Opinion: Socialism finds respectability

James Huffman

Socialism is becoming respectable again.

The University of Chicago’s GenForward Survey of Americans found that 45 percent of people 18 to 34 years old have positive views on socialism. Sixty-one percent of Democrats in the age group take a positive view of socialism — as do 25 percent of Republicans.

These favorable views on socialism are finding expression at the polls.  Bernie Sanders ran a competitive campaign for president as a democratic socialist.  Running under the same label, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term New York Democratic congressman Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district in the state’s Democratic primary, with close to 58 percent of the vote. 

What explains this widespread embrace of socialism less than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the face of the socialist disaster that is Venezuela? A usual explanation is that these are examples of corrupted socialism and that nations like Sweden and Denmark offer counterexamples of socialism done right. But these small and homogeneous Scandinavian countries are exceptions to the record of failed socialism across history and around the globe.  The explanation for socialism’s persistent appeal has to be deeper than the success (so far) of the Swedes and the Danes.

Huffman writes: " The prospects of free health care, free college, subsidized housing and a guaranteed minimum income for all have strong appeal. "

One explanation is obvious, if a bit cynical. The prospects of free health care, free college, subsidized housing and a guaranteed minimum income for all have strong appeal, even to many who can well afford to pay their own way. Why not provide all of this to everyone if we can?

But all indications are that we can’t. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remarked many years ago, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” She might have added that the reason you run out of money is the diminished incentives for those other people to generate wealth. Only time will tell whether the Swedes and Danes are really exceptions, but a century of failed socialist experiments offers convincing evidence of the truth of Thatcher’s observation.

Presumably the idea implicit in arguments in favor of socialism is that individuals will have their say in a legitimate democratic process, but there has never been a democracy on any but the most local scale that has not succumbed to rent seeking and political factions.  The more we allow government to do, the more those opportunities exist and the greater the incentives to pursue personal profit through political influence.

Totally missing from this idea of socialism as freedom is individual responsibility.  Capitalism frees individuals to pursue their own interests and exploit their own talents, but it also leaves them responsible to provide for themselves. Without making individuals responsible for their own welfare, socialism only frees people to depend on others.

So socialism will always have support, particularly among affluent youth who have been provided for since birth. It promises much while holding the individual responsible for little. Today’s socialists are either ignorant of the past failings of socialism or blinded by the promises of those who believe we can finally overcome human nature and the reality of scarce resources.

James Huffman is dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School.