Does socialism work? Asking for a friend


Young kids come to me on the street these days and ask: “Hey, Arthur, you were born and grew up in a communist country, didn’t you? So tell us, does socialism actually work?”

Well, actually they don’t, but I wish they would. Actually, scrap that; I rather walk around in peace, unmolested by the Millennials. I don’t wish they would, but perhaps they nevertheless should.

With Bernie Sanders’ socialist insurgency being quashed in California as we speak by Hillary Clinton, the first AI-American to become a presidential candidate, as well as the preferred choice of the Democratic Party establishment, this is a sobering read:

A new analysis from Tufts University shows that Sanders has now surpassed Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary totals among young people in the 25 states where we can draw a comparison — whether you count by raw vote total or percentage of the overall vote share.

According to the Tufts analysis, in 2008 Obama defeated Clinton among under-30 voters by a 60-35 margin. So far Sanders is beating Clinton by a 71-28 margin.  Obama racked up 2.2 million youth votes in the 25 states included in the study. Sanders has won an estimated 2.4 million in those states, with California, New Jersey, and a scattering of smaller states still to vote. Based on recent polling in California (the Field Poll has Sanders leading Clinton 75-10 among under-30s), it doesn’t look like Sanders’s domination in this demographic is going to change before the final bell.

(Via Stephen Green on Instapundit, who comments, “Millions of young voters going doe-eyed for an aging socialist is in the longterm far more worrisome than anything Donald Trump ever did or said.”)

This is not really an unexpected development. Poll after poll over the years have shown that the young ‘uns are notoriously flirtatious with socialism. For example, this one by YouGov, back in January, showed 42 per cent of under-30s have a very or somewhat favourable opinion of socialism. Only one third can say the same about capitalism (to be fair, a Harvard Institute of Politics survey in April found these numbers exactly reversed; though it seems to be an outlier).

However, opinion research also shows that only around 15 per cent of the Millennials know what socialism actually means. Wealth of other research suggests that young people’s views on politics and economics tend to be thoroughly incoherent and contradictory.

So the flirtation with socialism is perhaps less of a deeply thought-out philosophical commitment than an example of youthful contrarianism (we don’t think our society is nice and fair, so we’ll barrack for whoever says they’ll change it). This isn’t really a new phenomenon – “If you’re not a socialist when you’re 20, you don’t have a heart…” and all that – but the sheer numbers of young people who don’t seem to like the world they’re living in and are searching for or are at least sympathetic to radical alternatives is a big concern.

(There is less research in Australia about specific political attitudes of young people, but they are less likely to be enrolled to vote in the first place, and if they are and they do, almost one third of them are likely to support the Greens and only one quarter the Coalition. So the problem is not restricted to the United States.)

Anyhow, should a young person actually approach me on the street and ask, “Hey, Arthur, you were born and grew up in a communist country, weren’t you? So tell us, does socialism actually work?”, what would I say?

Well, it really depends on what you mean by socialism.

If you mean the public ownership of the means of production and central planning, to exclusion of private initiative – a la Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cuba, North Korea, or Poland I grew up in – the answer is clearly no. Not only the economics of it doesn’t work, but you can’t impose such a complete control over the economy without coercion and a complete control of politics and society. This means that in addition to widespread impoverishment millions of people tend to get killed, or at the very least oppressed.

What about less totalitarian versions of socialism (either for the lack of trying or the lack of capacity)? Here too the experience is not encouraging. Look at that former poster child of socialism, Venezuela. It has had elections of sorts and a private sector or sorts, but after 17 years of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro the country is quite literally falling apart with the highest inflation rate in the world, empty shops, complete breakdown of law and order, collapse of public services and skyrocketing poverty. Again, for pretty much the same reasons as in communist countries mentioned above: when socialism doesn’t work in practice – as it doesn’t – the state uses its coercive powers to try to make it work, creating a vicious cycle. And guess, it still doesn’t work.

Well, what about the Scandinavian countries? Firstly, there’s the matter of the definition of “socialism”. They are social democratic rather than socialist countries; the private sector creates wealth, the state confiscates a very large proportion and redistributes it. Secondly, there’s the matter of the definition of “work”. True, for a long time, the Nordics have combined a relatively strong economic performance with a relatively high standard of living and a relatively large welfare state. But two caveats: even that mild and gentle social democratic Nordic model doesn’t work in the long term, which is why Scandinavia today is significantly less social democratic then it was in Bernie Sanders’ golden youth of the 60s and the 70s, with more deregulated economy, lower taxes and more stringent welfare. And there is a reason the Nordic model only works in Nordic countries: they are relatively small, mono-ethnic, socially cohesive, culturally communitarian, and with a very Protestant work and education ethic (even if they are now largely irreligious nowadays). Culture matters, so good luck trying to transfer the Scandinavian model elsewhere, be it to the developing world, or to complex societies like America or Australia.

So, a short answer to a socialism-enamoured Millennial Bernie or Greens supporter: no. A slightly longer answer: at worst your die, at best you have to move to Sweden, and quite possibly back in time. So good luck! Now get off my lawn.