Some economic systems are fully or partially socialized, even in America. For example, our education system is partially socialized. In other countries, education is even more thoroughly socialized. What does that mean?
One thing it doesn’t mean is that the education is free. Public education isn’t free. The teachers, administrators and staff at schools are not providing their services pro bono. They are paid for what they do. But they are paid by some body of the public at large, rather than the individual student/customer who seeks the education that is provided. And correspondingly, the amount of education the student is entitled to access is based on something other than the ability to pay. That’s what it means to have socialized education.
Why do we, and people in other countries, do things like this? It’s one way in which we take cognizance of the fact that we live in organized and cooperative human societies, and are not just aggregated masses of separate, happiness-seeking individuals who happen to live in close proximity to one another. By socializing some economic systems, we express our moral and practical determination that there are certain things every participant in our society should be able to access in equal measure. This builds solidarity, team-work and cohesion, which are fundamental social goods. And even from a more self-interested perspective, we rationally understand that our own well-being depends on the actions and characteristics of other people in our society, and so it is worth our while as individuals to cooperate with others in investing in one another.
In the United States, we do not like the word “socialized” and tend not to use it. We also never say we have adopted a socialist solution to any specific problem – even though in some cases we have. We have come out the other end of more than a century of red scares, Hooverism, McCarthyism and the rest, topped off by a bitter and ideologically fraught cold war against people who, we were told, diabolically believed in socializing things while we right-thinkers believed in the system of individual liberty and self-reliance. So words like “socialized”, “socialist” – and in some quarters even “society” – acquired very negative connotations. If we want to socialize things here in the US, or have socialized things in the past, we are encouraged to adopt more euphemistic terms to describe those things.
I understand the demands of political realism and the pressure to use euphemisms, or at least terms that for contingent historical reasons seem less ideologically loaded. But there are drawbacks to the substitute terms as well: in some cases, they perpetuate an unhealthy confusion about what we are actually doing.
At the aggregate level, no good or service that requires human labor and other scarce resources to produce is properly described as free. When health care is provided via a single payer plan, it won’t be free. A large number of health care professionals will be paid to provide it. But they will be paid by the taxpaying public at large, not by the individual patient/customer to whom they provide it. We will then have socialized health care, and bravo for that. We may also move toward fully socialized post-secondary education, more effectively socialized retirement systems, and even greater socialization of the income system. None of those goods will be free.