“Transferism” as a term for our prevailing political philosophy?

It seldom strikes me as correct when an American is referred to as being “right wing” or “leftist”. These 230-year-old terms are vague to the point of being useless. Wikipedia:

Leftist economic beliefs range from Keynesian economics and the welfare state through industrial democracy and the social market to nationalization of the economy and central planning, to the anarcho-syndicalist advocacy of a council- and assembly-based self-managed anarchist communism.

Similarly, people who are characterized as “liberal” or “conservative” seldom have a coherent political philosophy. “Socialism” is also a vague term. In the Soviet Union it meant that everyone had to work, even mothers of young children, for example. In the U.S., the same word has become associated with the idea that nobody has to work, especially not mothers (e.g., “single moms” or “welfare moms”).

“Transferism, Not Socialism, Is the Drug Americans Are Hooked On” (from the FEE folks who tilt at windmills in the belief that there are a significant number of Americans who want a market economy) delves into this question of terminology.

Socialism is state control of the means of production. The intent is that these means are to be used for the public good. By contrast, capitalism is simply private ownership of the means of production. The intent is that these means are to be used to advance the interests of those who own them, which will in turn create conditions of general prosperity that can be enjoyed by all.

It appears that what Americans really have in mind when they think about socialism is not an economic system but particular economic outcomes. And their thoughts seem to focus most often on the question of what people should have. The answer they arrive at most often? More than people typically get in a system based on the pursuit of profit. Capitalism, they believe, is immoral because it is a system in which some do without while others have more than they could hope to use in multiple lifetimes.

Transferism Is a More Accurate Term

These four in ten Americans, and the politicians who speak for them most vocally, are not advocating socialism at all; they are advocating what we should really call “transferism.” Transferism is a system in which one group of people forces a second group to pay for things that the people believe they, or some third group, should have. Transferism isn’t about controlling the means of production. It is about the forced redistribution of what’s produced.

Federal transfers to persons have risen from 11 percent of federal spending in 1953 to 53 percent today. As with persons, the federal government also sends transfers to state and local governments. Federal transfers to persons and state and local governments have risen from 17 percent of federal spending in 1953 to 69 percent today. As of today, almost 70 percent of what the federal government does involves simply taking money from one group of people and giving it to another. Less than one-third of the money Washington spends is spent in the name of actual governance.

Readers: What do you think? Is transferism a more precise term than those that are thrown around in an attempt to characterize Americans’ political wishes?

18 thoughts on ““Transferism” as a term for our prevailing political philosophy?

  1. I think it’s a much more useful term, because it does focus the analysis on where the money comes from and where it goes, and why. Thanks for the article.

  2. >Readers: What do you think? Is transferism a more precise term than those that are thrown around in an attempt to characterize Americans’ political wishes?

    Yes. ‘Transferism’ is a word I will be using. It gets to the heart of the matter. Good government used to be about protecting private property, now it is about stealing it.

    • I agree. It’s highly clarifying. I will no longer talk about socialism and will instead use the term transferism.

  3. There’s a lot of nonsense there. The nonsense is summarized in the last two paragraphs quoted. What’s the definition of actual governance? Two of the biggest programs that involve the “transfer” of money to individuals are Social Security and Medicare, which are probably the most popular institutions in American life and supported by much more than four-tenths of the population. They also lump “transfers” of funds to state and local government in with transfers to individuals. If state and local governments use those funds to pay for law enforcement, perhaps that would count as “actual governance” in the minds of these writers.

    It’s also interesting that they refer to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term (thus powerless) Congresswoman and villain in the right wing crackpot media.

    The more important point is that it’s best to avoid these words end in -ist and -ism. That became clear in the summer of 2008 when millions of people of began to refer to Barack Obama as a socialist but couldn’t define the term. Inventing new terms doesn’t help the situation. If these writers would like the federal government to stop funding medical care for senior citizens, they should explain that policy preference without making up new terminology.

    • @Vince: I think it’s a much more precise way of talking about it, without the ridiculous political overtones. I can share something with you: I’m having MRI done soon, which will be paid for by my MassHealth (Tufts) insurance. It most certainly is a transfer, because I don’t have the money to pay for it. I don’t enjoy the fact that I need an MRI, and I regret that someone else (basically, society) is going to foot the bill. I’m contributing to the problem of spiraling health care costs and I don’t like it.

      I suppose in this regard I’m like a lot of people who wish the medical care they needed was less expensive. I wish we could find a good way to cut down on the waste, the unnecessary procedures, the superfluous procedures. For example, it took a battery of tests that were absolutely wasted on me before I was referred to the doctor who understood what was actually going on and recommended the MRI – all the earlier stuff just went (literally) down the tubes. If we can’t get a handle on the cost growth what are we doing? Talking about it in terms of transfers might help to focus people’s minds.

    • And let’s talk about another kind of transfer that I’m not aware exists (it might, but I don’t know about it, so I’ll take the credit for inventing it.)

      We see and hear reports all the time in this country that there are poor communities who have threadbare municipal police and fire departments. They have to rely on county patrols or state patrols, they can’t afford to hire officers or purchase patrol cars, etc., etc. Imagine if there was a good way for relatively wealthy police departments who have too much of a good thing to transfer some of their excess wealth to places where the poverty is so acute that it’s a public crisis?

      Could that happen? Would any municipal department in this country voluntarily send some of their money/material/equipment to other similar department?

    • I would like the federal government to curtail funding of free medical care for the elderly. The elderly have the most wealth as an age group – they should have (at a minimum) hefty co-pays for medical treatment.
      The US isn’t wealthy enough to give any group a free ride.

    • The elderly have the most wealth as an age group

      There you go. You stated a reason and you used a verb. You didn’t just utter some word ending in -ism. However, “the elderly” don’t require health care as a group. Individual older Americans consume health care and a large majority of those individuals are not wealthy. In fact, a large portion have little income in addition to Social Security and the median Social Security benefit amount is around $1,200 monthly.

    • > Americans consume health care and a large majority of those individuals are not wealthy

      Any discussion about healthcare affordability in the USA that does not focus on the cartels and price fixing is hot air. The transferists want to pretend this is a problem requiring new government spending and control when the problem is entirely solvable by application of 100yo anti-trust law. The FTC and DOJ can solve the problem of ridiculous USA healthcare costs in about two months.

      GDP would contract 15% and a lot of firms would go bankrupt. But it’s the appropriate solution.

  4. No, because all government taxation and spending is a transfer of money.

    You don’t seem to have a problem with wealth being transferred to Trump when he goes golfing at his own properties, only when money is transferred to those you deem beneath your station.

  5. I like the term. Unmentioned in the article is how Denmark, Sweden, etc. have turned this up to 11: (1) take a huge amount in taxes; (2) return a lot (but not all) of that in free stuff and “services”; (3) convince the citizenry that you’ve done them a big favor.

  6. Transferism in action: LA is spending >$1 billion to house the homeless, and they’re not.


    Who gets the money?

    “It’s going to be too late when they get through spending the money,” says Jimmy Anderson, who’s lived on Skid Row for 40 years and currently sleeps at Union Rescue Mission. “There’s going to be triple the homeless who’re out here now…

    “”Women and kids are going to take over the [Union Rescue Mission] and all the men are going to have to move back out here onto the street,” Anderson says.”

    “We cannot spend $600,000 per person per unit and ever get it done,” says Bales. “We’ve got to think innovatively or we’re going to have a bigger disaster on our hands.”

    But that’s what they’re doing!

    “It’s ridiculous. I mean, who would want to leave 44,000 people on the streets to die while you stick with your very expensive plan to help a few?”

    Los Angeles transferados, that’s who.

    Maybe a better question to ask an engineer would be: “How could we design a system to house, feed and clothe 200,000 homeless people if we transfer a billion dollars to that purpose?”

    • @philg:

      You’ve asked the question before, more or less – why is helping the homeless not as popular as helping other groups? (paraphrase: They’ll step over the homeless getting out of their Tesla on the way to the [preferred group] coffee shop.”)

      Here’s why: There’s no money to be made in it. The people we’re talking about quickly become virtually worthless after a certain amount of exposure to the elements: “When you leave people on the streets, they are quickly devastated by what they experience. Homelessness destroys people physically, mentally, emotionally, educationally, vocationally – every way you can think of. And in LA there’s nowhere to go, right?”

      If you don’t intervene quickly with homeless people, there’s not enough money in the world to fix what becomes of them, at least in the numbers we’re talking about. And it’s a dirty, difficult, emotionally draining ordeal to try. For everyone except the politicians, that is. Garcetti looks so proud!

  7. More transfers: Massachusetts is mulling charge-per-mile tolls, ostensibly to maintain and improve our inadequate transportation infrastructure (and you’ve seen recently, the Orange Line definitely needs it after spending north of $700 million dollars on Chinese trains assembled in Springfield). Now we need more transfer, because cars are getting more efficient, so the gas tax money won’t be enough to fix the trains that don’t work! They built this system at exorbitant expense while paying the Chinese for the privilege, it’s verging on in failure already, and so now it’s time to transfer more money into it. A lot of money.

    You know when the State House News Service calls something DRASTIC in Massachusetts, it takes your breath away:

    “Drastic New Proposals Would Impact Massachusetts Drivers”

    Remember, this is America, now. We’re not in the third world … are we? I can’t wait to see how they develop the fee structure. Now, we’ll have to put this in the subcategory of “infrastructure transfers” and develop a metric to determine whether the transfer is effective and how it impacts people of disproportionate incomes and livelihoods.

  8. Phil, the linked Samuelson article makes a good point, that there’s not a lot of macroeconomic difference between (for example) (a) tax policy that subsidizes employer-provided health insurance and (b) a direct government subsidy. (Repeat for IRA/401(k)s, home mortgages, etc.)

    I’d argue that, macroecon aside, the former isn’t really “transferism” as discussed in the FEE article, since the money involved is largely voluntary (albeit incentivized) and stays in the private side of the ledger, rather than mandatory and passing through the bureaucracy. (The FEE article really seems to emphasize the coercive nature of transferism, part of its appeal to its fans.)

  9. One of the major problems in today’s economy is that rent-seeking is much more economically beneficial than actual production. There is a transfer from the productive class to the rent seeking class. This applies to both the government and private sector. The productive company that makes something useful to society has to pay lawyers, has to pay a lease and other rent seeking entities (i.e. management consultants). Government taxes could also fall under rent seeking, but at least with taxes, you would expect that it goes to keeping the road system operational defence of the country and the population healthy and educated. You would expect some efficiency in government, but unfortunately this is not the case.

    If you are among the wealthy 1%, you also have the power to transfer funds from the 99% to you. By using lawyers and accountants you minimize your taxes (using many instruments that are available only to the 1%) and then the tax burden is transferred from you to the 99%.

Comments are closed.