It’s hardly news that socialism is gaining in popularity among younger Americans. Millennials in particular are evenly split on whether they prefer socialism to capitalism, with an astounding 7 out of 10 reporting they’d be willing to vote for a socialist political candidate.
Yet it’s more difficult to ascertain what Millennials have in mind when they express support for socialism or socialist candidates. Do they mean Marxism or the numerous varieties of Communist authoritarian regimes tried over the past century, European-style “socialism”, democratic socialism, having the state seize the means of production and abolish private property, bolstering labor unions, or some complex web of worker-ownership cooperatives? Or do they simply mean “whatever we have now, I don’t like that” with some vague idea that “the rich are not paying their fair share” thrown in for good measure?
I’d be willing to wager a significant portion—if not the majority—are in that latter group. They’re not reading Das Kapital on the weekends and plotting the proletarian revolution. They are, however, rather discontent with what they perceive to be “capitalism” and more than willing to give socialism—what they, somewhat mistakenly, perceive to be the opposite of what we have now—a go. The 2008 housing market collapse and the ensuing Great Recession have colored most of our generation’s lives as we’ve attempted to enter the labor market and various professions with an economy that hasn’t been responsive to the efforts we made in bettering ourselves by going to college.
Worse still, the growing debt at all levels of government are likely to leave us with fewer choices than our parents and grandparents enjoyed. “The precarious job market, the student debt crisis, our Boomer parents’ exploding health care budgets—leaves us Millennials with only one other financial option. We’re going to have to work forever,” writes Joseph Sternberg in his book The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials' Economic Future. While the Millennials’ revolt against capitalism is misdirected, the anger is certainly understandable. “Millennials may never be able to accumulate enough assets to support a comfortable retirement, and we’re starting to realize it.”
But to the extent this anger is the driving motivation, Millennial support of socialism would have less to do with an embrace of socialist arguments than it would a frustrated search for answers. Socialism is winning by default, not persuasion, in much the same manner some candidates win elections not because they are liked, but because they are less hated than their opponent. “It’s a mistake to think Millennials are uniformly on the political Left or the Right,” continues Sternberg, “It’s probably more accurate to argue we’re all contrarians. The biggest clue is that whatever else we say about our political views, we consistently tell pollsters that we’re less likely to affiliate with a particular party than previous generations were—or even than our younger selves.”
I don’t want to come down too hard on my generation as if we’re a thoughtless, angry mob simply revolting against a caricature of “capitalism” and advocating an economic system we don’t understand. Attempting to define economic systems such as capitalism and socialism isn’t easy. Nor have older generations—in my view—taken our complaints seriously and attempted to offer adult-like defenses of our free market system. And—if there’s one thing the election of Donald Trump has shown—it’s that the tendency to behave as a thoughtless, angry mob isn’t limited to any one generation.
Just as it’s hardly news that younger Americans are becoming increasingly supportive of “socialism”—however defined—it also goes without saying that American conservatives have—generally speaking—opposed socialism and supported capitalism (or, more accurately, the free market). And while most conservatives will tell you this is for the sufficient reason capitalism “works” and socialism doesn’t, if pressed further they are likely to give additional moral reasons the former is superior to the latter. And that moral reason would be that capitalism allows for a flourishing of liberties that socialism impairs or, in some cases, obliterates.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we can untangle the merits of capitalism and how it is superior to socialism, both economically and ethically, we have to first come closer to understanding what we mean by the terms “capitalism” and “socialism”. And that is where we’ll kick things off next week in Part 2.