Socialism is the great failure story of the twentieth century. Time after time, socialist movements have arisen, promising great wealth to the working classes and justice for all. The results have invariably been oppression, economic ruin, and misery. You’d think that after such a consistent record, no one except for people scheming after personal power would find it appealing. Yet in the past few years, it’s made a comeback. Attacks on capitalism have become almost uncontroversial. Many people take it for granted that the country’s big problem is insufficient government control over the economy.
What makes it especially surprising is that the United States is currently under an administration which notoriously abuses its power. It has put heavy taxes on imported goods, declared “the military form of eminent domain” to nationalize people’s homes, and engaged in activities that seem designed to enrich the president and those around him. You’d think that now of all times, people would look on the prospect of a government-run economy with loathing.
The basic appeal of socialism has always been the desire for a shortcut between wishes and results. People want guarantees that a free society can’t provide. Socialism offers the devil’s bargain, guaranteed well-being in return for giving up control of your life. For many, it sounds like a good deal.
Why do people still think a socialist state would keep the bargain when they never have before? The answer is partly that the defenders of freedom haven’t done their job well enough, but even the best arguments don’t convince people. Millions still think the story of Noah’s flood was is literally true. Overcoming strange beliefs is hard.
The failure of free-market conservatism
The lack of effective opposition is a big factor in socialism’s comeback. With the election of Donald Trump, free-market conservatism has been pushed into the margins, replaced with nationalism and a personality cult. But it didn’t start with Trump.
The conservative Republican flavor of classical liberalism has always been tainted with cronyism. It gives favors to influential corporations, which is a very different thing from letting the market operate freely and competitively. Complex regulatory systems favor businesses with enough resources to follow all the requirements and enough influence to get the system rigged in their favor. Cities offer huge companies special deals for setting up facilities on their land. A patent system which is susceptible to gaming gives pharma companies monopolies on medicines which have been on the market for decades. Each of these is supposed to be to boost the economy, but it’s generally the most influential companies that gain the biggest benefits.
People mistake this system for the free market and decide they don’t like it.
The terrorists won
Another factor is the trend toward authoritarianism in the United States on both the left and right. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government passed the Patriot Act, an “emergency” measure which is still in force 18 years later. It instituted wide-scale covert surveillance of citizens. People have gotten used to being questioned and searched without cause in public places. Fear is a great way to control people.
The trend goes back even further. We can look back to Woodrow Wilson’s administration for large-scale nationalization. His government seized the railroads and took over the radio broadcasters. People were imprisoned for years for criticizing the war. Again, fear was the tool; your neighbor might be an enemy agent! The trend of increasing government power has continued since then, in spite of occasional reversals. There’s always something to make people afraid of.
People are accustomed to having everything they earn monitored and taxed, to needing government permission to work for a living, to having money taken from them and (maybe) given back decades later. Outright socialism may not seem like such a huge step.
The “real socialism” argument
Modern supporters of socialism claim that the USSR, Castro’s Cuba, the ruin of Venezuela, and the National Socialists’ Germany weren’t “real” socialism. With the real thing, the people would remain in control and make wise decisions, and next time we’ll get it right!
This argument needs to be answered on the theoretical level. After all, I’ve just argued that supposed free markets often aren’t; why shouldn’t the same be true of socialist states? The answer comes from an understanding of how human institutions work. By its nature, socialism must fail to achieve widespread human happiness.
It’s impossible for “the people” to run a society. The management of an economy requires a huge amount of knowledge. No one can ever be competent to perform such a task. Expecting every person to be competent at it is absurd. People have their own lives to live, and studying intensively how best to run society is a colossal waste of time when a person has just one vote. People have to give power over to the rulers.
But even with specialization, the people at the top can’t know either. How do they weigh one interest against another? In a free market, people’s spending choices indicate their preferences. In a socialist system, the rulers don’t have that information. They can only indulge their own preferences. The most honest ruler can only guess. Most real-life rulers will use their power to the advantage of themselves and their friends.
The same old illusion
In the end, people favor socialism because they think it will somehow grant their wishes. No system can guarantee that, but socialists can pretend to have the power. Inept and inconsistent defenders of liberty let them pretend. We need to do a better job at reminding people what socialism means and has always meant.