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Socialism isn’t what you think it is, but it’s still not what we need right now

How can we solve our problems if we aren’t even talking about the same thing?

Sen. Bernie Sanders Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

— Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”

A rich and nuanced vocabulary beautifies the English language. It also tends to make fools of us all.

Some examples: “Factoid” doesn’t mean “fact.” It’s an invented bit of fake news that’s taken as truth because it appears in print. “Bombastic” doesn’t mean “explosive.” Bombastic speech is pompous or rhapsodic. “Plethora” doesn’t mean “a lot.” It means an excess — too much.

And then there’s “socialism.” Socialism really means … well, it depends on who you ask.

Juicing the word as a mantra for change has made a mountain of noise and a valley of confusion. Twice now it’s been the foundation of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, promising Shangri-La for far-left millennials and prompting those on the right to invoke images of Nazi Germany with the warning, “Is this what you want?!”

Don’t take the bait. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and consuming a plethora of bombastic socialism factoids won’t get the country any closer to fixing what actually is broken.

Social scientist and former president of the American Enterprise Institute Arthur Brooks tackles the issue in his timely documentary, “The Pursuit,” now available on Netflix and elsewhere. His quest is to discover why those in the U.S. are turning away from the very system that has lifted 2 billion of the world’s inhabitants out of starvation-level poverty since 1970.

That system is called capitalism. Perceiving the system as broken, new generations see the solution in socialism.

So what does that mean? “Everything and nothing,” says Brooks. In a 2018 poll, the Public Religion Research Institute distinguished between two versions of socialism: 1) “a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education,” and 2) “a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.”

It’s the latter definition that rightly scares anyone who remembers Soviet-era oppression. In the poll, people 65 and older were more likely to define socialism with the second option. Predictably, younger respondents chose the first.

And what is their vision for a socialist future? It’s the Scandinavian model, of course.

But if Scandinavia is a beacon of socialism, then Utah’s Rep. Christ Stewart’s claim that “socialism is ... doomed to fail wherever it rears its head,” and that it “leaves a wake of destruction in lives and freedoms lost,” would leave a lot of Swedes and Danes nonplussed. No death, doom and destruction there, just lots of viking gift shops and good seafood.

The reality is Scandinavia wholly embraces a market economy. You’re free to own a home, start a business and trade with other countries. They have a strong commitment to the rule of law. Entrepreneurship is alive and well — Spotify, H&M, IKEA and most of Katy Perry’s Billboard hits are Swedish creations.

The supposed “socialism” of Scandinavia is more accurately stated as a large welfare system. Residents pony up copious amounts of income in exchange for a wealth of social benefits. And having lived there for two years, there’s a lot to like about it.

But we also can’t cherry pick the good from the bad and carry it home. Sweden houses 10 million people and is far more homogenous than the United States. Copying, pasting and scaling its services to fit America’s 320 million people and its diverse cultural and geographical landscape is simply impossible.

So rather than idealize a system fraught with nuanced linguistic complexity, presidential candidates would do better to shed the word and concentrate on uniquely American solutions to our problem.

What’s the problem? The system is broken, and Brooks agrees. America is failing those on the margins. Growing inequality hurts the promise of equal opportunity. Cronyism keeps people in power and squashes competition.

We need to do better, but better doesn’t need to be socialism — whatever the connotation. Better starts with changing our character.

Greed and exploitation aren’t traits unique to capitalism; they’re character values that live in our hearts. Shifting our national moral character toward the lens of hope, dignity and self-worth is requisite for seeing those who need our help and giving them the right opportunities to pursue their happiness.

With true compassion in mind, then we can talk about increasing competition among tech giants and addressing stagnant wages. We can shore up the safety net and make sure those who need it don’t fall through its holes. We can promote honest work as a badge of dignity rather than take it away or make it a punishment.

That takes a lot of work — far more than creating a new payroll tax and benefit program — but it’s what’s necessary before we can truly make the system work for everyone.