Peter Bye

Ill-defined words or phrases can lead to serious consequences. Here’s an example from IT, which I know well. In the early 1980s, the IT world started talking about ‘legacy systems’, that is, systems which were currently running within their owners’ organisations, and possibly due for renewal. The word ‘legacy’ was used in a largely negative sense and usually applied to mainframe-class computers, which were seen as expensive and inflexible. At the same time, PCs were taking off, offering the promise of cheap processing power. The idea of downsizing was born, where PCs would house the applications, storing data in central servers. It would all be much cheaper and more flexible, it was claimed.

But downsizing turned out to be much harder and more expensive than expected. Apart from performance, reliability and security problems, systems management became a nightmare. Central, organised management almost ceased, being left in many cases to end users. The result of many downsizing projects was failure, or partial success and substantially increased but hard-to-control cost. A significant cause of the problem was that the term legacy system was not properly understood[1]. It was simply assumed that it meant mainframes, which were seen as inherently bad[2].

In politics, the effects of using ill-defined terms vary from the absurd to the destructive, not just the cost consequences of the IT downsizing example. I’d like to give my thoughts on socialism, a word thrown around without much of an explanation of what is meant. As result, two people in the same country can use the same word but each understands something different. The problems get worse when used in different countries, each apparently speaking the same language.

One central feature of socialism is the ownership or control of the means of production and distribution, providing resources for the benefit of society as a whole. Societies claiming to be socialist have adopted this idea in various forms. The UK Labour Party incorporated it into its constitution in 1918 under Clause 4. It was interpreted as meaning widespread nationalisation of industries, as happened after the 1945 Labour election victory. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the party changed its view in 1995 to one of shared values rather than common ownership.

Arguments for and against the nationalisation of various industries, such as utilities, centre as much on economics as ideology in the UK. Communism has never been that popular. There have only been a handful of communist MPs and party membership peaked at around 56,000 in 1942. The party was dissolved in 1991[3]. There are still – inevitably – some fanatics on both sides of the argument, waving the flag of socialism or anti-socialism, with varying ideas about what socialism means. Even within the Labour Party, the current leader, Sir Keir Starmer and the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, both call themselves socialists but I doubt they would agree on all policy details.

In the USA, Senator Bernie Sanders claims to be a socialist, but his political views appear to have more in common with Nordic countries such as Denmark[4] than with countries with a large proportion of nationalised industries. All the Nordic countries have a high level of public spending on common goods such as health care, education and social security, but do not interfere with business. Interestingly, if we look at the number of billionaires in proportion to the population of a country[5], Sweden is 7th, Norway 11th and the USA 13th!

The USA does have some people who seem to assume that any significant amount of public spending is ‘socialist’ and dangerous[6]. Publicly-funded healthcare, for example, may be labelled as socialist. Such attitudes can border on the absurd: see Trish Regan’s piece on Fox Business News in 2018, where she appears to suggest that Venezuela and Denmark are both ‘socialist’[7] countries and so can be compared. She has a cavalier attitude towards facts, to put it mildly. There have also been wild claims about so-called ‘death panels’ deciding who should live and who should not if the USA had a federally-funded healthcare system[8].

There are, then, varying amounts of different baggage carried by the word ‘socialism’, leading to discussions at cross purposes within and between countries. For some in the USA, the word socialism brings to mind something akin to communism. For others, such as Senator Sanders, the word is much milder. His view of socialism, and that of the current governments in the Nordic countries, the policies of the UK Labour Party and, for that matter, the UK Conservative Party when I was growing up, are generally similar. For example, I started university in 1962 when the Conservatives were in power, with my tuition fees and most of my living costs paid out of public funds. The UK had, and of course still has, the National Health Service, providing free medical care. If I had to choose a label for these approaches to government, I would call it social democracy. But it seems to me to be better to describe the characteristics of a system of government rather than to give it a label. We might then perhaps avoid fruitless and poisonous arguments based on different understandings of a word.

Notes and sources

[1] There were later some definitions of a legacy system that were independent of system type, for example by Seacord, Plakosh and Lewis of Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute in their book in Modernizing Legacy Systems (Addison-Wesley, 2003). They defined a legacy system as ‘one that resists change’, although they did not say how resistance to change is measured.

[2] I can almost hear a parallel with ‘Two legs bad, four legs good’, the mindless chant in Georges Orwell’s Animal Farm. Perhaps ‘Mainframes bad, PCs good’ is the downsizing version.

[3] For a brief history of the Communist Party in the UK, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_Great_Britain

[4] A discussion between Mr Sanders and a Danish politician can be seen as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ei72MwEcPQ

[5] See https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-ranked-by-billionaires-in-proportion-to-population-2015-7?r=US&IR=T Countries with small populations are likely to have a higher ‘billionaire density’, as it only takes a few rich people to increase the density. So perhaps it is not a fair measure.

[6] Perhaps these views can be traced back to Reagan’s claim that government is not the solution to a problem; but is the problem. See https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/inaugural-address-2/

[7] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSFfTG42Jl8 For a refutation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OG_tg5ldBrQ

[8] For claims about socialist healthcare see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_panel Interestingly, the USA spends a much higher proportion of GDP on healthcare than other major countries, including the Nordics, France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK, but achieves worse results on life expectancy and infant mortality than any of them. See Current health expenditure per capita (current US$) | Data (worldbank.org) and Life expectancy at birth, total (years) | Data (worldbank.org)

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