In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire collapsed. The end of the Cold War, we were told, buried the idea of history as the armed rivalry of opposing ideologies. It was widely believed that liberal democracy was on the march and market economics was universally accepted as superior to socialism.
However, the world has not followed the end-of-history script.
Meanwhile, socialism has been resurgent, especially among the so-called Millennial generation: those born between 1982 and 1998. This week’s cover story of The Economist is headed “The Rise of Millennial Socialism”.
Virtually all of America’s Democratic presidential candidates are lurching left and embracing business-bashing populism. According to Gallup last year, 57 per cent of Democrats favoured socialism while just 47 per cent support capitalism.
Britain’s socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has supported terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah as well as Venezuela’s populist firebrand Hugo Chavez, while his finance spokesman John McDonnell has lauded Karl Marx, the founding father of Communism, and approvingly quoted Mao Zedong, the architect of China’s Cultural Revolution.
In New Zealand, where an economic-reform agenda led to low unemployment, robust growth and a budget surplus, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called capitalism “a blatant failure”. In Australia, which has experienced a 27-year-bull run, the centre of political gravity in the ALP has shifted left. So much so that Paul Keating, Labor’s last great moderniser, laments that Bill Shorten is beholden to unions.
The survey evidence is clear. In a YouGov poll commissioned by the Centre for Independent Studies last year, 58 per cent of Australian millennials have a favourable view of socialism, with only 18 per cent having an unfavourable one. These findings reflect Millennial attitudes in Britain and the US.
What’s going on? Why are so many young people in the Anglosphere attracted to socialism?
Part of the problem is plain ignorance. Most Millennials were hardly alive when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.
According to the CIS poll, only 26 per cent of Millennials are familiar with Vladimir Lenin and 34 per cent with Joseph Stalin. Only 21 per cent of those questioned said they knew well who Mao was. Never mind that these men were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions.
Whatever excuse explains Millennials’ ignorance of communism, they should at least know about Venezuela where the socialist regime of the past two decades has led to repression, an economy in free fall, widespread disease and starvation and mass emigration.
Another part of the problem is that many Millennials see socialism as represented by Scandinavian nations. Yet, as academics Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde and Lee Ohanian note, Sweden’s experiment with socialist policies was disastrous, and its economic success in recent decades is a result of market-based reforms. Nations with a company tax rate as low as 22 per cent (Norway and Sweden) cannot be classified as socialist.
Another part of the explanation for the Millennials’ embrace of socialism is that since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, there has been rising anxiety about their economic prospects. In Australia, they fret about being priced out of the housing market in Sydney and Melbourne.
Far from blaming capitalism for their plight, they should complain about government interference, such as the state stamp duty (which makes housing expensive) or housing regulations (which limit the supply of affordable housing).
There is a bigger issue at play here: socialist policy prescriptions just don’t work.
Those Millennials who are increasingly attracted to socialism should recognise that you don’t tax a loss: you only tax a profit. Without profit – without capitalism – you cannot raise the revenue to provide public healthcare, education, law and order or defence.
There is no economy in history that has benefited from socialism. All economies that have enjoyed sustained growth and have broadened prosperity have done so through free trade and free markets. “The trouble with socialism,” Margaret Thatcher once observed, “is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.