Sundin column: The difference between communism and socialism

Hal Sundin
As I See It

In a Feb. 11, 2020 Letter to the Editor, the author demonstrated a lack of knowledge when he wrote “(communist-socialist, what’s the difference?)” It is a common error to use them interchangeably, but they are not the same.

The main difference is that, under communism, everyone is equal to everyone else and property and resources are owned and controlled by the state: “From each according to his ability and to each according to his need.”

Whereas, under socialism, all citizens share equally in economic resources as allocated by a democratically-elected government: “From each according to his ability and to each according to his ability and contribution.”

The letter-writer also ignored democratic socialism as practiced by the Scandinavian countries and to a lesser extent, by Canada. Democratic socialism requires that both society and the economy should be run democratically, and that they should be serving the people as a whole rather than promoting free-reign individual prosperity.

Basic needs like housing, utilities, mass transit and health care are provided through the government, while consumer goods and services are provided by a capitalistic free market. In the U.S., government has become involved to only a limited degree in providing housing, utilities and mass transit and with the exception of Medicare has made only a half-hearted effort at providing health care. The result has been major increases in the cost, particularly in housing and health care, which has put them beyond the means of millions of Americans.

We are constantly being told by those who are profiting from a purely capitalistic system that socialism in any form would be unaffordable. Then how do the Scandinavian countries avoid running up huge national debts, while the United States has a $23 trillion national debt that is increasing another trillion dollars every year?

The answer is that the people in those countries have chosen to pay for the benefits they are receiving. What could be more democratic? But our government is busy creating trillion dollar deficits to give tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy and pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the military-industrial complex.

Medical costs in the U.S. are as much as twice the cost in most other industrialized countries, especially the cost of drugs, but do not result in better healthcare. On the contrary, health care in most of those countries is superior to that in the U.S. Massive campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry have “convinced” Congress to create legislation making it illegal to purchase drugs from Canada (at less than half the price in the U.S.), and (can you believe it?) to prohibit Medicare from negotiating drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies. This largess has made them the most profitable major industry in the country.

In 1967-68 my wife and I hosted an AFS student from Norway. Several years later we went there to visit her and her family. I discussed the Norwegian economic system with her father and he was very happy with it.

He acknowledged that his income-tax payments were 20-25 percentage points higher than ours. He said, “But look at what I’m getting in return — free college tuition for my children, a retirement income I can live on, and no worries about medical expenses bankrupting me and causing the loss of my house.” (In the U.S. it can also destroy the chances for children to receive a college education.)

His comments are true for the rest of the Scandinavian countries, which make their populations the happiest and most care-free in the world.

Paying higher taxes does not reduce their standard of living because socialism does not increase the costs of college education, medical care and retirement — it merely transfers those costs to the taxes paid. It actually frees up more income for other purposes by eliminating the need to set aside a large amount of money to fall back on in the event of medical emergencies. Instead, that money can be used for vacations, travel, a boat, or a summer cottage.

Communism ridiculously promises everyone the same income, whereas socialism (especially democratic socialism) recognizes the reality that people should be compensated in proportion to their contribution to society — but nothing even approaching the enormous and growing disparity in income and wealth that is separating the U.S. into a ridiculously wealthy upper class and the struggling lower and middle classes. That will be the subject of a future column.

“As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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