I saw the flower pictured above on a recent visit to the Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens outside Merano, Italy. The gardens are quite beautiful, and for a while I had the notion that they were planted and kept for the amusement of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who, Meraners like to note, spent seven months at the castle back in 1870. In reality, though, the gardens are an example of what would, in the context of current American politics, be condemned as socialism.
As a carving near the castle explained, they were conceived and built by the government of the Italian province in which they are located, called Sud Tirol if you speak German or Alto Adige if you prefer Italian. A guide explained to me that the castle and its surroundings fell on hard times after World War II and lay in ruins before the government decided to build the gardens as a tourist attraction, which now helps sustain the local economy. The parking lots when I visited were full of cars from Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries, and hundreds of people were having a stroll, eating lunch, and taking pictures.
It happened to be a day when, back in the United States, President Trump and his acolytes were excoriating Democrats as socialists. In the context of American politics in 2019, socialism is an elastic term for tarring anything the Republicans think will make Democrats looks bad, like collective bargaining with campaign workers (Bernie Saunders) or favoring environmental regulations, or whatever it is Trump doesn’t like about The Squad on a particular day. I am afraid that for the next 15 months or so, we will constantly hear abut socialism, expressed as a sneering pejorative, whenever Trump or Fox & Friends open their mouths.
The proper definition of socialism, as far as I know, is a system in which the people, through their government, own the means of production. This would mean, in the American context, that Democrats would be calling for the government to take over General Motors, or Exxon, or Microsoft. As far as I know, even with 24 presidential candidates, no Democratic politician is saying that.
Democrats are calling, in various ways, for a greater government role in health care. They’re calling for more regulation in environmental matters. If your business emits pollutants, for instance, the Democrats don’t want you to be able to dump those pollutants into a creek and forget about them. They’re also calling for the government to spend more money on things like helping people afford higher education, and they’re proposing to get that money by raising taxes on the wealthy.
None of these proposals, in a rational world, would be conflated with socialism. They are, rather, adjustments to what the United States has had for decades—a mixed economy, with the government undertaking to do things the private sector will not or cannot do. It was Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, who shepherded America’s interstate highway system into existence back in the less fevered 1950s. No one accused Ike of being a socialist. And no one seriously advocated waiting for the private sector to build those highways. Another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, brought millions of acres into the National Park systems. Nowadays, of course, we would have Republicans fulminating against “guvmint roads,” or "guvmint land." If you don’t believe this, note that we currently have legislators in Kansas who like to vote against appropriations to operate “guvmint schools.”
There’s obviously room for debate on specific ideas that would give the government power at the expense of the private sector. I can see a lot of reasons for questioning whether Medicare-for-all is a good idea. But those who oppose it ought to have to explain why it would be worse than America’s private health care system, which study after study shows delivers worse health outcomes for more money than the government-run systems in other countries.
If the Republican zealots against socialism had their way, I suppose, we would have only those amenities that entrepreneurs initiated and sustained because they made a profit. There is a lot to be said for entrepreneurs pursuing profits. They’re innovators. They bring enormous energy to the economy. They cause growth. A smart system wants to make sure they can flourish.
But I think the Europeans, better than we, understand that there’s also room for initiatives that won’t make a profit and that therefore need to be provided by government. My innkeeper in Merano, for instance, told me that in good years, the Trauttmansdorff Gardens operation costs just about what ticket sales bring in. But there are years when an unusually harsh winter kills many flowers, and then the government has to subsidize the re-planting. Which it does. I’m sure there are European taxpayers who would rather not subsidize things like the Trauttmansdorf Gardens, but they appear to be a minority. In Merano, I can report that the laborers and botanists who are employed there, and the entrepreneurs who sell food and lodging to the tourists, did not organize an anti-socialist demonstration while I was in town.
A couple of days after visiting the gardens, I used another subsidized government service, a funicular that rises for several miles from the city of Bolzano to the village of Sopra Bolzano. It’s a beautiful ride. At the terminus in Sopra Bolzano (pictured at right), there’s a little single-track rail line that shuttles between Sopra Bolzano and another village, Kollalbo, a few miles away. Year-round, I suspect a lot of mountain villagers use the service to go to work in the city or to shop. It’s a tourist service in the summer. European families come for the hiking on Alpine trails. They don’t need cars to get there. They stay in guesthouses owned by farmers along the rail line. My ticket cost 30 Euros, but I imagine that the funicular and the little train don’t make a profit even in the summer, to say nothing of the winter.
But a funny thing about Sopra Bolzano and the hamlets along the little train. They look prosperous. The houses are well kept. There are no empty storefronts, such as one sees in the devastated small towns of rural America. Of course, the citizens of those small American towns don’t have to suffer under the curse of socialism and government interference in the economy. Lucky them.