Six Reasons Socialism is Sexy Again—But Shouldn’t Be

Wherever you look, socialism is sexy again. In the UK this week, Jeremy Corbyn is seeking election as the nation’s Prime Minister on a proudly socialist platform.

In the USA, socialist Bernie Sanders is making a second run for President, and he has the endorsement of “the Squad”—a group of socialist Congresswomen which includes the famous firebrand freshman AOC.

You may not have noticed yet, but the climate strikes taking place the world over also have strong socialist undercurrents.

If the word socialism is new to you, it’s basically the idea that society’s wealth should be redistributed and shared by everyone. (Be sure to do your own research to fill out this definition).

“Socialism is now wildly popular in the mainstream.”

Socialism arose in the 19th century as a reaction to capitalism—our western economic system that is built on the idea of free trade, private ownership and entrepreneurship.

Both capitalism and socialism have their pros and cons. No system can generate wealth like capitalism can. But unrestrained, capitalism can lead to inequality and injustice.

Socialism, on the other hand, seeks to address these problems of inequality and injustice. But in order to achieve this effectively, socialist states require more and more power.

“Socialism is the idea that society’s wealth should be redistributed and shared by everyone.”

History has shown that socialism always moves towards totalitarianism, corruption, and poverty. The Soviet Union is the most notorious example of this—and Venezuela the most recent.

For all of these reasons, modern western nations have wisely decided to remain capitalist, albeit with a range of moderate socialist tweaks.

My country of Australia, for example, has a capitalist economy. But we have a universal healthcare system called Medicare, for which I’m very grateful. I have also benefitted from an interest-free student loan provided by our government, and a modest student income during the years I was at university.

“Socialism is seductive.”

In simple terms, the last hundred years of western politics has been a game of tug-of-war between those who want less of these “socialist tweaks” (conservatives, on the right) and those who want more (progressives, on the left). This is, and always will be, an important debate to have.

But something has started to shift in the last few years. Until recently, political parties that were openly socialist—and cheering for the overthrow of capitalism—remained on the fringe.

But socialism is now wildly popular in the mainstream. In a recent poll for example, 53% of millennials said they view socialism favourably. Given socialism’s diabolical track record, this should concern all of us.

Socialism is seductive. It has gained in popularity, but for all the wrong reasons. Here are six of them.

1. Socialism strokes our ego

As humans, we’re drawn to ideas that tell us what we want to hear about ourselves. There is a certain compliment that socialism pays us, which helps explain why it is so attractive—especially to young people.

The compliment is this: we humans are inherently good. The idea that we are basically good and ultimately perfectible is a fixed assumption underlying the socialist worldview.

Socialism assumes that the reason people don’t work is because they can’t—because of some impossible setback or systemic injustice.

While these are genuine reasons that some people don’t work, there is also the reality of human laziness and entitlement. Socialism fails to account for these vices. It is blind to the inherent selfishness of humanity. And this is a dangerous mistake to make.

“We’re drawn to ideas that tell us what we want to hear about ourselves.”

The reality is that if our collective wealth is redistributed—if the fruit of my labour is given to people who haven’t worked for it—then a big motivation for me to hold down a job or climb the career ladder is taken away.

Capitalism has worked for hundreds of years precisely because it accounts for this. Under the capitalist system, I am motivated to work because I will receive the reward that I deserve for my labour.

This system isn’t perfect, and as we’ve discovered, it needs checks and balances, like collective bargaining. But the capitalist systems we live under function so well because they are realistic: they account for both human vice and human virtue.

Socialism assumes only that humans are good. This is a nice compliment, and there is an attraction to this optimism. But it’s a deeply unstable belief on which to to build a society.

2. Socialism asks little and promises much

Socialism is often promoted by the well-educated and powerful. But it seeks its broad supporter base among those who feel disenfranchised.

I am a millennial. My generation came of age during the Great Recession, the global financial crisis that made us fear for our futures. We are the generation that, through no real fault of our own, are largely locked out of the real estate market. For better or worse, much later into life than previous generations, we have remained financially dependent on our parents.

Of course these are generalisations, but all of these factors make millennials far more attracted to socialism.

“Socialism is the politics of envy.”

Like our parents’ pocketbook, socialism seems to guarantee us ongoing prosperity while hiding the cost from us. It appeals to our fears and our financial dependence—our sense that we may never make it on our own. Socialism is a system that asks little of us and promises much.

In blunter terms, socialism is the politics of envy. It secretly appeals to our laziness and our sense of entitlement.

But history shows that while socialism is good at redistributing wealth, it has never been good at producing wealth. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

3. Socialism spreads when history is forgotten

Today, we have the world’s knowledge quite literally at our fingertips. Through our smartphones alone, we can access all the breaking news from around the planet, and the wisdom of every civilisation.

We are the most educated people in history. It’s ironic then that we are so ignorant of history.

I went to school for thirteen years, but during all that time I learnt nothing of the 20 million people killed under Russia’s socialist republic. Or the 60 million lives that socialism claimed in China. Or the millions more who fell victim to socialist projects in lands as diverse as Vietnam, Romania, and Cuba.

In fact, estimates of the 20th century’s Socialist/Communist body count range from 100150 million.

“There is a pressing need for us to overcome our historical amnesia.”

It is chilling to consider that socialism thrived in these places precisely because history was erased by their governments, or forgotten by their people.

If we are serious about preserving our liberty for generations to come, we would do well to heed the words of Edmund Burke, who said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

There is a pressing need for us to overcome our historical amnesia. This is a personal responsibility for each of us. But it also highlights the need for reformation in our institutions.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”—Edmund Burke

Identity politics has overrun too many of our schools, universities and media outlets. It stokes the rage of rival disenfranchised groups, while ignoring the historic dangers in doing so.

Today’s downtrodden need a voice, to be sure. But their voice must be balanced with the cries of those from history who were crushed under the iron first of socialist empires.

Until then, socialism will retain its seductive allure.

4. Socialism appeals to the soft-hearted

Research shows that those who lean right tend to place more value on personal responsibility, while those who lean left are more prone to empathy.

Indeed, because of socialism’s emphasis on justice and practical aid for the poor and marginalised, a growing number of young Christians are drawn to socialism. I have often heard Christians make the case for socialism based on Acts 2:44-45.

“All the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.”

“A growing number of young Christians are drawn to socialism.”

I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity of believers who see parallels between socialism and Christian concern for “the least of these”.

But in this parallel is a glaring omission. The early church wasn’t forming a government—at most, they were arranging a “commune”. In other words, it was a contract that the faithful entered into voluntarily.

Socialism, by contrast, is a political system that people are born into and cannot escape unless they emigrate. (And it is noteworthy that while people often try to flee socialist governments, the most desirable destinations for refugees seem to be capitalist countries).

“Socialism is a pale substitute for compassion.”

No matter who you are—giver or recipient, religious or otherwise—compassion and generosity are always good for societies.

But compassion and generosity are, by their very definition, voluntary. The moment that large-scale “kindness” is enforced by government redistribution programs, it is at best high taxes. At worst, it’s extortion.

Socialism seems compassionate, but in truth it is a pale substitute for compassion. Far better is a robust democracy where the typically progressive value of empathy is driven (and balanced) by the typically conservative value of personal responsibility.

5. Socialism is seen as above critique

To summarise so far, socialism tells us what we want to hear about ourselves; it requires little from us while promising the world; and it is uniquely depicted as the politics of compassion.

For all of these reasons, in the popular progressive imagination, there is almost no such thing as too much socialism. The more of it we have, the better.

Obviously, not all progressives believe this. But it’s certainly the dominant narrative in the mainstream media. Whether it’s expanded healthcare programs or open borders or a bigger welfare net or free university education, it’s almost as though the sky’s the limit.

“In the popular progressive imagination, there is almost no such thing as too much socialism.”

Let’s have a conversation about each of these. But let’s balance it with the reality that the money has to come from somewhere. Inevitably, it won’t just be the rich who foot the ever-growing bill, but the middle class too.

Let’s also keep in view the fact that government services can breed generational dependence that ends up hurting the very communities they are seeking to help. Self-reliance—whatever that looks like—is important not just for material needs, but for people’s sense of dignity and purpose.

6. Socialism provides meaning in a post-Christian world

We all need something to live for. Though not all westerners through history were Christians, Christianity provided us with a collective sense of ultimate meaning and purpose.

In the West, as we become increasingly post-Christian, we are experiencing a vacuum of meaning. Many ideologies have rushed into the void, and undoubtedly one of those is socialism: the dogma that the government can solve all of our problems.

In the name of a thousand different causes, people now give their energies to this dogma with religious fanaticism.

“We all need something to live for.”

And as misdirected as this is, it makes sense. In our subconscious, we know that something should rule over us. The closest substitute that we humans have so far found for God is the state.

It is no coincidence that socialism and atheism have historically had a strong connection. The bigger a government gets, the more it tends to act like God.

Socialist states end up replacing God by seeking to provide everything, protect us from everything, and police everything. But as Thomas Jefferson warned, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.”

“The closest substitute that we humans have so far found for God is the state.”

The founding fathers of western nations like America understood this in ways we have forgotten. Jefferson also warned that, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

Today, people are quick to put Christians in their place and tell them to keep their religion out of politics. But this would have been news to our forebears. Religion is what helped them keep a healthy perspective on politics.

William Penn wrote that, “Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” Patrick Henry’s warning was even more chilling: “It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.”

“Religion is what helped our forebears keep a healthy perspective on politics.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take God over totalitarianism any day of the week.

Let’s keep talking about the role government should play in our lives; about the tweaks needed under capitalism to root out injustice. But please, can we steer clear of socialism?

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America’s Founders on the High Price of Freedom

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Thomas Paine

Such was the mood on the North American continent centuries ago, when pilgrims and pioneers dreamt of a brand new nation to call their own.

Somehow, their experiment worked. Despite the founders’ striking flaws and all of modern America’s faults, the United States remains a great beacon of liberty for the rest of the world.

I’ve been on a pilgrimage this last month down the east coast of the USA. It’s my first time here, so given my obsession with the history of ideas, I made sure to visit Philadelphia and Washington—among many other cities—to better understand the origins of America for myself.

“There’s an urgent need for us to recapture the ideas that shaped the free world.”

Yes, we Australians can struggle to relate to the unbridled patriotism of America. What they achieved in a sudden, dramatic break from Britain, we too now enjoy in our quiet corner of the world. And we managed it without the same fanfare, past or present.

But with all that said, the architects of the American project continue to inspire any who stop and consider what they achieved. They were years ahead of their time, bold and zealous, and their love of liberty still resounds today.

Right now in the West, the very foundations of freedom are being called into question. So now more than ever, there’s an urgent need for us to recapture the ideas that shaped the free world.

Consider 25 quotes from America’s founders on what freedom cost—and what’s required to keep it alive.

Freedom Requires Risk

Many today want to feel safe from every conceivable danger—even hurt feelings. But there’s always a trade-off between safety and freedom. If we want freedom, we also have to endure a level of discomfort and uncertainty.

“Those that can give up essential liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”—Benjamin Franklin

“If we want freedom, we also have to endure a level of discomfort and uncertainty.”

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms.”—Samuel Adams

“Timid men… prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.”—Thomas Jefferson

Freedom Requires Appreciation

When freedom is all we’ve ever known, it’s easy to take it for granted and even be apathetic about its demise. But when we know the price others paid for our freedom, we’re inspired to preserve it for coming generations.

“You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.”—John Adams

“It’s easy to take freedom for granted.”

“I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”—Patrick Henry

“The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they ought.”—Samuel Adams

Freedom Requires Forbearance

If we truly value freedom for ourselves, this means defending it for others—even when that makes us uneasy or offended. The ability to tolerate and even love people with views wildly different than ours is good for them, good for us, and good for society.

“It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.”—Thomas Jefferson

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”—Thomas Jefferson

“If we truly value freedom for ourselves, this means defending it for others.”

“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—George Washington

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”—Thomas Paine

Freedom Requires Vigilance

Freedom is still in short supply around the world. This speaks to the fact that freedom is hard won, easy to lose and, once lost, hard to regain. If we want it preserved, we must be ever watchful.

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”—Thomas Jefferson

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”—Thomas Paine

“Freedom is hard won, easy to lose and, once lost, hard to regain.”

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”—John Adams

“A constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever.”—John Adams

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”—Thomas Jefferson

Freedom Requires Godliness

Government can provide for our general safety and welfare, but what it cannot do is protect us from our own corruption. Unpopular as it is to admit, the further a society drifts from virtue and godliness, the further we drift from freedom.

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”—Benjamin Franklin

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—John Adams

“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”—William V. Wells

“Freedom cannot protect us from our own corruption.”

“A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”—Samuel Adams

“Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.”—William Penn

“It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.”—Patrick Henry

Freedom Requires God

It is no coincidence that the freest and safest nations on earth are also those most profoundly shaped by the Bible. The idea that all people are born free, equal, and with inherent rights is not universally accepted around the world, and it did not arise in a vacuum. Human rights find their origins in the explicit teachings of Christianity.

“Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.”—Benjamin Franklin

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”—Declaration of Independence, 1776

“Human rights find their origins in the explicit teachings of Christianity.”

“It cannot be emphasised too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”—Patrick Henry

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”—Thomas Jefferson

We owe much to those who laid the groundwork for the centuries of freedom we’ve enjoyed in the West. May we honour them, and take their word on what’s needed to preserve it for the centuries to come.