What is Socialism? And Does Socialism Work?

In 2016, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders was the first political candidate in nearly 100 years to gain a sizable following running on a socialist platform. In 2018, 28-year-old newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of Sander’s organizers and a member of the Democratic Socialist Party of America, handily unseated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York Democratic primary. Her platform? Medicare for all, a guaranteed federal jobs program, free college and trade schools, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and curbing the influence of money in politics.

Days after, we saw a split in Democratic leadership about the significance of the win. DNC Chairman declared Ocasio-Cortez “the future of the party,” while stalwarts such as Nancy Pelosi dismissed the victory as an isolated event in an unusually progressive district. But there is no doubt: socialism is gaining support in America. Since then, four socialists have been elected to the House of Representatives and nearly 40 to state officials positions.

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 and 47 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 49 view socialism in a favorable light. These age groups now make up a sizable portion of today’s active voters.

In the wake of rising health insurance premiums and growing student debt, “free” healthcare and college degrees are an easy sell. But what’s behind the progressive populist movement towards socialism? Who pays for the free stuff? And most importantly—does socialism work? 

We continue now with an extended excerpt from FEE.org, compliments of our friend Lawrence (“Larry”) Reed. A former professor of economics and president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, Reed became the president of FEE (the Foundation for Economic Education) in 2008 after decades of writing, speaking, and serving on FEE’s board of directors. This seems like an opportune time to present some thinking on socialism vs. free-market capitalism, and we are proud to “borrow” from Larry’s good work.

Table Of Contents

The XYZ’s of Socialism

When a socialist says he wants to give you “the ABC’s of socialism,” you can be sure that’s as far into the alphabet as he’ll want to go. Happy talk, vague promises, political programs, perhaps an angry, envy-soaked tirade or two against the rich—but not much at all about where all that leads. That part always gets a little embarrassing.

Hence this anthology. After all, no system of political, economic, or social organization should be judged by simply what its advocates say it’ll do. That’s pretty shallow thinking, not much deeper than slogans and bumper stickers. It’s far more instructive to judge a system by the premises on which it’s based and the outcomes it actually produces.

This immediately presents an important, definitional issue: What is socialism? For now, this much ought to be obvious: However you choose to define it, you know it involves government. A lot of government. Much more than just about anybody faces today, in spite of all the growth in government we’ve already had and all the shortcomings (even disasters) it’s given us along the way.

If you’re a person of peace and goodwill, one who wants the best for every deserving individual, then this ought to give you pause.

It’s a good bet that no matter where you are on the political spectrum—socialist, liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist, or something else—you want men and women in government to be honest, humble, fair, wise, independent, responsible, incorruptible, mindful of the future, and respectful of others. You want them to be men and women of peace and goodwill just like you, right?

You may be holding profoundly contradictory views without realizing it. This is the bottom line: The bigger government gets, the less likely it will attract men and women who possess those traits we all say we want.

Have you noticed how mean and nasty campaigns for high office have become? Why would a genuinely good person subject himself to the ugliness of it all? Increasingly, genuinely good people don’t bother, so we are left all too often with dirtbags and demagogues in government. So we really need to think about what history often tells us is the worst of both worlds: Big Government run by Bad People.

Lord Acton famously stated more than a century ago that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He nailed it, though I would add a corollary of my own: “Power attracts the corrupt.” Does socialism somehow and miraculously counteract that?

In spite of all the good intentions of many socialists, it’s probably too much to expect people to stay good and honest when you task them with forcibly redistributing several trillion dollars every year and regulating almost every corner of other people’s lives. That kind of power can make a sinner from a saint in no time.

Power may well be the most corrosive, character-destroying, society-demolishing weapon in Evil’s arsenal. But in the name of doing good, socialists always want more of it, and they want it nicely concentrated in the hands of those who say they know best.

So don’t judge socialism by its velvet glove and ignore the iron fist within it. Look beyond its ABC’s and get to the end of it all—its XYZ’s.

Socialism: Force or Fantasy?

Have you ever tried to nail Jell-O to the wall? It’s easier than getting a socialist to stand pat on what socialism is, which makes socialism an endlessly moving target.

Marx called for the abolition of private property and state ownership of the means of production. He labeled it “scientific socialism.”

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Lenin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He put the Soviet state in charge of every aspect of life for “the good of the people.” Stalin, his mass-murdering successor, declared that Soviet socialism would perfect the “workers’ paradise” promised by socialist intellectuals.

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Hitler and his minions “planned” the German economy, called themselves socialist and even named their political organization the National Socialist German Workers Party.

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Fifteen different republics within the Soviet empire all proclaimed themselves dedicated to socialism (until all of their socialist regimes collapsed in 1989–91).

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

More Failed Examples of Socialism

Dozens of regimes in Africa and Asia from the 1950s on committed themselves to the socialist utopia, embracing socialism proudly by name. Every single one of them elicits the same proclamation from today’s socialist dreamers: “But that’s not what we mean!”

Socialists all over the world rejoiced in the rise to power of socialist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. “This is what we mean!” seemed to be their mantra as he expropriated and nationalized and redistributed. Barely 15 years later with the country now a total basket case, you have to press today’s socialist dreamers to get them to say anything at all. But when you finally get them to talk, once more we hear the familiar refrain: “But that’s not what we mean!”

Today’s socialist dreamers, Bernie Sanders being among the more prominent, are on a kick about Scandinavia. “That’s what we mean!” they proclaim. Then more studious observers of that part of the world point out that Scandinavian countries have no minimum wage laws; lower taxes on business and more school choice than the United States; trade-based, globalized economies; and few if any nationalized industries.

The prime minister of Denmark recently declared, “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.” So, today’s socialist dreamers say, “Well, that’s not what we mean.” They advocate hikes in the minimum wage, higher taxes on business, little if any school choice, and massive intervention in commerce.

A Better Life for Mankind

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, offered one of the most expansive views of who’s a socialist. “Jesus was the first socialist,” declared Gorbachev, because he was “the first to seek a better life for mankind.”

Gorbachev’s silly claim gets us nowhere: I’m as anti-socialist as it gets, and I, too, seek a better life for mankind (it’s one of the many reasons I’m not a socialist).

Further, as I explained in “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?” Jesus never advocated the redistribution of wealth by force or by the political process. The caring and sharing he suggested was all voluntary—that is, from the heart and not from somebody else’s pocket at gunpoint. He rebuked people for envy and theft and praised the man who invested his money to earn the greatest return.

Socialists are so intellectually slippery that they could crawl through a barrel of pretzels without knocking the salt off. It’s socialism until it doesn’t work; then it was never socialism in the first place. It’s socialism until the wrong guys get in charge; then it’s everything but. Under socialism, do you shoot the cow or just milk it 24/7? One thing I know for sure: When the milk runs out, socialists will blame the cow. Maybe the reason why socialists don’t like personal responsibility is that they don’t want to be held personally responsible.

Oxford Dictionaries defines socialism as “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” It offers these terms as synonyms: leftism, welfarism, progressivism, social democracy, communism, and Marxism.

Maybe now we’re getting somewhere. Sounds precise, right? Hardly. What is meant by “the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”? Should a convenience store have to put to some public vote the decisions about what to stock the shelves with or whom to hire for the night shift?

And what about this “regulated by the community as a whole” stuff? Have you ever known a regulatory body to be everybody in town or all 325 million people in the country? Don’t such bodies end up being some handful of people with political power?

The socialist countries that seem to work—like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—do so not because of the socialism they have but because of the capitalism they haven’t yet destroyed. Go full socialism and you get Venezuela. Or worse yet, North Korea.

Socialism Equals Force

In his July 2015 article, “The Whitest Privilege,” National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson came as close to explaining socialism-in-theory as I’ve seen in a while:

Socialism and welfare-statism, like nationalism and racism, are based on appeals to solidarity—solidarity that is enforced at gunpoint, if necessary. That appeal is more than a decent-hearted concern for the downtrodden or the broad public good. It is, rather, an exclusionary solidarity, a superstitious notion that understands “body politic” not as a mere figure of speech but as a substantive description of the state and the people as a unitary organism, the health of which is of such paramount importance that individual rights—property, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of association—must be curtailed or eliminated when they are perceived to be insalubrious.

It all comes down to persuasion versus force. Here’s what I mean:

Under capitalism, two Girl Scouts show up at your door and ask, “Would you like to buy some cookies?” You get to say yes or no.

Under socialism, two Girl Scouts show up at your door with an armed SWAT team behind them. They say, “You’re gonna eat these damn cookies and you’re gonna pay for ’em, too.”

Some socialists say that they are simply advocating “sharing,” and since socialism’s advocates have good intentions, it must be voluntary and beneficial, too. Except that it never is. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be socialism, and if it were beneficial, you wouldn’t need force to create it and sustain it.

Today’s socialist dreamers think and act as if they just arrived from an alternate universe. A $19 trillion national debt means that the federal government hasn’t spent enough to solve our problems. Stealing money that belongs to others through taxation is perfectly alright if you spend it on good things. People become much more honest, fair, competent, and compassionate once they get elected to office. If you force employers to pay someone more than their services are worth, they will hire them anyway and just eat the difference. Regulations always do good because their advocates mean well. Civilizations rise and become great because they punish success and subsidize failure, then they collapse when they embrace freedom and free enterprise. Each person is entitled to whatever he wants other people to pay for, like free college and birth control.

Maybe all this nonsense springs from one fundamental, definitional flaw: If it’s not the use of force to shape society the way you want it, then socialism is nothing more than a nebulous fantasy. It’s a giant blackboard in the sky on which you can write anything your heart desires and then just erase it when embarrassing circumstances arise.

Either way, I don’t want any part of it, but it always seems to want a part of me.

–Larry Reed(For more on this topic from Larry and others, see the rest of this anthology on the FEE.org website.)

The Ultimate Irony of Socialism

Does socialism work? Not if the goal is freedom and prosperity! Socialism promises to put more power in the hands of the workers, but eventually, it does the opposite. Ultimately, it’s never “the workers,” but an inevitably corrupted government that takes it upon itself to confiscate and redistribute a shrinking base of wealth.

In contrast, true fiscally conservative/libertarian policies seek to put more power and wealth in the hands of workers by shrinking government, lowering taxes, and letting everyone KEEP more of the fruits of their labor. While capitalism can be corrupted through corporatism or fraud (such as Theranos), no other economic system has lifted so many out of poverty. Capitalism incentivizes problem-solving and rewards those who give value. It breaks down class structures and allows opportunities for all. Ultimately, those who truly wish for a prosperous society with empowered citizens should reject socialism and big government and embrace free-market principles.

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