Over the last century, national socialism murdered tens of millions; international socialism murdered or starved at least a hundred million; and a softer socialism impoverished nations stretching from Europe to Latin America (see Venezuela). But apparently that’s all old and stupid history stuff. According to a new Harvard IOP poll, around 1 in 6 young voters identify as socialist, and a whopping 1 in 3 say they support socialism.
And this is just the latest in a long line of polls showing millennials warming to socialism. This is the same group who have felt “the Bern” for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and a big reason crony progressive Hillary Clinton found herself forced to veer hard left in order to outpace Sanders in their race for the Democratic nomination.
A lot of older people are shocked and surprised that so many young people would be drawn to socialism, an idea so thoroughly debunked by the verdict of history and reality. I’m not shocked or surprised.
When I wrote Money, Greed and God several years ago, I dedicated the first chapter to the delusions of communism and socialism. My editor thought that was a mistake when he first read the manuscript. Wasn’t I beating a dead horse? Sure, he conceded, I had a dalliance with socialism in college. But that was way back in the 1980s. This was 2008. Doesn’t everyone now know that socialism is dead?
I understood his reaction. My editor was a Generation Xer like me, so he had memories of the Cold War. He remembered watching on TV as the Soviet Union and its Eastern European puppet states ceased to exist, and their economies sprang to life as the air of freedom began to blow through their economies. He may even have read the 1992 Francis Fukuyama book The End of History, announcing that the world would soon accept the superiority of capitalism and liberal democracy over the alternatives. That made sense, if one assumed that countries consult history before deciding what to think. So why would I treat socialism as a going concern, and even open my book with it?
Ten years before I wrote the book, I would have agreed with my editor. But I had spent the previous several years speaking on college campuses all across the country, including at dozens of Christian colleges. And I discovered, to my dismay, that the same romantic attachment to “socialism” that I had in the ‘80s had sprung up as soon as it was possible in the new millennium. After all, reality-resistant left wing professors had not all retired on the day the Soviet Union collapsed. And once they had students with no memories of the Cold War, they would have fertile virgin soil in which to plant their seeds. Which they did.
Socialists Blamed the Free Market for the Financial Crisis, When Big Government Was the Real Culprit
The problem got even worse after the 2008 housing bust and financial crisis, which was widely (though falsely) blamed on “unfettered capitalism.” As detailed in my book Infiltrated and by various analysts at great length, government interventions in the market — from loosey-goosey Fed policy to Uncle Sam backing, goading and even mandating home loans to people with bad credit — were prime drivers of the financial bubble. And like all bubbles, it eventually burst. Unfortunately, understanding all that takes slightly more effort than nodding yes as some television pundit rants about greedy, predatory capitalists over video of Wall Street fat cats getting bailed out by Uncle Sam. So capitalism took the rap, and Uncle Sam not only walked, but gained even more power over the economy.
Socialism is Anti-Social
That’s the bad news. The better news is that few of the young people attracted to socialism know what it is. The word doesn’t exactly describe itself. It’s got that nice word “social” tucked in there. I’m sure the polls would turn out differently if the word “statism” or “Big Brotherism” or “massive centralized government control of almost everything” were used.
But as it is, socialism has always had good branding. Socialism is social instead of individualistic. Socialism is about equality. Socialism is about generosity and helping the poor. Right? No. Where socialism grows, social ties weaken as private organizations and institutions that bring people together are crowded out by the state. And as socialism grows, equality is replaced by cronyism, with insider access to ever-growing government power making all the difference between those who get ahead and those who get shut out of the game. And as socialism grows, real generosity wanes as the government takes over roles previously filled by private charitable organizations. The historical data on all this is quite plain.
What is Socialism?
So what exactly is this thing that many understand only vaguely and that has done so much damage? The strict definition of socialism — or what we might call socialism in full bloom — is an economic system in which private property is abolished and the “means of production” are owned by the state. The friendlier way of putting that is to say that property is owned “by the people,” though in practice that always means the state. As Merriam Webster puts it: socialism is “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.”
Get that definition on the table, and you’ll find very few takers, unless you’ve wandered into the faculty lounge at Sarah Lawrence or Evergreen State College. Very few twenty-somethings are gung-ho to have the government literally take over Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft, Chobani Yogurt, Google parent company Alphabet, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, or their favorite food trucks and farmers’ markets.
Not even “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders calls for that. He simply wants to ratchet tax rates way up and get the government controlling a lot more in the economy, especially Wall Street and the banks — which are already the most regulated parts of the economy.
He also wants the government to do lots of high-minded but impossible stuff, such as offering free college to all takers. Since college education, like health care, is scarce, the only thing he can do is to make it “free” at the point of service, while shifting the cost from the customers to hapless taxpayers. That’s not only unjust. It would also drive the real costs of college through the roof, and the value and quality of the education through the floor.
We’ve already seen a sneak peak at the cost-inflating effect — from the government subsidizing and pushing student loans. This pumped a lot more money into higher education system, allowing it to grow fat and inefficient and rendering it far more costly than it was 40 years ago, even adjusting for inflation.
It’s all been tried in various forms and all of it has failed, sometimes quickly and catastrophically, sometimes gradually and failing not with a bang but a whimper. But again, because so few millennials know about the Cold War and the real history of socialism, and because so few even know what the word means, they associate “socialism” with pleasing mental images: a peaceful Scandinavian village where everyone has a Volvo in the garage, plenty of (non-GMO) fish and cheese in the pantry, cradle-to-grave health coverage and job security, and two months’ paid vacation every year — including six weeks’ leave for raising new puppies. They can’t be bothered with how to make that fantasy a reality in the United States.
As a result, millennials and everyone else must be exposed, year after year, month after month, over and over, to reality — to the monstrous events of socialist history and to the rudimentary lessons of basic economics that help explain why socialism has been such a disaster. They also need to be exposed to a clear definition and the successful track record of the best alternative — economic freedom. It’s a tough and thankless task that will be required until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, but somebody’s got to do it. So let’s get started.