Socialism has crippled nations and impoverished their citizens. The evidence is clear. Yet despite this, lots of people in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe want more of it. A recent survey of adults from the American Culture and Faith Institute found that four out of every 10 adults in America prefer socialism to capitalism. A 2016 Gallup poll found 35 percent of Americans viewed socialism favorably. Among voters younger than 30, that number was an eye-opening 55 percent. The Democratic Socialists of America, the largest Marxist organization since World War II, has 25,000 members — up from just 8,000 members in 2015, when it endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. The DSA has chapters in 49 states. As free-market capitalists and advocates for liberty, it’s clear we have work to do.
The Legatum Institute, a London think tank, recently published a research report and poll finding widespread public support in the U.K. for renationalizing railroads, banks, and utilities. In the report, Legatum’s Matthew Elliott wrote this sobering summary: “We find that on almost every issue, the public tends to favor non-free-market ideals rather than those of the free market. Instead of an unregulated economy, the public favors regulation. Instead of companies striving for profit above all else, they want businesses to make less profit and be more socially responsible. The capitalism ‘brand’ is in crisis. It is seen as greedy, selfish, and corrupt.”
The 35-year-old pro-free-market consensus among the U.K.’s three major political parties appears to have collapsed. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has called repeatedly for higher taxes, more regulation, and re-nationalization of major industry.
In response to Corbyn, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned his party against reverting to policies that failed so miserably. Few voters seem to know — or care —about the paralyzing malaise that Margaret Thatcher so completely reversed with her free-market policies in the late 1970s and 1980s. The ideological battle had seemed at an end when Blair rejected Labour’s historical program of socialism in the 1990s.
But memories are short. In 2017, Blair warned Labour, “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.” Understanding the dangerous and ill-founded allure of socialism, Blair went on to caution, “Anyone who supports Corbyn in their heart needs to have a heart transplant!” Blair’s admonition, coupled with Corbyn’s strong support among young voters, recalled Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “If you are not a liberal at age 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative by age 30, you have no head.”
As the data above indicate, this is not a European phenomenon. Consider the surprising candidacy of Sanders in 2016. A generation ago, it would have been the kiss of death for any American politician — no matter how liberal — to have been called a “socialist.” A liberal like Hubert Humphrey spent a lifetime vehemently denying he was a socialist. Suddenly, an elderly senator from the backwoods of New England mounted a viable national campaign as a self-proclaimed socialist. His support was especially strong among young voters. But there are older citizens and leaders throughout the world who should know better.
Pope Francis recently joined a chorus of voices hostile to free markets and capitalism. In a speech at the Chartreux Institute, he warned a group of global finance students not to “blindly obey the invisible hand of the market” but rather to become “promoters and defenders of a growth in equality.” How sad and embarrassing that the dominant Western voice of Christianity is blind to the very mechanism that has proved to be the best way to lift humans from poverty and reduce inequality all over the world.
In his famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith showed us that government doesn’t need to attempt to manufacture a central plan to accomplish the greatest value to all because individuals, who are pursuing personal gain, will accomplish this on their own. In essence, Smith correctly viewed the “invisible hand” (individuals responding to market signals and pursuing mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges) as a powerful mechanism to provide benefits to the whole of society. Today, in our free-market system, the only way a person can create great wealth is to provide valuable products and services for which millions of people are willing to pay voluntarily.
Thanks to John Locke and his brilliant ideas of a system of private property rights, which were codified in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, Americans have the equal opportunity to pursue their own interests and passions and to enjoy the fruits of such pursuit. This pursuit, rather than being a source of inequality, neglect, and exploitation as people like Corbyn, Pope Francis, and Sanders would have us believe, actually facilitates more common good, moral action, equality, opportunity, and prosperity than any economic or cultural system ever tried in the history of the world.
A generation ago, Thatcher’s dismissal of socialism was well-known and generally accepted: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
The 20th century is littered with the failures of socialism. Millions have been either thrust into poverty or held captive to poverty by socialistic governments. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote, “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.” China, Russia, Zimbabwe, India, Argentina, etc., have all flirted with socialism with uniformly disastrous results. The latest economic disaster is Venezuela. President Trump’s analysis is right on the mark: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”
But do young people understand what Trump is saying? For those of us old enough to have witnessed the many failures of socialism or to have read about them, the words of Ronald Reagan ring true. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” the 40th president said. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
Somehow the next generation has to grasp the wisdom of Churchill’s warning: “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.” Hopefully the U.S. — and every other nation — can heed the brilliant teachings of Adam Smith and John Locke and the overwhelming evidence of history without having to experience the painful failures of socialism firsthand.
This column appeared in FEE on January 7, 2018.