For generations, younger Americans found Communists just as scary as Count Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Darth Vader. Socialism, so strongly associated with Marx and Lenin, never caught on in the United States. To modern millennials, however, fear of socialism seems as ancient as a rotary phone. In March 2019, Axios released results from a Harris poll showing that about half of millennial and Generation Z respondents believed that “our economy should be mostly socialist.” That result is no outlier, but rather a consistent finding over recent years. In 2018, Gallup found that 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans view socialism favorably; only 45 percent look at capitalism positively. An August 2018 YouGov poll revealed that only 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had good feelings toward capitalism, while 35 percent regarded socialism positively. Bernie Sanders, an avowed Democratic Socialist, nearly captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, thanks in part to youth support. Another Democratic Socialist, newly elected House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, herself a millennial, has achieved overnight celebrity, accumulating more than 3 million Twitter followers while trumpeting a 70 percent marginal tax rate.
Just 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how can socialism have made such a comeback? The likeliest answer: the Great Recession left millennials looking for alternatives to capitalism, without the Cold War ideological guideposts that positioned older generations. Both the Right and the Left have redefined socialism, moreover, so that many young supporters now think that it just means a cuddlier, more equitable government.
Yet even if socialism has been redefined, its rising approval among the young is still a problem for proponents of economic liberty. For decades, apostles of free markets could condemn bad economic ideas merely by branding them “socialist,” because real-world Marxists did such a good job of showing how much evil could radiate from a state-controlled economy. But those negative examples are mostly vanquished now. The task ahead is to convince today’s young people that society requires liberty as well as compassion. The private ingenuity that generates new products and new jobs needs both incentives and reasonable regulation. If our current politics tell us anything, it is that this case must be made again, with arguments that resonate among Americans who’ve probably never heard of Lavrentiy Beria.
In 2009, Fox News host Sean Hannity mocked the Obama administration’s vast stimulus bill as “the European Socialist Act of 2009.” Hannity joined a long line of conservative critics who’ve hurled the term “socialism” at liberal opponents, seeking to discredit their plans to expand government. Hannity’s tag didn’t derail the stimulus, of course, and a week later, a Newsweek cover story blared: “We are all socialists now,” heralding a new era of government intervention in the economy. That headline to Jon Meacham’s nearly decade-old story is even truer today, as those recent poll numbers of younger Americans suggest.
The trend line is striking. Gallup polling data show that the share of Democrats holding a positive view of socialism increased from 53 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2018, while the share who held a positive view of capitalism fell from 53 percent to 47 percent. The shift is particularly dramatic among the young. In 2010, according to Gallup, 68 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans felt favorably toward capitalism; 51 percent felt favorably toward socialism. Eight years later, only 45 percent of that age group view capitalism positively, while 51 percent still liked socialism. YouGov polling found even starker figures, with just 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds viewing capitalism favorably in 2015; by 2018, that figure had fallen to 30 percent. The comparable numbers for those over 65: 59 percent and 56 percent. The figures differ from poll to poll, but the direction is clear: for millennials, “socialism” is a viable option.
Socialism’s comeback has been helped along by a change in meaning. Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”—pretty much the traditional meaning of the term. The 1912 election was the high-water mark for American socialism in this sense, with Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs winning 6 percent of the popular vote. That year, the party’s platform called for “collective ownership and democratic management of railroads, wire and wireless telegraphs, express service, steamboat lines, and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large scale industries”—as well as the banking and currency system and land, too, “wherever practicable.” In a 1949 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans with an opinion on socialism thought that it meant government ownership or control of business.
In 2018, by contrast, Gallup found that only 22 percent of respondents understood socialism to mean government control. Thirty percent thought socialism meant equality, and another 13 percent equated it with benefits and services, like free medicine. Three times as many Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents thought socialism meant either equality or free benefits and services than thought it meant government control.
If socialism is just about higher tax rates and more generous health care, then perhaps the cause of freedom doesn’t have much to fear. Few of the new socialists seem to want industries nationalized outright. Ocasio-Cortez’s preferred marginal tax rates are lower than those that President Dwight Eisenhower—a Republican—found acceptable.
Yet I’m not so sanguine about the popularity of “socialism,” even if the word has lost its harder edge. If today’s self-proclaimed socialists merely want to champion postwar Democratic ideals, why adopt an “ism” that many older Americans still regard with alarm? And while total nationalization of industries is hard to imagine, many ideas gaining currency with left-of-center politicians would significantly extend state control over private companies. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t call herself a socialist, but her Accountable Capitalism Act expects all large firms to obtain a “new federal charter” obligating them to pay heed to the interests of “corporate stakeholders”—from employees to surrounding communities. Who could know whether a company was adequately considering such dispersed interests? Presumably, a Warren administration would make that determination. This may not be socialism in the strict sense, but it’s heading in that direction.
Writing in the New York Times last August, Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, attempted to sum up the worldview of the “New Socialists”:
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
This characterization does not suggest a slightly more generous Medicaid program or higher capital-gains taxes. It represents a wholesale rejection of the market and its purported cruelties.
The increasing popularity of socialism—however defined—among the young has many plausible causes. The trend might just be the latest example of the old line, often mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” The idealism of the young is timeless, even a bit charming—at least when it doesn’t lead to the guillotine or the gulag—but opinion polling from the 1960s and 1970s shows no equivalent fondness for socialism among twentysomethings.
Perhaps it’s all about the indoctrination of the young by left-wing professors. A 2007 study found that more than 60 percent of college teachers identified themselves as being somewhat liberal and under 20 percent as somewhat conservative. A more recent study suggests an even greater leftward skew in certain disciplines. Among historians, there were 33.5 registered Democrats to every registered Republican. The ratio was 20 to one among journalism professors and 17.4 to one among psychology professors. But left-leaning views have long been prevalent on college campuses, so it’s unclear why indoctrination would suddenly generate a far more socialist generation.
Even if the leftward tilt is undeniable, moreover, it doesn’t prove that professors have been trying to convert students. I tend to believe that most teachers, like myself, try to keep their politics out of the classroom. Moreover, most teachers—again, like me—lack any skill in the black arts of political propaganda. And while I share the concern that America’s campuses might be too ideologically monolithic, I’m skeptical that professors have much power to shape opinion. Many Americans don’t even go to college, and many who do go aren’t paying much attention to their teachers; those paying attention are the least likely to be ideologically indoctrinated.
“In 2018, Gallup found that only 22 percent of respondents understood socialism to mean government control.”
A strong left-wing bias among high school teachers might be a more credible explanation, since their influence comes earlier and is more widespread. But high school teachers are far more balanced politically than college professors. One recent Education Week survey of K–12 educators found 23 percent identifying as conservatives, 24 percent as liberals, and 43 percent as moderates. Fifty percent of the responding teachers voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and only 29 percent pulled the lever for Donald Trump. Still, could what seems a moderate liberal skew in high school classes really produce a generation that likes socialism more than capitalism?
A simple test of the influence of high school teachers is to look at views of the Vietnam War, which would surely be presented extremely negatively by left-wing instructors. Somewhat surprisingly, a 2013 poll of 19- to 29-year-olds discovered that only 43 percent thought the Vietnam War was a mistake—compared with 69 percent of respondents over 50. If left-wing high school teachers managed to produce a generation broadly sympathetic with American military action in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to see how those teachers could also be responsible for turning out young socialists.
No, the socialist surge is new, and it marks a shift in American politics away from the Cold War norm. It is rooted, I believe, more in the events of the past 15 years than in the biases of educators. I’ve taught at Harvard since 1992, and the changes in the students as they arrive seem far more profound than any changes in the classroom. Incoming students have reacted to events by rejecting the political status quo.
A wave of campus activism began with the post-9/11 wars of the George W. Bush years. Unlike the Vietnam War, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq empaneled no draft boards. For most college kids, the wars remained far away. In 2005 and 2006, young Americans were more likely to support the Iraq War than were older Americans; as late as 2013, 19- to 29-year-old Gallup respondents split almost evenly on the war’s merits. The Iraq War nevertheless mobilized a hard core of campus protesters, who gathered—in one case, within earshot of my office—to relive the glories of their parents’ (or grandparents’) fight against the Vietnam War. Thousands marched in Washington to protest the Iraq conflict on the day of President Bush’s second inauguration.
Further, the muddled outcomes of the post-9/11 American military interventions, together with the end of the Cold War, weakened the national-security case for being on the right. In 2002, according to Gallup, 50 percent of Americans thought the GOP was better at protecting Americans from military and terrorist threats, with only 31 percent giving the edge to Democrats. By 2007, the Republican advantage was gone.
Then the Great Recession struck. Over the past 12 years, America’s economic travails have had a far greater impact on the young than has any national-security concern. The Republican Party, which embraced capitalism, was in the driver’s seat when the financial meltdown and subsequent recession began, but that would change. Financiers, some drawing large paychecks amid a collapse that they helped trigger, proved easy to vilify. The crisis thankfully didn’t spiral into a second Great Depression, but it didn’t end quickly, either. The generation that turned 21 in 2006 had a rough decade. In 2010, the jobless rate for 25- to 34-year-old men stood at 21.8 percent. Two years later, the rate had fallen only to 19.8 percent. Even by 2018, after almost a decade of recovery, joblessness among young men remained alarmingly high: 13.9 percent. This long period of high joblessness coincided with wage stagnation. Real median wages for men over age 16 were lower from 2010 to 2016 than they had been in 2009 or 2001—or 1982. At the same time, younger Americans could see wealthier, older people getting richer. The stock market enjoyed an almost unremitting rise from 2009 to 2018. Housing markets recovered nicely from the financial crisis, especially in coastal America.
Faced with this reality, many younger Americans began to listen to left-wing critics of President Obama, who argued that the crisis lingered because the administration was too timid in its reforms, in part because it was too friendly with Wall Street. In 2011, the Occupy Movement came to Wall Street and to colleges. Though movement speakers were often incoherent, they made clear their dislike for capitalism and their dislike for the need for compromise that the Founders had built in to America’s political system.
Regnant orthodoxies often come under fire during moments of economic and political crisis. If President Obama had possessed the political skills of Franklin Roosevelt, he might have articulated a worldview that captured the imagination of the young. But while his personal approval remains high among Democratic voters, Obama never championed a clear philosophy of government.
In the absence of ideological leadership, new voices found listeners among economically struggling millennials. Some rejected globalization, embracing a populist economic nationalism. Others voiced the radical view that markets themselves were to blame for economic stagnation and that capitalism needed replacing. Since the status quo seemed to be performing poorly, especially for the young, why not try socialism?
Nevertheless, many younger Americans remain fundamentally uncommitted—they’re not die-hard socialists. If the friends of freedom want a way into their hearts and minds, however, they’ll need an updated message that speaks to millennials’ hopes and fears. With the caveat that I’m no political strategist, here are my suggestions on what might work.
We should recognize that millennials like entrepreneurship. A 2016 Gallup survey found that 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds viewed entrepreneurs positively. Ninety-eight percent looked favorably on small businesses. In fact, the youngest respondents had the most enthusiasm both for socialism and for small businesses and entrepreneurship. Even with their socialist sympathies, millennials have not lost sight of the dynamism that comes from private enterprise.
This makes sense. After all, children born in 1992 have lived through a series of public-sector failures—and private-sector successes. Apple’s iPod arrived when they were nine, enabling them to listen to a library of music that they could carry in their pocket. The iPhone appeared in 2007, just in time to turbocharge their teenage social life. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon—all became mass phenomena during their lifetime.
A group with so much exposure to the power of entrepreneurship should be open to the notion that private-sector energy, not government control, opens a better path to widespread employment, less expensive housing, and superior medical care. But millennials won’t fall for a pure laissez-faire pitch. The teens of the Reagan era, like myself, may have believed that the Republican program of shrinking bureaucracy was exactly what was needed to liberate the economy. For millennials, Republican stewardship brought financial chaos and economic underperformance.
My more libertarian friends point out that the GOP’s passion for economic liberty rarely translated into action. They argue, too, that the 2007 housing crash would’ve been far less devastating if the government hadn’t been subsidizing gambling on the housing market with the home-mortgage interest deduction and the loose mortgage underwriting of quasi-governmental entities Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Yet for many millennials, the call to scale back government’s role sounds like an excuse for inaction rather than a real plan to reduce their economic frustrations.
A better approach might be to channel a mixture of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, free-market icon Milton Friedman, and recent Nobel-prizewinning economist Edward Phelps, and call for a “New Freedom” that would be guided—intelligently—toward solving social problems. When Woodrow Wilson, campaigning for president in 1912, evoked Brandeis by saying that “if America is not to have free enterprise, then she can have freedom of no sort whatever,” his supporters heard a call for muscular reform, not a defense of the status quo. In our day, empowering small businesses could mean slashing onerous regulations that stop small shops from opening in immigrant neighborhoods. A Brandeis-style reform agenda could include rewarding pharmaceutical companies for lifesaving innovations in ways that don’t grant them lengthy monopolies, or discouraging local governments from giving favored treatment to large companies to get them to relocate or stay.
Milton Friedman was a champion of free markets, but one of his most successful ideas—school vouchers—envisioned public incentives that would encourage entrepreneurs to solve social problems. Friedman understood the failure of state-monopoly provision of public schooling; he wanted to empower parents and startups to create better schools. Friedman’s vision could be extended to other pressing social problems—from inner-city undereducation to the reintegration of newly released convicts. In the Friedmanite vision, the public sector establishes the financial incentives, but private entrepreneurs come up with the ingenious solutions.
Silicon Valley moguls seem to think that they can solve any puzzle—except, perhaps, the chronic underemployment of less skilled Americans, including millennials. That’s where Phelps comes in: he proposes using the tax code to subsidize job creation. A policy that encourages entrepreneurs to employ more workers could include tax subsidies to firms and workers (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) and reforming public policies, like disability insurance and food stamps, so that they did less to discourage work.
The case for liberty is about more than material gains, which the defenders of markets must remember more often. For most of the past quarter-century, the advocates of economic freedom have made their case primarily by arguing that low taxes lead to economic prosperity, both in the immediate sense that families get to keep more of their earnings and in the systemic sense that strong economic incentives generate higher levels of output. The moral argument has been less prevalent. By contrast, the left-wing case, at least at times, has combined castigation of apparent economic injustices with a call for empathy and compassion. Bernie Sanders declares that his “very strong spiritual feeling” is that “when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, that impacts me.” This cri de coeur resonated with younger Americans.
In the past, effective promoters of liberty, like Ronald Reagan, have emphasized that the case for economic freedom is more spiritual than material: “Socialists ignore the side of man that is the spirit. They can provide you shelter, fill your belly with bacon and beans, treat you when you’re ill, all the things guaranteed to a prisoner or a slave. They don’t understand that we also dream.” Reagan’s argument remains a potent condemnation of leftist chimeras, including growing enthusiasm for the Universal Basic Income—particularly among Silicon Valley elites, who see artificial intelligence and robotics as potentially obliterating millions of jobs. What kind of nation would America be if, say, 40 percent of adults subsisted entirely on government handouts? The data on joblessness show the broken spirits of those lacking the sense of purpose and social connections that come with work. The make-work public-employment guarantees advanced by Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand and other politicians seem almost as soul-killing.
The fight for economic freedom must instead celebrate the ordinary Americans who bring a smile to their customers’ faces while serving them a coffee, or employers who generate jobs for the less skilled. We are indeed in a race of man against machine, as new technologies threaten to replace many forms of ordinary work. Entrepreneurial imagination is the best way to ensure that workers laid off today will be able to find new, productive jobs tomorrow. Satisfaction comes from doing, not from having; and freedom—not socialism—empowers doing.
Any New Freedom narrative should also point out that many nonprofit leaders, like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem’s Children Zone educational organization, are also entrepreneurs. Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America are just two entrepreneurial nonprofits that struggle with excessive government regulation.
Socialism’s current appeal rests partly on the fact, as we’ve seen, that for many, it stands for caring for the poor. It needs to be defined again as what it truly is. My former student Laura Nicolae, of Romanian descent, offered a powerful counterargument to our intellectual carelessness about socialism in a recent Harvard Crimson op-ed. She writes: “After spending four years on a campus saturated with Marxist memes and jokes about communist revolutions, my classmates will graduate with the impression that communism represents a light-hearted critique of the status quo, rather than an empirically violent philosophy that destroyed millions of lives.” Nicolae chose to combat this ignorance by telling how her “father ran from a government that beat, tortured and brainwashed its citizens” and how “his childhood friend disappeared after scrawling an insult about the dictator on the school bathroom wall” and that “his neighbors starved to death from food rations designed to combat ‘obesity.’ ”
It’s vital to remember that socialism, the ideology of Marx, meant state ownership of the means of production. Such a system creates a government so powerful that abuse of citizens is practically guaranteed. Scandinavian social democracies, like Sweden and Denmark, are not socialist in any meaningful sense; they’re capitalist societies with extensive welfare states. If you think Swedish pensions are too generous, you can argue against them; but don’t argue—as many on the right do—that they are tantamount to socialist control of the economy. Similarly, when Obamacare is demonized as socialism, then millions of young people who want a more inclusive safety net start thinking that they must be socialists, too.
This is no mere misuse of language. Calling themselves socialist, the young open themselves to Orwellian notions like “socialism means freedom”—freedom, say, from “the need to smile for the sake of a sale,” as Corey Robin put it. That markets incentivize kindness is a good thing. One great evil of socialist states is that they eliminated any financial reason to be friendly, yielding generations of dour apparatchiks, whose success came from subservience to their political masters, not pleasing the public.
Another step: let freedom serve the young. The unhappiness that many millennials have with the status quo reflects an economy that has too often protected insiders at outsiders’ expense. In manufacturing firms, older unionized workers earn far more than similarly skilled younger workers. Occupational licensing restricts the competitive chances of new workers. Economic freedom will become much more compelling to 25-year-olds when they see how often public interventions have benefited the entrenched at the expense of the young.
The regulatory bias toward the old is particularly evident in housing policy. Consider California’s Proposition 13. Passed overwhelmingly in 1978, the measure may have struck a blow against rising property taxes, but by ensuring that home-value assessments cannot rise more quickly than the rate of inflation unless the house is sold, it glaringly favors the old over the young. As California’s housing prices have risen steadily since 1976, old homeowners wind up paying a tiny fraction of the taxes paid by younger, more recent buyers. An additional downside of Prop. 13 is that it tends to lock older homeowners in place; if they move, they lose the tax advantage that comes from their ultralow property assessment.
California’s onerous housing regulations add to the dysfunction of the state’s housing market by making it hard to build. Some limits originated with the state courts, in cases like 1972’s Friends of Mammoth, which mandated extensive environmental-impact reviews for all large building projects. In other instances, local regulations have limited new construction, with policies like the 60-acre minimum-lot sizes that exist in parts of Marin County. This creates housing shortages that drive up prices.
Recent research that I’ve conducted with Wharton’s Joseph Gyourko looks at the generational accumulation of housing wealth. In 1983, the 75th percentile 25- to 34-year-old had $45,000 in home value. Thirty years later, that same group had only $21,000 of net housing wealth. Among 65- to 74-year-olds, by contrast, the 75th percentile household’s net housing wealth rose from $150,000 to $225,000 over that period—and the 95th percentile’s climbed from $427,000 to $700,000. Housing is the main store of wealth for most Americans, and regulations have clearly helped redistribute wealth from young home-buyers to old home-sellers.
The tendency of government regulation to entrench incumbents is hardly limited to housing. Elizabeth Warren has proposed that employee representatives make up 40 percent of all corporate boards. Such representatives might look after the interests of incumbent employees, but they would have little incentive to care about new workers. A pervasive feature of labor markets in social democracies is a large gap between insiders and outsiders—and the young inevitably begin as outsiders.
The case for socialism starts with anger against a system that seems to increase inequality and leave the most vulnerable unprotected—but we can enhance upward mobility and create a better safety net by empowering entrepreneurship and redirecting existing funding. The connection between entrepreneurial freedom and mobility is easy to make. Social insurance is harder to fit within the case for a New Freedom, but to succeed today, the case for liberty must also make peace with reasonable protections against economic and physical calamity.
Entrepreneurship can improve social mobility because so many new Americans make their own futures by starting businesses. We could do much more to help them. Appallingly, America regulates the entrepreneurship of the wealthy far less stringently than it regulates the entrepreneurship of the poor. If a Harvard undergraduate wants to launch an Internet firm in his dorm, it might accumulate 1 billion users before regulators start paying attention. If a Haitian immigrant wants to start a grocery in Harvard Square that, say, sells milk, he must cut through a dense thicket of local regulations.
We should apply more rigorous cost-benefit analysis to local regulations and set up one-stop permitting for local entrepreneurs, with permitting offices fluent in several languages. Mentoring programs, with older entrepreneurs providing guidance to young protégés, would also help spark business creation. We should experiment with after-school programs that teach entrepreneurship-relevant skills. Entrepreneurship fires job creation, which we will need more than ever. We must ensure, too, that our tax policies encourage firms to hire new workers—and that our wage and labor regulations don’t discourage firms from hiring them.
“Entrepreneurship can improve social mobility because so many new Americans start businesses.”
Finally, entrepreneurship can also be part of providing better schooling and cheaper health care. Not all charter schools, which operate free from sundry labor restrictions of traditional public schools, are great, but in many communities, they provide a successful alternative to conventional schools. I would also like to see vocational training provided after school, on weekends, and over the summer.
But entrepreneurship isn’t enough. On its own, the most entrepreneurial economy in the world won’t provide insurance against mental illness or ensure that every person gets a steady income. The advocates of liberty have often turned their backs on social insurance, but if they want to be relevant to a new generation, they can’t keep doing that.
Nevertheless, the New Freedom should emphasize that social insurance in the U.S. today represents a massive transfer from young to old. Medicare and Social Security are vast government programs funded by taxes on the young and that benefit people over the age of 65, who are often wealthy. A proposal compatible with the cause of freedom is to make our social-insurance system fairer, even if total spending remains constant. Means-testing benefits would be a great start. Cost-containment for Medicare and Medicaid would provide trillions of extra dollars. We can offer more meaningful social insurance for the poor and young if we stop spending so much on the wealthy and old.
The current vogue for socialism among the young does not mean that most twentysomethings want the government to run pizzerias and gaming platforms, but many do want more government control over sectors of the economy. Old ideological tethers have largely dissolved, and America is at risk of moving in a far more statist direction. In this new, wide-open world, the cause of capitalism has struggled. Republicans won the 2016 elections primarily due to older, whiter voters, many of whom were suspicious of markets. The future could increasingly belong to the radical Left—even socialists, in the true sense of the term.
The global shift to the left after World War I and the Great Depression called forth a generation of legendary scholars—Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, and Friedman, among others—who used their voices to advocate for freedom, not only because of its economic benefits but also because all humans deserve a chance to chart their destiny, free from the overweening grip of the state. Today, a new generation must make the case for liberty again. The free market is far from perfect, but the track record of state-dominated economies is far worse.
Top Photo: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the face of young people’s enthusiasm for socialism. (LARS NIKI/GETTY IMAGES)