When the New York Times reporter asked President Barack Obama whether he was a socialist, this certainly wasn't a productive way to foster healthy debate over the appropriate role of the state in our crisis-ridden free market economy. One would have to be tone deaf to think that our President isn't a champion of the free market. Regardless of what the reporter intended, Socialism is a Boo Word.
We use a 'boo' to express disapproval. To show contempt, derision. To end a conversation. To get the performer off stage. In the 1970s, NBC brought the 'boo word' idea to television with the Gong Show hosted by Chuck Barris in which a panel of professionals ended a mediocre amateur contestant's performance by striking the gong.
President Obama can of course take care of himself. Gravitas is the best armor to deflect boo words.
We are still left though with a difficult policy question: What is the appropriate role of the state in our free market economy?
Government has always actively participated in our free market economy. The Internet, that intersection where civil liberties meet corporate freedoms, is itself the product of Defense Department contracts during the Cold War. The Global Information superhighway, those fiber optic cables linking up the world in a civil society without borders, was laid by companies with the help of US government loan and insurance programs. Many of our greatest scientific achievements have been incubated through long term strategic government investment in our world-class universities. In other words, the foundation of our free market economy has always been importantly part public.
The use of boo words like socialism make it difficult for us to have useful discussion about how best to model and implement temporary government intervention in the economy. We paint instead in primary colors--nationalized banks or survival of the fittest--when instead the reality is that our governments and banks are inextricably enmeshed through the FDIC, SEC, and almost every single federal agency. We don't just regulate our banks; we provide them with subsidies to promote public values. The question then is not 'to intervene or not to intervene'-instead, it is whether the various ways that we combine government and private power in a free market economy advance the public interest both in word and in action.