Driving around Texas some time ago, I saw a big billboard by Interstate 35 that sported an unflattering headshot of President Obama and a bold slogan: "Socialist by Conduct." Having grown up in China, where being labeled a socialist is like being called Mother Teresa, I was utterly befuddled by the ad.

From day one of Obama's presidency, critics have tried to label him "a socialist from Kenya," attacking his policies as evil attempts to redistribute wealth. Newt Gingrich has called Obama "the food stamp president." Rick Santorum warns that in a second term, Obama would turn America into a bankrupt socialist society like, God forbid, Europe. ObamaCare has angered critics who bristle against what they perceive to be its socialist agenda. For that very reason, the Supreme Court is now weighing the fate of the law — a law whose basic premise, mind you, was originally a Republican idea.

I have lived in the U.S. long enough to know that "socialism" is an antagonistic word in American politics. Its historical connotations date back to the divisive labor movement of the early 1900s, and to McCarthyism and the 1950s red scare. And today, Republican-backed, union-busting bills in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana are meant to crush any hint of socialism, despite the fact that the states are struggling economically.

The worst thing about socialism is the invasion of privacy, and the best things are governmental policies that benefit everyone.

Strip away all the overly politicized, negative connotations, and you'll see that socialism is loosely defined as any economic or political theory advocating collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods. Such governmental ownership runs counter to the free spirit of enterprise capitalism. But what happened to capitalism in 2008? Remember those government bailouts? Not one, but two! Even today, Uncle Sam still owns a big piece of General Motors.

Despite its puzzlingly bad reputation in the U.S., socialism, or some version of it, has always played a role in modern societies — including America. What is a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" if not one that emphasizes collective governing? Certain areas of life need to be operated by the government, such as defense, infrastructure, health care, social security, education, and fiscal policy. What we have seen in the past several decades in this country is a steady erosion of the government's ability to operate for the good of the public. The government has instead turned into a vehicle for private profiteering. From tax codes that favor the super-rich to the defunding of public education, the game has been rigged in favor of the haves, against the have-nots.

In California, budget cuts and the wrongheaded initiative by the Board of Regents to privatize the University of California — to decrease dependence on the cash-strapped state government — have mostly just driven up tuition costs. Fairly soon, one of the best public university systems in the world will no longer serve the taxpayers of the state. It is now often more costly to attend UC than pricey private universities like Harvard or Stanford. The best way we can beat back the tide of privatization of education is through government intervention, on both the federal and state levels. But for such interventions to be effective, citizens must recognize and accept the fundamental role a government can play in this area rather than ring the "socialism" warning bell.

Oddly enough, the politicians who most loudly condemn liberal policies as socialist conspiracies are often the ones who try to enact the most repressive tenets of socialism. When it comes to moral ideology, conservatives in this country are even more socialist than liberals. The recent wave of health bills attempting to place limits on a woman's reproductive freedoms, from proposed mandatory transvaginal ultrasound tests in Virginia to Arizona's law requiring women to tell their employers that they use birth control, make China's draconian reproductive policies look humane. As anyone who has lived in a socialist country can testify, the worst thing about socialism is the invasion of privacy, and the best things are governmental policies that benefit everyone, not just the rich and privileged. It is time for conservatives to wise up, and stop badmouthing socialism — because they're really pointing the finger at themselves.