Exactly. One of my favorite op-eds on this subject was fairly recently in the Seattle Times, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, written by Froma Harrop:
What's with all this socialism business? A handful of lefty candidates are calling themselves socialists without a single radical socialistic item on their promise lists.
They seem to have little or no idea of what socialism is. And most of the conservatives talking back to them don't seem to know, either.
Simply put, socialism is a system whereby the state owns the means of production. In capitalism, the means of production are privately owned. Would someone kindly tell us which companies Bernie Sanders would nationalize, starting with Bernie Sanders?
"Spreading the wealth" is not socialism. "Taxes" are not socialism. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries that Sanders habitually holds up as models to emulate are capitalistic powerhouses. They're not taking the means of production away from the private owners. They're just taxing wealth and using the proceeds to fund their plush social safety nets.
The right likes to mock the left's calls for "free stuff," such as free college education, free health care and so forth. My main objection to "free stuff" is calling it "free."
Arguments over big government vs. small government are pretty meaningless. We have what's called a mixed economy -- a system combining private and public enterprise. We ask the government to provide the socially desired goods and services that the private sector won't.
On the left, calling oneself a socialist has become something of a pose, and I wish such individuals would desist. For one thing, they're obviously not socialists. (A mandated $15 minimum wage is not socialism. It's a labor regulation.) And for another, "socialism" sounds scary to many Americans who would otherwise embrace universal coverage, more money for education and a lot of other changes progressives are calling for.
No one's been made the commissar of terminology, but I do wish the free market of ideas would better patrol itself. Socialism is not currently on the American political menu. Let us all stop pretending -- self-proclaimed socialists and their critics alike -- that it is.