How to Talk to Millennials About Socialism

By now it is largely considered common knowledge that American Millennials are more enamored with socialism than previous generations. While cutoff points vary, Millennials are most commonly understood as the generation of those born between 1981 and 1996—meaning that, as of 2019, Millennials range in age from as old as 38 to as young as 23. Poll after poll has found that this generation is increasingly skeptical of capitalism and more open to trying socialism. While those headline findings don’t quite present a full and accurate picture of what’s going on, the trend is concerning, and should spur those of us who value a system of government that recognizes individual rights, human dignity, and the power of mutually beneficial voluntary exchange to be ready to defend those principles in the public square.

Public Opinion

While it is true that many, or even most, Millennials tell pollsters that they prefer socialism over capitalism, this finding obscures the fact that many don’t really understand what those terms mean. A March 2019 Harris Poll, reported by Axios, shows that nearly 50 percent of Millennials and G-Zers (the generation born after 1996) would prefer to live in a socialist country. Other polls have shown similar interest in socialism among younger Americans. Despite these dismal poll results, a 2018 Gallup poll found that only 17 percent of respondents defined socialism as government ownership of the means of production. The same poll reported that a higher percentage of respondents (23 percent) considered socialism to mean some form of equality.

Regardless of what this misunderstanding might reflect about the state of education in America, there are some good reasons why Millennials might be confused. This is a generation that (mostly) grew up after the cold war had ended and entirely missed the Reagan era. Instead, this generation came of age during the economic downturn of 2008 and witnessed the corporate bailouts that followed. They then watched as right-leaning pundits attacked many of President Obama’s initiatives as “socialist” even though none of them actually handed over permanent control of business to the government. Finally, first Candidate then President Donald Trump, was hailed by many as the capitalist answer to the growing popularity of socialism on the political left, even as he promised tighter restrictions on international trade. All this has left Millennials with a very confused picture of what capitalism and socialism actually are, an opening that radical left politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been quick to exploit.

Going beyond these labels, however, there are some trends that should provide reason for optimism. A 2016 Gallup survey found that 98 percent of 18 to 29 year olds had a favorable opinion of small business and 90 percent had favorable opinions of entrepreneurs. Furthermore, Millennials are excited by the possibilities of technology and innovation to improve people’s lives. These are points of agreement that serve as helpful starting points in any conversation about the drawbacks of socialism or the merits of free enterprise.

Making the Case for Free Enterprise

Whether it is a single conversation with an acquaintance or an ongoing discussion with a loved one, it is important to make the case for free enterprise rather than merely against a government planned or tightly regulated economy. Making the case for one economic system requires finding metrics upon which to evaluate the relative advantage of one system over another. Here, I’d recommend starting with some basics: expected lifespan, standards of living, and prospects for a nation’s poor. Find others if you like, but the dramatic differences between nations that embrace a system of economic freedom and those that don’t, make a compelling point.

Each year, the Fraser Institute ranks 159 countries and territories across 42 data points in five different areas to create a ranking of relative economic freedom. Comparing outcomes from the nations that rank in the freest quartile with those in the least free quartile, makes a strong case for freedom. For example, life expectancy in the freest nations is 80.7 years, compared to just 64.4 years in the least free nations. The same trend is true of other important metrics such as literacy and infant mortality rates. In terms of average income, Human Progress summarizes the difference:

The freest quartile has an average income that is seven times higher than that of the least free quartile ($42,463 and $6,036 respectively). Between 1990 and 2015, economic growth averaged 3.35 per cent a year in the freest quartile, whereas the least free experienced a measly 1.66 per cent growth.

Beyond just average income, the poorest people in relatively free countries are far better off than their counterparts with less free economies. More from Human Progress:

The bottom 10 per cent of income earners in the freest quartile earned 11 times more than the bottom 10 per cent in the least free quartile ($11,998 per year and $1,124 per year respectively). In the freest countries, the poorest 10 per cent make almost twice as much as the average person in the least free countries.

On almost any standard metric people care about in terms of well-being, countries that embrace economic freedom experience better results than those that rely on government economic planning and restrictions on economic freedom. Hitting these points is important even though they are unlikely to be ultimately persuasive. There is saying that “facts tell, stories sell,” and this is often the case. When engaged in a discussion with a Millennial about socialism, it’s important to demonstrate that the facts are on the side of free enterprise, but relying on data and statistics alone is unlikely to persuade most people.

Socialism in Practice

Although the benefits of the free enterprise system are an essential starting point, there will always be problems in any economy. It’s important to recognize the limits of how “perfect” any economic system can be and acknowledge that we humans never get to achieve utopia. That said, it’s useful to emphasize what the outcomes are when different economic systems are implemented in practice, not just in a college seminar. This is where the advocates for free enterprise have an opportunity to be particularly persuasive.

We’ve already discussed the positive outcomes associated with freer economies, but, as with any public policy question, it’s important to ask, “compared to what?” The track record of socialism is not helpful to its cause. Setting aside historical precedents that can seem less relevant, such as the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, probably the two most notable modern socialist countries include the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e., North Korea) and Venezuela.

North Korea is notorious for its repressive and dictatorial regime, its dismal human rights record, and its lagging technological progress. But even though most Americans, even Millennials, understand and agree that North Korea is not a good place to live, some of the specific facts about it are still worth remembering. First and foremost, though much of the nation’s information is kept secret, it is estimated that around 40 percent of the population is malnourished and almost the entire population lives in abject poverty. Furthermore, the North Korean government imposes on its citizens social ranking systems based on loyalty to the Kim regime. This loyalty requirement easily reaches dystopian levels as citizens are required to believe (or at least convey in public) state lies such as Kim Jong-Il having been so perfect that he never needed to use a toilet. Much of what we know about life in North Korea, from stories told by defectors who have escaped to free countries, entails the government’s endless propaganda, periods of famine, and state-perpetrated brutality.

Venezuela is perhaps an even more instructive case, since its transformation into socialist disaster happened almost before our eyes. The country sits atop some of the largest oil reserves on the planet and was the wealthiest country in Latin America not so very long ago. Back in 2003, “Democratic Socialist” Bernie Sanders signed a letter in support of Hugo Chavez, then leader of the country, even as the Chavez regime was cracking down on protesters and threatening TV stations for airing content with which he disagreed. Despite the familiar cry of “not real socialism” what happened in Venezuela was exactly the pattern that socialist nations have repeated for a century.

Beginning with Chavez and continuing with his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the country dramatically increased government spending, nationalized important industries, and when oil prices fell, resorted to printing money to cover its ballooning deficits. During the resulting hyperinflation, the Maduro regime implemented price controls which (predictably) resulted in severe shortages and waves of civil unrest. Today, the ruling dictatorship’s grip is tightening as Venezuelans starve in the streets and flee state-sponsored violence.

Although Venezuela illustrates the likeliest outcomes of socialism in our modern era, complete with leftist cheerleaders in western nations, most Millennials will instead point to Scandinavian countries as the correct model for socialism. Addressing this misunderstanding is an important step in achieving any kind of productive dialogue.

What About the Nordic Model?

Sometimes called “the Nordic Model,” the governments of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark have adopted an economic program of relatively high taxation accompanied with correspondingly high levels of government social spending. But what many proponents of the Nordic Model among American Millennials often leave out from this equation is the fact that these economies rest on a foundation of free markets. Without a base free market structure, such high levels of government spending are unlikely to be sustainable.

In fact, according to the Fraser Institute’s most recent Economic Freedom of the World rankings, three out of the five countries that represent the Nordic Model rank in the top quartile of the most economically free nations in the world (the other two are in the second quartile). According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, which measures the burden of business regulations and ranks countries on the ease of doing business, all the Nordic countries rank in the top quartile. Denmark and Norway rank even higher overall than the United States.

Across the board, these nations have relatively flexible labor markets, few regulations on business, and strong institutions protecting property rights. Although they maintain much higher levels of social spending and taxation, it is a market economy that makes the arrangement possible. Back in 2015 during a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, then Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen put any doubts about the nature of their economies to rest, saying, “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

Understanding that higher tax rates and higher levels of government social spending do not necessarily equate with socialism is critical. Nor does it follow that the United States should adopt such policies. There are good reasons to believe that the Nordic countries’ much smaller size, along with their relatively more homogenous populations, contribute to their success. The relevance of the Nordic model to the far more populated and culturally diverse United States is a different discussion entirely.

Further Advice for Making the Case

Properly defining terms and drawing distinctions between socialism and free enterprise is helpful and necessary, but it’s important to understand the limits of any single conversation. When discussing political differences, very seldom will either person have an “A-Ha” moment and suddenly come around to your viewpoint. So, beyond limiting your expectations and being patient, here are a few more tips that might be helpful with discussing socialism with Millennials.

First, recognize that much of the fervor for socialism today comes from a sense of compassion, misplaced as it may be. Showing care for the poor, disadvantaged, or less fortunate is an important step in building the credibility necessary for a productive conversation. Demonstrating the power of markets and free enterprise to improve people’s lives is crucial, as is emphasizing the role of civil society. Just because one might not favor this or that government program aimed at helping the poor, does not mean that helping the poor is not a worthwhile priority. As in most cases, actions speak louder than words. Leading by example through involvement in your local community, faith organization, or favorite charity will go further to convince Millennials of the potential of private action than any recitation of statistics ever could.

Second, understand that not everyone will be or strives to be an entrepreneur. Many people belonging to a generation that experienced the financial downturn at the start of their adult lives will care more about financial security for themselves and their family than the potential upsides of a dynamic economy. Creative destruction is an essential force for innovation and improvements in living standards, but discussing economic theory with someone that greatly values stability won’t get you very far. Emphasizing the value of economic growth for the average family, or the effect of a tight labor market on job security, might lead to a more fruitful discussion.

Third, one of the greatest benefits that Millennials enjoy is the abundance of choices that we have as consumers. Globalization and the internet have given this generation of Americans an almost unbelievably wide range of choices in everything from food and clothing to entertainment and education. Most Millennials carry around more computing power in their pockets than NASA had when it sent men to the moon. Expressing appreciation and gratitude for the high living standards that we routinely take for granted can be a powerful argument in and of itself. After all, the choices and products that we value did not just pop into existence from a vacuum; exploring where they came from and the environment that encouraged their creation can be a helpful point of discussion.

Finally, keep in mind that as Millennials get older and start families of their own, views will likely shift and change. Few people hold the same views at 50 that they had at 20. Hopefully, as this generation gains more responsibilities and experience, opportunities for productive dialogue will increase. With a concerted and good-faith effort, Millennials may yet become a generation that understands the value and importance of freedom.

Ben Wilterdink is a Research Fellow and Editor-in-Chief of Catalyst at the Independent Institute and Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute.
Posts by Ben Wilterdink | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst