What Is Socialism?

Many, like us, are appalled that some politicians now openly advocate the failed system of socialism, while they and others try to deny the obvious fact that free enterprise has enriched the lives of billions of people. One is tempted to chalk such opinions up to an abysmal ignorance of history.

But something else is going on, too. The meaning of “socialism” has evolved; or, one might say, it is flying under a false flag. When Democratic politicians advocate socialism, they don’t talk about North Korea, Soviet Russia, Albania, Cuba (anymore) or Venezuela (anymore). Rather, they talk about Sweden, Denmark and Norway–countries that are not, in fact, socialist. One might conclude that they just want a slightly larger welfare state–accompanied, although they never say this, by a less progressive tax system and often more business-friendly policies.

Americas Majority Foundation has done some interesting polling on how Americans view socialism, as well as free market capitalism. Their report is embedded below; I recommend reading it in its entirety. Here are a few highlights:

We surveyed voters how they view the terms Socialism and Capitalism. On socialism, we asked “When you hear or read the term ‘socialism’, do you think of Scandinavian Social Democracies like Denmark and Sweden OR Venezuela, North Korea and the Former Soviet Union?” On Capitalism, we asked, “When you hear or read the phrase ‘free market capitalism’ do you think…It is an economic system that allows people to pursue their passions and create their own careers and businesses or do you think It is an economic system where those at the top benefit at the expense of the rest?”

That, I think, is a good way of posing the questions.

At the Top Line, 52% of all respondents associate “Socialism” with “Denmark/Sweden.” Simultaneously, 52% relate “Free Market Capitalism” to “pursue their passions.”

So there are a considerable number of voters who, in this sense, approve of both socialism and capitalism.

When we studied 18-65-year-olds, we found that overall voters view socialism closer to Nordic countries as opposed to Venezuela by 52% to 48%. 67% of Democrats viewed socialism as similar to a Nordic country compared to 38% of Republicans. 51% of Independents view socialism similarly to Nordic countries compared to 49% who viewed socialism as a worst-case disaster.

So the ships are largely passing in the night. When Bernie Sanders et al. say they want socialism, we think they mean Venezuela, while a large majority of Democrats think they mean Denmark. The problem is that the Democrats’ policies are far closer to those of Venezuela than to those of Scandinavia.

Free enterprise, the greatest engine in history for improvement of the human condition, is depressingly controversial.

Overall 52% of voters view free markets as benefiting the rich while 48% of voters viewed free market as allowing individuals to allow to pursue their dream. As you would suspect, 64% of Democrats view free market benefitting the wealthy while 69% of Republicans view free markets as a liberating force that allows them to pursue their dream. 51% of Independents agree with Democrats that free markets benefit the top 1% and 49% agree with Republicans on the benefit of the free markets in pursuing their dreams.

For what it’s worth, 18 to 34 year old voters are among the most likely to be pro-free enterprise by this measure.

There is a great deal more, including some commentary and conclusions, in the embedded document, but for now I will add one more data point. What ethnic group do you think is most likely to associate socialism with Venezuela? Not whites or Asians, but Hispanics–probably because they are more aware of the Venezuelan catastrophe than the average American. This suggests a fruitful avenue for Republican candidates to appeal to Hispanic voters in 2020.

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