27. Joseph Biden: Socialist?

President Biden has proposed a vast expansion of government programs strengthening infrastructure and family welfare. In a recent poll, 35 percent called Biden a socialist. Are they correct?

No. The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as "a theory or policy of social organization that aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole." No major figure in U.S. politics -- not even Bernie Sanders -- is currently advocating public ownership of the means of production.

So where does socialism exist? Such questions are a bit cosmic for a blog of a page or so. But if the questions are sufficiently simple-minded, simple answers are possible.

There are five Marxist-Leninist regimes that are explicitly socialist, though some private enterprise may be permitted. These are China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. All are also defined as "Authoritarian" by the latest Economist Intelligence Unit's annual ranking of democracy in the world.

Are there socialist states that are democratic? The World Population Review lists eight other nations in which socialist parties govern. Four of these, Iceland, Portugal, Ecuador, and Serbia, qualify as full or flawed democracies in the Economist's survey.

However, having a socialist party in charge does not mean that the government has taken over the means of production. The cases cited have "mixed" economies with a free market operating alongside strong government direction.

The same could be said of many states without socialists in the government. Some that once nationalized much of their industry and commerce, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, retreated from state ownership during the neo-liberalization trend of the 1980s-1990s.

So what works best? Sticking to the simple-minded approach, let's look at the UN Human Development Index, which ranks nations on an index that defines standard of living not just by income but also by such measures as health and education.

Clearly the Scandinavian nations have the most successful formula. They claim five of the first seven rankings on the UNHDI for 2020. Norway deserves special mention; it is first in standard of living and first in the Economist democracy ranking as well. One might suspect that prosperity and democracy go together.

The United States ranked 17th on standard of living and 25th on democracy (Israel was 19th and 27th). Americans may have a hard time adjusting to the thought that sixteen nations seem to be living better. What explains their advantage?

The higher-ranking nations, and the Scandinavian countries in particular, have mixed economies with a more robust government role and extensive welfare-state benefits. They all have, for example, comprehensive government-funded health-care systems.

Technically this in itself is not socialism. But whatever it is, it seems to be working. Are Americans capable of learning from the experience of others?