Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union probably thought we had seen the last of socialism. The idea of government planning of an economy, once billed as “scientific socialism,” seemed consigned to the dustbin of history.
Times certainly have changed. Self-described socialist Bernie Sanders received over 40 percent of the votes in Democratic primaries in 2016. Candidates aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America did unexpectedly well in 2018, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected to Congress from New York. Polls show almost equal support for socialism and capitalism among persons under age 30. A recent New York magazine article asked, “When did everyone become socialist?”
What has changed? To explore this question, the Johnson Center will sponsor a debate on “Capitalism vs. Socialism in America Today” on April 10. Debating will be Dr. Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics from George Mason University and Dr. John Marsh, a professor of English from Penn State University. I expect an informative and entertaining exchange.
The debate will focus on socialism today. Government planning went badly in the 20th Century in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. But does this matter for socialism in America now? Proponents of capitalism see the horrors of communism and the continuing tragedies of North Korea and Venezuela as proof of socialism’s failure.
I suspect many of today’s socialists dismiss this history, and not without reason. Consider the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks came to power via a revolution and almost immediately faced a civil war and an international invasion in which America participated. In addition to creating economic stress, the military threats arguably pushed the Soviet Union down an authoritarian path. Vladimir Lenin saw violence as a means to an end; Joseph Stalin was merciless. After Stalin’s terror famines, purges, and gulags, there was little chance for a functional regime.
Does socialism inevitably descend into tyranny? Economist Friedrich Hayek argued so in his influential book The Road to Serfdom. I agree with much of Hayek’s argument, and yet Britain demonstrates otherwise.
Beginning after World War II and through the 1970s, Britain under Labour party governments would qualify as socialist. Britain had (and still has) the National Health Service, the single-payer system inspiring Medicare-for-All. Government control went much further. Coal mines, steel mills, railroads, airlines, telephones, and ship building were all nationalized. Television and radio were dominated by the government-funded BBC. Even automakers Rolls Royce and British Leyland were government-controlled.
The election of Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in 1979 greatly changed Britain. Yet the “Thatcher Revolution” was only figuratively a revolution. The Labour Party never sent Mrs. Thatcher to a gulag. Britain’s economic performance in the 1970s can be debated, although I believe that 26 percent inflation, blackouts due to striking coal miners, and an International Monetary Fund bailout demonstrate malaise. That Britain remained democratic is not debatable, and Labour was eventually voted out of office peacefully. Socialist Francois Mitterand’s election as President did not end democracy in France either.
I believe that today’s proponents sincerely see socialism as advancing the well-being of Americans. This is a significant point, because capitalists typically see socialism as essentially oppressive. As Margaret Thatcher put it, there are “only two ways of governing a country,” socialism where “what matters is not the people but the State,” and “a free economic system.” Capitalists dismiss leaders’ professions that socialism serves the people as propaganda.
I see this as perhaps the greatest point of contention today. If the alternatives are freedom or socialism, it’s hard to see how anyone could be attracted to socialism. Is it possible to keep a government powerful enough to restructure economic relations subordinate to the will of the people?
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.