Montana Viewpoint: Socialism’s good or ill is all a matter of perspective

Jim Elliott

The word “socialism” is getting tossed around a lot these days without much thought for what it actually means. It seems to fall either into the category of very good things or the category of very bad things.

On the left, it seems to be seen as a panacea for curing all things bad in America, and on the right as something to fear and close to treasonous. The truth — as always — is elusive.

Here’s a definition from an online dictionary:

“A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

The odd thing is that there are many programs and services that we use that operate on principles similar to socialistic, and we seem to have absolutely no problem — left or right — in using them. I, in fact, am a member in good standing with two such organizations: my electric company and my telephone company. So are all my neighbors.

Both utility providers are co-ops, which means that they are owned and governed — through elected officers — by the user-members. Electric co-ops originally provided utility services in areas where private utility companies would not go because there was no profit in it for them. (They are not in business to provide a service, they’re in business to make money.)

Those areas were basically any place outside of a metropolitan area, and when electrical co-ops began in the 1930s there were plenty of people who lived in the country, and 90 percent of them lived without electricity. It was not an easy life.

In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created and dams with generating facilities were built on the Tennessee River. The TVA was authorized to build transmission lines to rural areas without access to electricity from private utilities. In 1935, President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Agency — the REA — whose purpose was to provide low-coast government loans for rural electrification projects.

The private utilities passed them up, but local organizations of rural people, who were already familiar with farmers’ co-operatives, formed co-operative corporations that did want to provide rural electric service to their area, and provide it without making a profit.

Construction loans were awarded by the REA, powerlines built, and REA workers even wired rural homes and barns. Electricity was provided at not-for-profit rates by the federal government from generation facilities. And the loans got repaid — often early.

In 1949, the REA expanded its loan program to telephone cooperatives.

Of course, the value of socialism is all in the way you look at it — or don’t look at it. I once gave a speech in Sydney, and briefly touched on the topic of socialism. After the speech, a man approached me and asked me a question. He was not fond of the idea of socialism. To make sure we were talking about the same thing, I asked him if we could agree that if the government provided a service, ran the program, paid the employees, provided the product, and owned the real estate that would be called a socialistic enterprise. He agreed.

“Well,” I said, “that’s the Veterans Administration.”

“That’s different,” he almost shouted. I asked why.

“Because it’s the people’s will,” said he.

Go figure.

My point, in case I’ve wandered away from it, is that there are plenty of examples of services that Americans use and rely on that one could say are socialistic in function — federal highways come to mind — and it seems to not bother us the least little bit—as long as we don’t call them socialism.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.