Can’t Battle Full Fantasy Socialism with Quasi Self-Serving Socialism


Joel Kotkin observes that Millennials show high support for socialism, in and out of the person of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (via Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit), but I think he gets something essential wrong:

Conservative academics, a small but sometimes hardy band, place blame on a lack of teaching about the realities of socialism by generally left-leaning instructors at universities or high schools. Certainly from what I see, at least, few students seem to know about Stalinist and Maoist purges, famines and thought control.

Yet it’s not just ignorance at work here. Millennials are coming up in a very tough economy where opportunity is limited, even for college graduates, with diminishing returns accompanying soaring tuition. Millennials are finding everything harder than their parents did – leaving a record number living at home into their late 20s and earlier 30s, or sheltering with their friends in apartments. Record levels of student debt, twice the average two decades ago, are slowing economic progress. Relieving this indebtedness is one element of Sanders’ appeal.

The point that Kotkin surprisingly misses is that ignorance of the inevitable “purges, famines, and though control” isn’t the full package of ignorance about socialism.  Millennials have also been taught — not only by teachers and professors, but also by the news media, entertainers, and politicians — that what we currently have in the United States is capitalism, when it’s really a half-measure of socialism.  Scroll down a bit for some stunning evidence that young adults are being manipulated to support socialism because they think it’s a remedy for socialism: “most millennials, as the Reason Foundation has pointed out, do not even associate socialism with a state-centered economy, which most of them say they would strongly oppose.”

The mainstream version of socialism that Millennials are apparently rejecting in a misdirected way sells itself as the practice of equality and freedom, but as a functional matter, it simply can’t be that.  The mainstream socialist bargain currently defined by the politics of President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton is to let the oligarchs and industrialists pull the cart (and reap the rewards), with politicians confiscating some of that wealth and redistributing it (taking their own cut, naturally).

Such a system can’t do otherwise than promote corruption, inequality, and restricted freedom.  And it can’t be otherwise than vulnerable to those who promise full socialism.  After all, why should society tolerate government as a corrupt go-between when it could simply be more aggressive and insist that everything be fair?

The problem for those with only one eye to see, like (it seems) Kotkin, is a moral one.  Take note of this:

But millennials are the future, and, if the GOP retains its reactionary ideas on key social issues – notably the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrants, legalizing marijuana and gay marriage – its chances of reaching millennial voters may be minimal.

Like many mainstream liberals and libertarians, Kotkin sees conservative positions on social issues as inexplicable unless they’re simply throwbacks to a learned cultural habit that some people aren’t sufficiently enlightened to kick.  There’s always room for views on such issues to be refined by the mandate of freedom, of course, but they aren’t “reactionary”; at bottom, they’re constituent pieces of a complete conservative philosophy, and they’re the pieces that make that complete philosophy moral, that offer the explanation of how society can at the same time be free, allow individual prosperity, and take care of those who are disadvantaged or who encounter trouble.

Conservatives debate the specifics (endlessly), but give me a little slack for simplification in the service of explanation, although my own views are substantially more nuanced:

  • Immigration: A free-market society that is a beacon to the world for its prosperity risks attracting excessive competition for jobs at the low end of the economic scale, and with our current degree of crony socialism, which creates boundaries against competition at the top of the income scale, controlling immigration is necessary.
  • Legalizing drugs: Changes to public policy don’t occur as if we’re designing society from scratch, but rather, they have particular effects in their particular historical context.  Expanding the availability of drugs given our current cultural attitudes and reliance on a welfare state to provide our society’s safety net could make a social epidemic of a social disease, and implementing such loosening almost explicitly as another government revenue grab reinforces the tendency simply to transfer the underworld’s dynamic of corrupt cartels into our government.
  • Same-sex marriage: Marriage is a fundamental social institution to guide people, in a minimally coercive way, toward healthier relationships, particularly for the purpose of raising children.  It isn’t “reactionary” to resist redefinition of this institution in terms purely of adult affections.  Marriage, in short, is key to a non-governmental solution for resolving disadvantage and inequality, and using it to affirm adults’ emotional attachments harms its ability to serve that purpose.

Again, these are just the issues that Kotkin used as examples, but the point is this:  In the absence of sustained government oppression and violence, the general population will not long tolerate a fundamentally unjust system.  And there are only two complete philosophies available to address injustice.  Either government must just make everything fair (a fantasy), or the society must create a framework in which good decisions and equitable exchanges can be encouraged with minimal reliance on force and threats.

Contra Kotkin, the lesson for conservatives is that they must not only teach the dangers of socialism, but also redouble their effort in explaining their complete worldview.

  • bottomfish

    One partial solution at least worth considering would be to lower university costs by eliminating a good part of the bureaucracy.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      This Spring, Harvard will vote on eliminating tuition. Tuition is only 6% of it’s income.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    “purges, famines, and thought control” – “thought control”
    A little known factoid. During Stalinist Russia, and perhaps later, Russian produced radios could only tune state sponsored stations. This gave rise to the CIA’s “Radio Free Europe”
    Perhaps my earliest television memory is a Radio Free Europe commercial which showed Russians huddled around a radio. Russian soldiers burst through the door, yell “Radio Nyet” and smashed the radio with an axe.