Is socialism really about “free stuff”?
A selection of screenshots from recent Fox News programming on "socialism" and "free stuff."

We hear a lot about progressive Democrats campaigning on platforms promising “free stuff” to voters: free healthcare, free college, free childcare, and so on.

Critics love to take these progressives to task, as if it’s some kind of “gotcha” moment, pointing out that obviously none of this stuff will be “free.” Or else they take progressives to task for promises of “free stuff” that can only be pie-in-the-sky utopian fantasies, grossly deceptive politicking.

And always critics love to lambaste these proposals seeking to enable those living in the U.S. to access healthcare, education, and childcare as “socialism,” deploying that term pejoratively, of course.

In any case, we need to see through the rhetoric of “free stuff” to understand nobody is pretending to offer anything for free. Indeed, think for two seconds: Even the most radical proposals for overhauling our healthcare system talk about “single payer” systems, not healthcare for free.

Thinking through this rhetoric of “free stuff,” given its invariable linkage to socialism in typical capitalist political rhetoric, is also important for opening the American mind to the reality of socialist practice around the globe, elements of socialism that already exist in the U.S., and the possibilities of socialism for improving the lots and lives of masses of Americans going forward.

I think most people understand that fact and grasp that proposals for the government to provide these services imagine funding them either through re-prioritizing current spending, re-vamping the tax structure, or levying new taxes with the stated objective of having all interested parties pay their fair share toward making this nation function effectively and serve its citizens so citizens can serve the nation in turn.

There are services we receive and from which we benefit that we pay for, and don’t routinely even think about necessarily.

When you drive to work or to the store—or anywhere—do you typically think about how the road you’re driving on was funded? Or when you or your kids play in or otherwise enjoy a public park? Or when you collect unemployment benefits? You’ve paid for that.

Well, at least some of us have.

Some 60 major—and majorly-profitable—corporations paid no federal taxes this year, including Amazon, IBM, General Motors, Networks, and U.S. Steel. So, I guess these companies, raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in profit, don’t have to help pay for the massive though crumbling national infrastructure on which their ability to operate depends.

So, yeah, these companies are getting some free stuff.

We need to think more deeply about this “free stuff” issue and who is really paying for what.

For example, this time of year many families prepare to send their children to public schools, with some just starting kindergarten and others entering their senior year of high school, preparing to finish their stretch of publicly provided K-12 education.

Notice I wrote “publicly provided,” not “free.” And let me be clear that “publicly provided” means that the public, we the taxpayers, including those families sending their kids to school, are footing the bill; and the idea is that we benefit, collectively, from an educated citizenry. And those families who do have children attending public schools typically do pay extra frees.

Certainly, those corporations mentioned above benefit from the public education our young ones receive, and from the taxpayer- or state-subsidized college educations of which many of those living in the U.S. avail themselves to prepare themselves to join the workforce and provide valuable labor to these companies so those companies can make billions of dollars.

Again, more free stuff, in the form of free job training, for those corporations who pay no federal taxes.

So, we already have publicly-funded K-12 education and partially-funded, because taxpayer-subsidized, public higher education through state university systems. Indeed, public higher education, in its inception in the United States through the land grant initiative in the mid-19th century, was in fact tuition-free, operating on the basis that as a society we had a shared and collective interest in educating people so we could devise the best ways to grow crops to feed ourselves, to ensure clean water, to figure out how to house ourselves and develop energy sources, and so forth—all matters of profound public interest, public good.

While this system might not be a full-blown socialist system per se, its conceptualization bears features of the spirit of socialism in the way it assesses social labor collectively; that is, the development of the large state university systems was initiated precisely to meet human and social need. People needed to be trained in disciplines like agriculture, mining, and military science not just so they could get jobs to support themselves in the world but so they could do the work necessary to make society function and makes our lives possible.

Given this history, is it really that far-fetched to publicly fund these services that make our collective lives possible and better?

What often isn’t considered, also, when this rhetoric of “free stuff” is mobilized, is the economic benefits of publicly funding, of all of us sharing the costs of, these investments in people.

Writing recently for Fox News, Michael Knowles complained about the real costs of all this “free stuff.”

Here’s one example, as he writes:

“Democrats’ free stuff primary promises voters a need-free life from cradle to grave. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has pledged free childcare for all Americans. According to the Center for American Progress, childcare for American infants costs on average nearly $15,000 per year. The financial services firm Moody’s pegs the cost of Warren’s program at $1.7 billion over 10 years.”

Now, $1.7 billion over ten years is $170 million per year, far less than one percent of the overall federal budget. And consider that Trump’s tax cuts just gave away trillions to corporations and the wealthiest among us providing no lasting boost to the economy in a way that would help most Americans.

Is this really not affordable? And then consider that the cost of childcare prevents many parents, especially single parents, from participating in the labor force. We can see that helping parents take care of their children has enormous social and economic benefits, helping people get off public assistance, earn incomes, be more productive, and pay taxes!

The same goes for “free college.” It helps rather than burdens our economy and hence taxpayers. According to Knowles, free college plans suggested by Democrats would cost about $1.25 trillion over ten years. Again, consider the costs of the Trump tax cuts, lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21%—and remember during some of the most prosperous times in U.S. corporate history the top marginal tax rate approached 90%. Student debt has hindered graduates from participating in the economy, preventing them from buying homes, starting families, and the like. The cost of college has prevented students from attending college and earning degrees so they can earn higher salaries and contribute more to the economy.

Even a more “socialist”-minded capitalism—in which we recognize the economic, social, and fundamental human benefits of publicly funding basic social enterprises serving the educational, healthcare, and family need—would be a step toward breaking down the cultural barriers that inhibit a rigorous entertainment of socialism as a possibility and alternative.

The idea should be clear. If we move beyond this rhetoric of “free stuff,” we can assess the costs and benefits of seeking to publicly and fairly fund our collective lives in ways that benefit all and create a much more livable and humane world.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.