I was asked recently what book I thought was the best, to point young socialists toward, in order to show them the error of their ways. Sadly, the best book is probably Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, which makes an airtight argument, but is a bit laborious to read. Had Hayek been as good a writer as, say, Thomas Sowell, his book would have had much more impact.
I’m afraid that the problem with trying to sway young people away from socialism is that doing so means teaching them to think in logical terms, rather than in purely moral terms. Socialism is always sold on the apparent morality of altruism, against the apparent sin of greed.
To the socialist, if you put the interests of society ahead of your own personal self-interest (and work for the collective good), you are an angel, and if you work for your own self interest, you are evil. They think they are logical in a whimsical, Vulcan sort of way (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one…”), but they ignore the fact that socialists are generally not altruistic people.
Bernie Sanders, as an example, has a personal net worth of over two million dollars, and has three houses.
Bernie is not altruistic with his own money. Rather, he is altruistic with other people’s money, and there is a big difference between being altruistic with one’s own money, and being altruistic only with other people’s money. Bernie uses phrases like, “Well just because you earned it, that doesn’t make it yours,” to justify being altruistic with other people’s money rather than his own.
Bernie’s followers are also altruistic with other people’s money. They want free college, free healthcare, free this, free that, a chicken in every pot (oh sorry – meat is bad.. Make that a salad on every plate), etc., etc, etc..
This quest for free stuff, all of it with other people’s money, does not drive up overwhelming support from those of means. It primarily drives support from people who would benefit from that free stuff.
This kind of external-altruism also drums up support from some of the rich and famous, such as Hollywood elite, but even those Hollywood elite are not altruistic with their own money. You’ll never hear Lady Gaga complain about her quarter-of-a-billion dollar net worth, or the $50 million she made last year alone. You’ll only hear her rail against the greed of corporate CEOs, most of whom make well under 10% as much as she does. In the meantime, Lady Gaga will make full use of the same off-shore accounts corporate CEOs use, to avoid paying taxes.
People like Lady Gaga are socialists, primarily because being one is good for their careers.
In other words, socialism is driven by personal self interest, just as capitalism is. The difference is that under free market capitalism, self interest is driven by economic means, whereas under socialism, self interest is driven by political means.
Under capitalism, if you want to make money, you have to contribute to the needs of other people, such that they will willingly give up their hard earned pay for whatever it is that you make, or that you do. That’s not purely altruistic, but it does have an altruistic effect.
Under socialism, where everyone is vying for their own self interest (or that of their group identity), through political means, you can only get more by having government take forcibly from others. That is not altruistic at all!
Socialists coach this politicized self-interest by saying, “Well – they do not need that,” and “This is what I need,” but what they have to understand is that unlike economic self interest, political self interest really is a zero-sum game.
And it is even worse than a zero-sum game, as once you start taking what the producers make, to cover the needs of those who do not produce (or who produce less), the reasons to produce (or to produce more) start to go away. This makes socialism a zero-sum game only in the immediate term. Over time, it is a game played with a shrinking pot – hence the Margaret Thatcher quote that socialism only works “until you run out of other people’s money.”
Another quote I really like comes from Thomas Sowell: “Socialism is that construct under which everyone can live off the efforts of everyone else.”
In the end, Dr. Sowell’s quote is exactly what socialism comes down to! Under capitalism, everyone must contribute, and the more they contribute, the more they are rewarded – but they are never rewarded for their entire contribution. Andrew Carnegie, rich as he became, only saw a tiny fraction of the wealth he created for others, by radically reducing the cost of steel, while at the same time radically increasing its strength. All of society – indeed the entire world – benefited from cheaper steel of higher quality. What Carnegie made off of that was but a tiny fraction of the benefit society reaped.
Under socialism, those who produce are not encouraged to continue doing so, and are instead vilified as greedy, capitalist oppressors. Those who do not produce, in the meantime, are encouraged to use political means to steal from others, whatever is still out there to take.
Capitalism breeds opportunity, greatness, and a growing abundance. Socialism breeds greater equality in the immediate term, but greater poverty over time. And because the socialist leadership pursue their own self interest, socialism creates far more income inequality than does free market capitalism.
Once you dig in a bit, the higher moral underpinnings within capitalism become clear, but to make young socialists see this, one first has to make them open to digging in more, and I’m afraid that there is no easy way to make people open-minded. The real problem is not getting people to think more logically; it is getting them to think at all.
Another problem with Hayek is that he focuses on central planning. While central planning is invariably necessary under socialism, that only becomes apparent once the goods and services needed to feed and shelter the people, are no longer being produced. In a country as rich as ours, that may take some time. Homogeneous cultures seem to survive longer under socialism, than do heterogeneous cultures, as well (and ours is one of the most heterogeneous cultures on Earth). Because of this, it is hard to say when, exactly, socialism in America would fail. Initially socialism would seem to fulfill its promises. But even as socialism seems to flourish, the pot of gold it draws from would be getting noticeably smaller…
For socialism, the end is always out there, waiting in the wind.
Once the Bernie Sanders types end up in a position where people are starving in the streets because of empty shelves – because the food needed to feed them simply does not exist – suddenly the Bernie Sanders types have two choices: you can either round up all those greedy bastards who are not working for the good of the collective, and FORCE them to make the goods and services society needs (against their will), or you can watch them starve.
There is a third option: one could go free market again, but that is only rarely the choice taken…
Maduro is in this boat in Venezuela, today. The people, sadly, do not believe the problem is socialism though. They blame Maduro. Hugo Chavez, the real architect of Venezuela’s misery, is still wildly popular.
My guess is that Maduro will be ousted, and that whomever takes over will force the people onto the farms and into the factories, against their will. And the people will go along, because the new guy is not Maduro, and because they are starving.
And at that point, Venezuela will no longer be socialist. It will be communist – just as Hayek predicted in The Road to Serfdom.
But try convincing young people of that…
Perhaps for young people, the answer is not what to read, so much as what to hear. Here is an example…
And round two…
Perhaps if we can make economic knowledge cool, we can get young people to think critically about economics. Only then will we have the ability to reach them.
Until then, the siren-song of ‘free’ will keep them entranced…