicine).

From a wheelchair

James Smithson • When I landed in a wheelchair 10 years ago, (dis)courtesy of multiple sclerosis, I learned that uneven joints on the sidewalk can jar your teeth out, pulling a big door toward you can be downright impossible, and some stores display so much stuff in the aisles you can’t get through. Thankfully, someone is usually nice enough to help me get an item from a top shelf, open a door or get through a crowded restaurant (pre-COVID-19).

But niceness can’t get my 400-pound wheelchair up a flight of stairs. And that’s where government programs come in. In 1990, President George Bush (the first one) signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to start establishing national standards for things like handicapped parking spaces, automatic doors, public restrooms and, my favorite, wheelchair ramps. Because, let’s face it, people in wheelchairs don’t have enough economic clout to motivate stores to build ramps and movie theaters to leave a few spaces for wheelchairs, or enough political clout to motivate municipalities to make public buses accessible or lower the curbs at street corners. The free market just doesn’t address those kinds of issues, so selective government programs become necessary.


Since the 1940s, far-right pundits have labeled almost anything that protects vulnerable citizens or our shared natural resources “socialism.” But if government efforts to promote public goods are defined as socialism, then it’s clear we need a little of it. Without it, we wouldn’t have national forests in which to camp, hunt and hike. There would be no national parks, which typically bring almost $1 billion a year into Utah’s economy alone. There would be no interstate highways to get goods to market. There would be no public schools, access for the handicapped or affordable health care for the elderly.

We shouldn’t be so quick to assume that socialism is always a bad thing.

A recent report by the Brookings Institute states, “Not one economically advanced society can be described as purely capitalist; every one of them is a mixed economy that includes some elements of socialism.”

And none of the examples we’ve given has resulted in a loss of freedom, undermined individual productivity, or led us down a slippery slope to communism.

James Smithson

James Smithson is a retired researcher.

Richard Saltzman

Richard Saltzman recently retired from international finance.

James Glenn

James Glenn is looking forward to retirement and conducts international research. They met 20 years ago in London over plates of Indian takeaway. All three currently live in Utah.