According to a new poll, nearly 40 percent of college students have a favorable opinion of socialism. Polls like this astound older Americans, who witnessed the economic stagnation and human atrocities in socialist regimes during the 20th century, because most millennials we know seem like good people. How could so many good young people favor such an awful system?
Support for socialism is unevenly distributed across majors. Support is greatest among the majors least likely to study how economic systems function.
This new poll sheds some light on this question. And the light it sheds is consistent with what I learned while researching a new book on socialism when I attended the largest gathering of self-identified socialists in the United States.
Support for socialism is unevenly distributed across majors. Support is greatest among the majors least likely to study how economic systems function. Seventy-eight percent of philosophy majors, 64 percent of anthropology majors, and 58 percent of English majors hold favorable views of socialism. Yet, in the disciplines most likely to study how economic systems function, economics and finance, 61 percent and 63 percent of students respectively, hold unfavorable views of socialism.
In my teaching experience, only a small percentage of students correctly identify socialism as an economic system that abolishes private property in the major factors of production and replaces it with collective ownership. This was also true of the millennial socialists I met at the conference last year.
A large portion of self-identified socialists didn’t identify their version of socialism with abolishing private property and replacing it with collective ownership and central planning. Instead, they adopted the socialist label while simply taking positions to the left of the Democratic Party on a wide variety of political issues.
I asked many young people why they were there. One young woman told me “The urgency is because of Trump, immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights.” Her answer was typical. Others told me it was because of the environment, gender rights, abortion, or LGBT rights. I was told that “uncompromising socialism is fully committed to systematic change and ending oppression of all types.”
The answers the attendees gave were also representative of the formal conference sessions. Few sessions had anything to do with how to organize a socialist economic and political system and the few sessions that did confused things more than they illuminated them.
The speakers on the session on Korea failed to mention that North Korea has a socialist economic system, while South Korea’s system is based on private property and free enterprise. Instead we were told that suffering in the North has been caused by imperialism.
By inserting the magic word “democratic” they claim that “China and Cuba, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, have nothing to do with [their version of] socialism.”
Similarly, a speaker in the Venezuela session claimed “Socialism has not failed in Venezuela, because it has never been tried!” Instead we heard her denounce the state capitalist system of Chavez and Maduro.
These speakers were in line with the International Socialist organizers of the conference who do want to abolish private property and replace it with collective ownership. They want democratic socialism. By inserting the magic word “democratic” they claim that “China and Cuba, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, have nothing to do with [their version of] socialism.”
The young people who do identify with real socialism don’t understand the connection between economic freedoms and political freedoms. They seem to think it was a historical accident that every country that ever replaced private property with collective ownership became a totalitarian hell.
But centrally planned socialist economic systems necessarily concentrate economic power in the hands of government officials and planners. Without such power they can’t hope to “run things.” Yet this same power limits citizens’ ability to freely exercise their political power when they become dissatisfied with the government.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, because political freedom cannot survive without a large degree of economic freedom. In his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued that a competitive capitalist economy is necessary to sustain democracy, and that once a country becomes “dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself.”
Similarly, in 1962, Milton Friedman noted: “Historical evidence speaks with a single voice on the relation between political freedom and a free market. I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity.”
“Historical evidence speaks with a single voice on the relation between political freedom and a free market.
The reason is simple. Centrally planned, socialist economic systems necessarily concentrate economic power in the hands of government planners who can, through their economic edicts, punish dissent. This is exactly what has happened in Venezuela, where state employees were fired for signing a petition demanding a recall election of Maduro. In 2017 President Maduro ordered a special election for a Constituent Assembly that could rewrite the constitution and give him even greater power. While the opposition called for an electoral boycott, the government again threatened state employees to support Maduro or be fired. According to Reuters, the vice president of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, told his employees “Any manager, superintendent, and supervisor who tries to block the Constituent Assembly, who does not vote, or whose staff does not vote, must leave his job on Monday.”
During the 2018 presidential election, the government banned the largest opposition parties, violently repressed anti-government protests, and moved the election forward seven months to hamper challengers. Many voters went directly from the voting booth to nearby “Red Spots,” where the government checked their IDs and handed out food rations—essentially a bribe for voting.
Finally in 2019, a constitutional crisis erupted as Juan Guiadó was declared interim-President by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. He was quickly recognized by the United States and most nations in the Western Hemisphere and Europe as the legitimate leader of the country. As I write this, the Venezuelan military as well as the usual suspects (Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, etc.) are standing by Maduro.
Most millennial ‘socialists’ seem like good people because they are good people. Many don’t really favor socialism and most of the ones who do are just ill-informed about political economy. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Most of the peasants who supported the Bolsheviks didn’t know or care about Karl Marx. But they ended up starved, exiled, and impoverished anyway. If we are to avoid the same fate we need to be clearer about the nature of socialist economic systems and their relationship to our democratic freedoms.
Benjamin Powell is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, director of the Free Market Institute, a professor of economics at Texas Tech University, and co-author of the forthcoming book Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way through the Unfree World.