Commentary

Young People like ‘Socialism,’ but Do They Know What It Is?

Fifty-seven percent of Democrats and 51 percent of young people have a positive view of socialism, Gallup reports, slightly more than those who have a positive view of capitalism. That’s frightening. The record of socialist countries, from the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China to today’s Venezuela, is horrific: little or no economic growth, hunger, authoritarian government, people risking their lives to flee.

So why are people talking about socialism again? It seemed to start with Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2016. Then came a new breed of Democrats fed up with the influence of money in both parties, typified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over a prominent Democratic congressman. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) says its membership skyrocketed after Ocasio-Cortez’s June win.

Americans like free enterprise, and very few of them want a more powerful government.

Socialism is back, after seemingly being buried in the dustbin of history with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, for several reasons. Young people never knew, and many older voters have forgotten, what the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its Eastern European client states were like. The financial crisis of 2008 certainly gave capitalism a bad name. Bailouts for Wall Street, a very slow economic recovery, and endless wars left people on all sides of the political spectrum looking for alternatives. For some people that alternative was a tough-talking billionaire president, but with his harsh rhetoric toward immigrants and other groups, he seemed like a typical unfeeling capitalist to many other voters.

So now half of Americans 18-29 say they have a positive view of socialism. But there’s a lot of confusion about what that means. The traditional definition of socialism, as summarized in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, is “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.” That’s what the Communist Party implemented in the Soviet Union and China. It was the goal of the British Labour Party, and the nationalizations of coal, iron and steel, railroads, utilities, and international telecommunications after World War II led to decades of economic stagnation.

But most American “socialists” probably don’t support government ownership of the means of production. Ask self-proclaimed socialists what they want, and you get vague and lovely answers. Ocasio-Cortez says that “in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” In the Liza Minnelli musical Flora the Red Menace, the Communist organizer sings, “Are you in favor of democracy, the rights of man, everlasting peace, milk and cookies for the kids, security, jobs for everyone, and against slums, the filthy rich, and making cannon fodder of our youth? Then you’re a Communist!”

Sanders has often pointed to Denmark as an example of democratic socialism. But don’t tell that to the Danes. In 2015 the Danish prime minister said he knew that “some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

If Denmark is the model for today’s American socialists, then they should leave the DSA and join Democrats for Higher Taxes and Transfer Payments.

A deeper dive into Gallup’s latest poll shows a decided lack of interest in the kind of government control that socialism would entail. Asked if they had a positive or negative image of various things, respondents gave very high marks to small business, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise, and 56 percent approval to capitalism. The federal government and socialism lagged far behind at 39 and 37 percent. (These are numbers for all respondents, not just young people as above.)

Only 44 percent agreed that “government should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Only 25 percent said there is too little government regulation of business, 39 percent said too much, and 33 percent the right amount. In 2017 Gallup found that 67 percent of Americans believed big government was a bigger threat to the future than big business was. Only 26 percent picked big business, and 5 percent said big labor.

Perhaps most telling: If socialism means anything, it means giving more power to government. But almost no one in the new Gallup poll thinks the federal government has too little power: just 8 percent in the new poll, about where it’s been since 2002.

There’s lots of talk in the United States about socialism these days, and lots of debate about how high taxes and spending ought to be. But Americans like free enterprise, and very few of them want a more powerful government.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.