Time to Wean Millennials Off the Lies of Socialism

Millennials, and a lot of other Americans, are enamored with socialism in part because they didn't experience the disaster of the Cold War or other monstrous events of socialist history.

By Jay Richards Published on May 9, 2016

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.


This begins a Stream series offering original and expert analysis on the failures of socialism. So check back regularly. 

Jay Richards is Executive Editor of The Stream. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Charles Burge

    I think it’s important to note that your definition of socialism (which I agree with) excludes countries like Sweden, which are often held up as models of successful implementation of socialism. They may be welfare states, but they are not socialist states. SAAB and IKEA are no more government owned and controlled than Microsoft and Ford.)

    Also, I would note that with American millenials, we are now seeing the fruit of years of Marxist indoctrination in our high schools and universities.

  • Bryon Williams

    I’m sorry, but this seems like a big bunch of words wasted on a straw man—“I’ll
    characterize socialism as murderous statism, and then I’ll spend several
    hundred words arguing that murderous statism would be bad for America,
    something those ignorant millennials just don’t seem to realize. I’ll stick to
    simplistic binaries and even (selectively) quote Merriam-Webster! I’ll focus on
    Venezuela and 20th century Soviet Union, and I will sneer condescendingly
    at 21st century Denmark and Sweden (rather than bother to reckon
    with their successes).” I’m not even a Bernie Sanders booster, but we would all
    benefit from honest debates on these issues, not fallacious debates in which
    someone rigs the terms to make it look like anyone who disagrees must hate freedom
    and be pathetically ignorant.

    • Ken Abbott

      Here’s the full definition of socialism from the online M-W dictionary:

      1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

      2a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
      b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

      3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

      Which do you think best advances this discussion?

      • Bryon Williams

        the first one is more inclusive and likely encompasses the range of things
        called “socialist” in common parlance. But it’s not really about picking the
        right dictionary definition. The problem is that Jay quotes the dictionary as a
        substitute for actual engagement with the issues worth having a real discussion
        about. It reminds me of a procrastinating high schooler trying to crank out his
        social studies paper at the last minute, and quoting the dictionary as filler.
        He says (snidely, I might add) that if he put his definition on the table,
        there wouldn’t be many takers, as if that is an insight of some kind. Of course
        there wouldn’t be any takers, because that’s not what anyone is actually
        talking about. Any half-awake person knows that the US has a mixed economy. The
        grown-up conversations are about which public-private dials get turned, and
        why, and how much, and acknowledges the inevitable trade-offs of turning those
        dials. The sophomoric conversation is about how any kind of free schooling
        after 12th grade would pave the way for gulags. Capitalism and
        socialism aren’t Manichean binaries in real life. A main reason socialism didn’t
        gain even more ground in the 1930s (when it had made real inroads in the US) isn’t
        that free-enterprise capitalism righteously conquered it—it’s because FDR
        co-opted socialist ground with New Deal programs, using socialism to actually
        save capitalism. But that’s “all old and stupid history stuff,” as Jay would
        say. The only thing worse than a puff piece is a puff piece that proclaims
        itself to be “original and expert analysis.” The problem isn’t which dictionary
        definition advances the discussion. The problem is that there isn’t much of a
        discussion here to advance.

        • Khabran Peters

          My man Bryon…again…Speakin’ do truff. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Andy

      Have fun in your future USSA. It’s coming.

      • Khabran Peters

        I’m willing to bet your “USSA” reference was to the former USSR? Which further proves that trying to open a dialog with a bunch of kooks is a waste of time.

        By the way, the USSR was communist, not socialist. And I’m being told about history. Please.

  • Khabran Peters

    I completely agree, Bryon. I too, represent generation x but I do not share the author’s antiquated view of everything “not American”. Although he cites “big government” for the financial collapse of 2008, he fails to recognize why GW Bush’s “big government” would allow such bad practices to be adopted. (Greed, moneyed interests, corporate lobbyists representing corporate welfare…which costs taxpayers exceedingly more than ensuring poor Americans, our own people, have the same opportunity as anyone else.

    The author’s view of Old world socialism is actually a mirrored example of modern day capitalism. It didn’t work before and it’s twin “the free market” is not working now. I do not believe, no matter what bubble the author lives in, today’s movement represents a lack of: understanding socialism; being un-American; wanting “handouts”;

    More money is spent on corporate subsidies than what government pays for the bottom 10%. If the author denies corporate welfare isn’t real and much more taxpayer money is going in the direction of the top, when it is absolutely more important and consequential when used to improve the lives of less-fortunate Americans.

    Lastly, I hope my argument better conveys what we dumb progressives believe and why the author’s misconceptions are going the way of the dinosaur.

    Please ask me and I will gladly substantiate any claims made above.

    • Andy

      Socialism is fundamentally unjust. This is easily argued – but you’re probably not interested.

      • Khabran Peters

        I’m probably not.

  • Charab

    Jay, this is exactly the dialogue we need (re: comments below)

  • David Greaves

    So many recent high school and college graduates are adverse to studying history because “the past is the PAST.” That was the reaction of a classroom teammate in a online college class that I was in a few years back when she read one of my postings about drawing previous experiences with previous teammates, and I offered to serve as team leader. She insisted that I was setting myself up for that position and she was real nasty about it. I tried to stress that history provides valuable lessons, but she would have none of that. Finally, the instructor interjected and said for everyone to stop “sniping.” This lady wanted leadership by rotation, which we settled for to appease her, but apparently she was disallowed by the instructor from leading because of her attitude and the way I was treated in the online distance learning classroom. She was living in Washington DC, which may have contributed to her negative attitude. I have not forgotten that ordeal and was glad when the class was finally over.

    • Khabran Peters

      This has to do with what?? I’m glad you found a place to vent your personal frustration toward your former classmate.

  • jvradar

    We need to teach our children the “Law of diminishing returns”, their rejection of socialism and communism should then be natural. “Too many people supported by the government and not enough people paying into the tax system to be supporting of all the people paying” (for example the so called “one percent viably supporting the 99 percent”.

Jesus, ‘Thou Art Fairer Than the Children of Men’
Charles Spurgeon
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