Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
… And of course, there’s overlap between what liberals and socialists call for. But even if liberals come to support single-payer health care, free college, more unions and higher wages, the divide between the two will remain. For liberals, these are policies to alleviate economic misery. For socialists, these are measures of emancipation, liberating men and women from the tyranny of the market and autocracy at work. Back in the 1930s, it was said that liberalism was freedom plus groceries. The socialist, by contrast, believes that making things free makes people free.