Billionaires Bill Gates, Charlie Munger, and Warren Buffett were interviewed on CNBC this morning, and it wasn’t surprising to hear the three men defend capitalism. But it was surprising to hear Gates make a really good point about socialism. Or, at least a good point about how socialism is defined in the U.S.
Gates pointed out that the current surge in pro-socialist rhetoric in the U.S. isn’t really socialism by any strict definition of the word. The so-called “socialist” policies we’re hearing from politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are largely just capitalist policies with a strong social safety net. And that’s okay!
“Socialism used to mean that the state controlled the means of production,” Gates said on CNBC. “And a lot of people who are promoting socialism aren’t using that classic definition.”
“What we’re going to have is capitalism with some level of taxation,” Gates said, kind of hinting that he assumes progressive candidates will win out in the future. “Most people really aren’t arguing against capitalism. There may be a few, but most people are just saying that the taxes should change.”
Gates told CNBC that he’s in favor of more progressive tax rates on the wealthy and the reinstatement of the estate tax, which was virtually eliminated by President Trump. But Gates also said that he’s in favor of capitalism in general and that most people who are ostensibly arguing for socialism in the United States aren’t actually advocating for socialism. And he’s right!
Most Americans on the left aren’t advocating for all workers to own the means of production and for every industry to become nationalized and for the complete abolition of private property, which are the actual tenets of socialist ideology. Most left-leaning people (which is to say, most Americans) support politicians who, at the end of the day, are promising to deliver capitalism with a strong social safety net.
Just take a look at the self-identified democratic “socialist” politicians and their policies. AOC supports housing as a human right and on her website says:
Alexandria supports extending tax benefits to working and middle-class homeowners, expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, housing (not sheltering) the homeless, and permanently funding the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
But there’s no indication that what she’s putting forward is socialism. It’s capitalism with a strong social safety net.
Or take AOC’s federal jobs guarantee:
A Federal Jobs Guarantee would create a baseline standard for employment that includes a $15 minimum wage (pegged to inflation), full healthcare, and child and sick leave for all. This proposal would dramatically upgrade the quality of employment in the United States, by providing training and experience to workers while bringing much-needed public services to our communities in areas such as parks service, childcare and environmental conservation.
Again, that’s not socialism in the classic sense of the word. It’s capitalism with a strong social safety net. And most wealthy countries in Europe already have the things that AOC is proposing—things like guaranteed paid parental leave and universal health care. That doesn’t make those European countries socialist. It makes them social democracies.
Unfortunately, America doesn’t have a substantial Social Democracy Party, so anything to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party is simply called socialism because Americans don’t have the vocabulary to talk about these things with more subtlety than a binary left-versus-right.
To be clear and to make my biases known, I once called myself a Wellstone-Democrat but would now consider myself an AOC-Democrat. And frankly, I wouldn’t mind being called a socialist by American standards. But what’s being floated on the mainstream political stage right now isn’t real socialism. If AOC was a politician in any other part of the world with a parliamentary system she’d probably be considered a very mainstream Social Democrat, not a socialist. It’s a sign of a very sick country when these ideas of fairness and helping your neighbor are considered radical. And Gates, love him or hate him, is correct in his assessment of the political landscape.
Why do people like Bernie Sanders and AOC get lumped in as socialists and even call themselves by that term sometimes? Because Fox News spent the Obama years calling every policy from the Democratic Party socialist. The Affordable Care Act used to be the free market solution to America’s health care troubles in the first decade of the 21st century. Mitt Romney even passed something similar when he was the governor of Massachusetts, but people forget that Romneycare is older than Obamacare simply because there’s a propaganda machine called Fox News that labels perfectly reasonable mainstream ideas as “socialist.”
As a result, you have two generations of people (Millennials and Gen Z) who are simply embracing the term socialist without worrying too much about what it means exactly. To younger generations, socialism just means making sure that everyone can go see the doctor when they need to, or have a roof over their heads, or have money to buy food, no matter that person’s circumstances. And these generations are imagining that all within the existing system, not overthrowing the ruling class and installing a new political system run by the working class.
As Gates points out, there are some real socialists in the world. And there are even real socialists in governments around the world. Spain’s Socialist Party just won seats in last month’s elections, for example. But most Americans are simply leftists when you strip out the party labels and talk about policies. Bill Gates knows that and Donald Trump even knows that (remember when Trump basically advocated for universal health care?), which is why the propaganda infrastructure needs to be maintained in the U.S. if people like Trump want to keep advocating for one thing while actually implementing something else entirely.
I’d encourage you to watch the entire video from CNBC if only because Munger and Buffett get a little more defensive about capitalism and it’s actually funny how uncomfortable Gates starts to look. I mean, check out his face.
Guys like Gates clearly know that the guillotines are coming if America keeps going down the road of austerity and tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And as Buffett and Munger get older (ages 88 and 95 respectively) they clearly don’t know how to keep their fucking mouths shut.
Granted, Bill Gates isn’t all that progressive. He still said in the interview that billionaires should exist, which they absolutely should not. But he admitted that he’s biased.
Gates is worth over $101 billion, which should literally be considered a crime in a civilized society where 13 million kids don’t have enough to eat. But for now, we’ll have to accept that at least there are some billionaires who acknowledge we need some real changes in this country. Starting with how we talk about fairness and, by extension, that old school term socialism.