In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Warren Stephens asks the question, “Why do the young reject capitalism and at the same time celebrate entrepreneurs and free enterprise?”
Stephens highlights a study done last year by the Institute of Politics at Harvard in which more than half of the respondents aged 18 to 29 said they do not support the U.S.’s free-market system known as capitalism. What’s more, one third actually support socialism.
As the author suggests it is a “curious disconnect.”
While the rest of Stephens’s article goes on to extoll the virtues of capitalism and free markets, he does not give any reasons for the growing pivot of millennials toward socialism. Stephens’s silence on this issue suggests that we don’t really understand this growing phenomenon.
A Different Way of Thinking about Socialism
If you look up socialism in a dictionary you will read something like this: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” From most historical examples you would certainly be able to expand this definition to say that the government controls production and distribution by coercion.
However, most of the millennial socialism supporters would prefer to say they are “democratic socialists.” They want to keep the high-level consumerism culture that free markets provide, while at the same time correcting perceived social ills infecting our country.
Defining “democratic socialism” is difficult at best, and historical examples are almost impossible to find.
A 2015 article on the Huffington Post website suggests “democratic socialism” is not Marxism, it is not communism, it is not regular socialism, and it is not a replacement for capitalism. At best, it is a strange marriage between capitalism and socialism: a democratic government that significantly redistributes wealth, severely regulates markets, and then expects those same markets to pick up the tab.
One of the reasons “democratic socialism” is so hard to define is because of its theoretical nature. While some politicians like to point to countries like Sweden and Denmark as successful examples, any due diligence past a first glance paints a very different picture.
Swedish author Nima Sanandaji writes in his 2016 book Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism that the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies:
In fact, their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward. That the Nordic countries are so successful is due to an exceptional culture that emphasizes social cohesion, hard work, and individual responsibility.
Interestingly, Denmark has recently pushed back on the “democratic socialism” label and Sweden for years has been slowly eliminating welfare-state policies by cutting taxes and shedding burdensome regulations.
Democratic Socialism and the Poor
An issue that makes this mysterious form of government likely so attractive to young Christians is a perceived notion that it will be better for the poor. The argument goes something like this:
- As Christians we should be concerned about the poor.
- “Democratic socialism” (as compared to greedy capitalism) does a better job taking care of the poor.
- Therefore, we should embrace “democratic socialism.”
The first point is plainly biblical and every evangelical should take it seriously. We should be about helping the poor (Jer. 22:16; Matt. 25:39-40). The second point is where the argument begins to go off the rails, based on a number of problematic assumptions.
First, the second point assumes that capitalism is a zero-sum game: for me to get a bigger piece of the pie someone else has to get a smaller piece, or, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Nothing could be further from the truth; capitalism makes the pie bigger by creating more wealth for everyone.
Second, the government is given permission to take care of the poor by the redistribution of wealth through coercion. This model borrows from the compassionate intentions of Christianity to help the “least of these” but uses force to do so.
The idea of wealth redistribution is particularly attractive to students who don’t have much to redistribute, but it is interesting given the right set of circumstances how quickly they abandon the concept.
For example, when students are given the analogy of sharing GPA points from those at the top of the class with those at the bottom, many react negatively to the idea, especially if they’ve worked hard to achieve their grades. Those with lower grades who stand to benefit are more open to the idea.
In other words, “democratic socialism” is attractive where people are drawn to the entitlements that the system brings, whether the entitlements are for them or others, as long as the system does not negatively affect them. Little thought is given to the coercion and force required to implement the well-intentioned policies or the potential unintended consequences.
As economist F.A. Hayek so eloquently put it,
…liberal socialism as most people in the Western world imagine it is purely theoretical, while the practice of socialism is everywhere totalitarian.
As believers, we have the special revelation of God’s word. We need to understand the principles it contains and then go out into the world and look for systems that most closely align with biblical principles, keeping in mind that none will be perfect.
One of the reasons there is a growing interest in various forms of socialism among Christians is that the moral criticisms of capitalism have gone unanswered. IFWE will explore these concerns with a host of respected Christian economists and theologians in its upcoming book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, edited by IFWE’s Art Lindsley and Anne Bradley. (August 8, 2017, Abilene Christian University Press).