Socialism and its near cousin Communism were the scourge of the 20th century and whilst its influence as an ideology is no longer as disastrous as it once was, it is perhaps more insidious today. Wikipedia in its article on Socialism introduces it as follows:-
Socialism refers to group of ideologies and political movements with the goal of a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the community. This control may be either direct—exercised through popular collectives such as workers’ councils—or indirect—exercised on behalf of the people by the state. As an economic system, socialism is often characterized by state, worker, or community ownership of the means of production, goals which have been attributed to, and claimed by, a number of political parties and governments throughout history.
This definition fits with my understanding of the term. The key characteristic being that property is controlled communally not privately. In the worst case the community seeks to exert control over the very body and being of individuals. Generally it just involves pushing people around.
Lindsay Tanner writing in The Australian recently, seeks to divorce what he calls producerism from socialism. Here is part of what he says:-
Some would call this approach mercantilism. Others wrongly regard it as a core component of socialism. I see it as a distinct phenomenon in its own right that can best be described as producerism.
Producerism exists wherever the state implements regulatory and ownership arrangements that favour or protect particular producer groups at the expense of society as a whole. Tariffs, monopolies and other distorting regulatory regimes are the most obvious examples of the producerist philosophy at work.
So for Lindsay Tanner community control of property and wealth distribution is only socialism if it is done for the good of society as a whole. In other words Tanner believes socialism is not socialism unless it is utilitarianism. If community control of property and wealth distribution is done for narrow sectional interests then Tanner calls it producerism and regards it as a different animal to socialism. Socialism according to Tanner is something done for the greater good and if it is not for the greater good then it’s not socialism. A cynical libertarian might suggest that this is like saying that socialism is not socialism.
I don’t agree with the idea that socialism, or community control of property, is routinely good for society as a whole. However if clarifying socialism in this way allows Tanner and the ALP to conclude that we need lower taxes, lower tariffs, less corporate welfare and deregulation of markets and prices then I hope they spend quite a bit of time clarifying socialism to the mass of socialists out there.