Young People Think They Want Socialism. But They Don’t.

By Michael Matheson Miller Published on February 6, 2018

The surveys are in. We now know what young people say they want: Not capitalism, but socialism. I see a number of reasons for this. One is a healthy concern for justice. Young people rightly feel frustration with our current crony, managerial capitalism. It rests on free market slogans. But it often excludes the poor and makes it hard for small and medium enterprises.

Another problem: Lack of knowledge about what socialism really is. Many young people were never taught about the reality of socialism in practice. The almost 100 million people starved or shot under various forms of socialism? It’s as if they never existed. Talk about being “marginalized”!

It’s not all their fault. Teachers skip lightly over the evils of communism. Of the undergraduates I’ve taught, many had never heard of Joseph Stalin. Or the gulags. Why wouldn’t they think that “socialism” simply means “fairness”? That it’s what you favor if you prefer community and justice over profit?

End of Creativity

Another problem is that few think through what socialist economics would mean in daily life: the end of creativity. We often fancy that “change” is always for the better. It won’t affect the things we like. No, those will remain. But the ugly stuff will go away. Right? Wrong.

What would socialist economics mean in daily life? The end of creativity.

Young people value choice and opportunity. Everyone likes new phone apps and different kinds of food. A socialist economy stifles these things. Want to enjoy specialty coffee? Read a book on your Kindle? Text your friends? Socialism didn’t produce any of those innovations. And it won’t let the next ones happen.

Quirky, local businesses? Gone. Ditto farmers markets. They are highly unregulated free markets. In a socialist economy, agriculture and industry would be nationalized and run by bureaucrats not shopkeepers.

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The late playwright Vaclav Havel was a Czech dissident and statesman. He has a wonderful reflection on why economic freedom matters. Not just for productivity. For creativity and beauty. See his powerful collection, Open Letters.

Vaclav Havel: Stories and Totalitarianism

In “Stories and Totalitarianism” (1987) Havel wrote:

When he can no longer participate with relative economy and economic life man loses some of his social and human individuality and part of his hope of creating his own human story.

Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears along with the interplay of supply and demand the labor and quality markets and voluntary employer employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and attendant risks the drama of economic success and failure.

Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state…. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic “non-story.” [Emphasis added.]

Havel points out that in socialism, “consumers do not have a choice of different commodities. They “cannot express their individuality even in this limited way. All they have is what has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone.” That goes for furniture and food. For clothes and music and books. Havel continues:

[E]verything begins to resemble everything else: buildings, clothing, workplaces, public decorations, public transport, the forms of entertainment, the behavior of people in public and in their own homes.

This standardization of public and private spaces has a standardizing effect on life… In such an environment, stories become interchangeable.

The Freedom to Be a Hero

This is profoundly important. Socialism turns man into an object. One that serves the good of the state. Instead of a subject and a protagonist. Even a hero.

Economic freedom is not the highest freedom. It is not the most important thing in life. But it plays an essential role in the flourishing of families and individual persons. Economic freedom and a pluralistic, competitive market economy comes with cultural challenges. Like any human endeavor. But the same economy also helps create the conditions for people to use their God-given talents.

Yes, a capitalist economy produces a lot of vulgarity and ugliness. Yet amidst the junk we have choices. We can, if we insist, create truly human, useful, and even beautiful things. As Havel would say, we have the space and the choice to “create a story” that’s all our own.

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