Spreading the Wealth: Obama, Joe, and the Democratic Socialists

By now, almost everybody knows "Joe the plumber." Mentioned about 15 times in Wednesday’s presidential debate, Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Toledo, questioned Barack Obama at an Ohio campaign stop earlier in the week. Joe wanted to know if Obama’s tax plan would raise his taxes. Senator Obama replied, "It’s not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody that is behind you, that they have a chance for success, too." Obama added, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody."

Surely, given this now widely publicized remark about spreading the wealth, it must be safe to finally talk openly about Obama and the S-word—socialism.

For months, conservative bloggers have been writing about Barack Obama’s relationship with the New Party. This is no small thing; in fact, it is quite significant, and demands our attention.

The New Party is a political movement aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America. The New Party actually endorsed Barack Obama’s successful 1996 Illinois state Senate campaign. Obama, in turn, encouraged New Party involvement in his voter education and registration efforts. According to a 1995 issue of the Democratic Socialists of America newsletter, the New Party required endorsed candidates to sign a contract to have a "visible and active relationship" with the party. While the New Party’s influence has waned, the Democratic Socialists of America remain an active movement.

What do the Democratic Socialists of America believe? Here is what the group’s by-laws advocate:

… a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships.

Surely, we can all agree with the values of racial and gender equality and non-oppressive relationships. Free-market adherents believe in those principles as well. However, consider the group’s support of income distribution. There, one can see the intellectual foundation for Barack Obama’s answer to Mr. Wurzelbacher. Redistributing wealth, which is a foundational principle of socialism, is part and parcel of the Obama tax plan, even though Obama has avoided using the S-word.

And why not? Despite periodic, and hopefully temporary, interventions in free markets (such as is occurring in the financial sector), most Americans do not want to live in a socialist economy. We value the personal freedoms inherent in a free-market economy.

When the productive plumber protests that his tax burden will increase, Obama intuits the problem inherent in "equitable distribution." He says to his questioner, "It’s not that I want to punish your success. …"

Unfortunately, punished success is precisely the kind of mischief that successful Americans fear. Obama’s desire to "spread the wealth around" may not come with malevolent intent, but, to be sure, such policies, which, again, are advocated by the Democratic Socialists, may result in inhibitions of initiative and innovation.

Rudolph Penner recently said on a C-Span call-in show that capitalism isn’t perfect but it is better than the alternatives. Indeed, many have suggested that the current mortgage mess derives from well-intended attempts to spread the wealth around. In unraveling the causes of the housing bust, one finds multiple targets of blame. However, it seems clear that government policies which encouraged home ownership beyond a borrower’s means were part of the chaos. In light of the federal government’s inability to manage markets, it is a fair question to ask: Do we need more central planning or less?

Thanks to "Joe the plumber," such crucial questions are now part of the public debate. Should the nation move to the left and embrace the principles of democratic socialism or should it seek to revive the best in free markets and free trade? There is a clear choice before us.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD is a Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College (PA). He maintains an active blog at http://www.wthrockmorton.com/.