Socialism is having a moment.
I’m not just referring to Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing in the Democratic primaries. Various polls show that millennials have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. And millennials generally are the only age group that views socialism more favorably than unfavorably.
Some conservatives aren’t surprised. Schools have been force-feeding left-wing propaganda to kids like it was feed for geese at a foie gras factory.
On the other hand, what are we to make of the fact that only a fraction of the young people who say they like socialism can explain what it is? If left-wing indoctrination is so effective at getting kids to like socialism, you’d think it would have more success at getting kids to at least parrot back a serviceable definition.
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Regardless, this is a familiar tale. Young people have a well-documented tendency of skipping facts and arguments and going straight to conclusions.
Writing in The Federalist, Emily Ekins and Joy Pullmann note that many of these young people think socialism is federally mandated niceness. A 2014 Reason-Rupe survey asked millennials to define socialism. They had in mind a more generous safety net, more kindness and, as one put it, more “being together.”
But when asked if they agreed with a more technically accurate definition of socialism — government control of the economy — support dropped considerably (though not nearly enough). Given a choice between a government-managed economy and a free-market economy, millennials overwhelmingly chose the latter. It seems young people realize that putting bureaucrats in charge of Uber wouldn’t work too well.
Still, it boggles the mind that anyone can see the folly of having the government take over Amazon or Facebook but be blind to the problems of having the government run health care.
More intriguing to me is the fact that kids who don’t know what textbook socialism is actually have a better understanding of what drives socialism in the first place.
Karl Marx was one of the worst things to ever happen to socialism, and not just because he set the world on a path to the murder, oppression and enslavement of millions upon millions of people. It was Marx and his confreres who convinced the intellectual classes that socialism was a strictly “scientific” doctrine. For generations, economists — real and so-called — worked on the assumption that the economy could be run like a machine. Just as engineers had mastered the steam engine and the transistor, they could do likewise with supply and demand.
For generations, intellectuals — real and so-called — argued that economics was best left to “planners.” Time and again, reality — specifically, the reality dictated by human desires — refused to be bent to neatly arrayed columns of numbers and well-stacked slips of paper. The philosopher-economist Friedrich Hayek long ago explained that planners suffer from what he called “the knowledge problem.” Even the best bureaucrat couldn’t know what customers, suppliers and managers on the ground wanted or needed.
And each time the planners insisted that if they just had a little bit more power, a bit more data, a few more resources, they could make planning work. When all you have is a hammer, you’re inclined to believe that there’s no problem a few more nails won’t fix.
The Soviet Union and its various cousins did much to discredit “scientific socialism,” what with all the killing and totalitarianism. The fact that it didn’t seem to make people richer also undermined its appeal. “Scientifically,” people didn’t want to be bullied, oppressed or impoverished.
The unrealism of socialism spelled its undoing — for a time.
The dilemma is that there is a reality underneath the fraud of scientific socialism. The first socialists were not economists or technocrats. They were romantics and nostalgists. They loathed the relentless logic of the market and its reward of merit and efficiency as judged by the marketplace.
They wanted to return to the imagined Eden of the noble savage and the state of nature. They wanted to live in a world of tribal brotherhood and mutual love. Long before the math of “scientific socialism” there were the emotions of socialism, both light and dark: egalitarianism and envy.
Young people understandably are drawn by the promise of “being together.” But they think the federal government can make it happen. If government planners can’t even provide goods and services efficiently, how will they ever provide togetherness?
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Write to him by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.