Proud, self-described socialist Bernie Sanders is running for president again and has already raised over $10 million for his campaign. Rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a proud, self-described socialist, has promoted a Green New Deal, which has whipped up a frenzy among young populist activists and “emerged as a key litmus test for prospective 2020 presidential candidates,” drawing support from Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and—of course—Bernie Sanders.
Even if one assumes that the shift of mainstream progressive politicians towards the far Left is a calculated, self-serving act, the renewed calls for massive government interventionism and, worse, the rising acceptability of socialism, should concern all of us who wish to preserve a free society.
For the purposes of this article, I will use the Library of Economics and Liberty’s definition of socialism: “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.” This is synonymous with communism. The end goal of socialism is to abolish private property, free markets, exchange, prices, and profits, and substitute collective ownership and decision-making to determine the allocation of resources. Throughout history, socialism’s advocates and practitioners have made heartfelt appeals in the names of fairness, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism.
Many millennials lived through the 2007–8 financial crisis and graduated college with uncertain job prospects and crushing student loans. Gen Z (iGen), the newest kids on the block, grew up with smartphones in their pockets before they started high school and “do not remember a time before the internet.” Living in an economically uncertain world, in which anyone with a smartphone can easily document an unjustified police shooting, it is understandable that many young people are drawn towards social justice activism. Thus, it’s unsurprising that radical ideologies such as socialism, with its promise to deliver a fairer, more equal, and more just world, are gaining in popularity among youth.
Real injustices and systemic oppression do exist in the US. But, as a young, first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, I have a message for my peers and fellow American citizens: socialism is not the answer. Despite its lofty promises to deliver freedom from want, perfect man (and even transform human nature itself), and ultimately usher in heaven on earth, socialism has instead resulted in hell in every place it has been tried. The gruesome historical evidence is well documented in sobering books such as Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine. Today, the ongoing collapse of socialist Venezuela continues to bring untold suffering to its people.
No political experiment has ever been tried so widely, with so many disparate people, in so many different countries (with such different histories) and failed so absolutely and so catastrophically. Is it mere ignorance (albeit of the most inexcusable kind) that allows today’s Marxists to flaunt their continued allegiance—to present it as compassion and care? Or is it, instead, envy of the successful, in near-infinite proportions? Or something akin to hatred for mankind itself? How much proof do we need? Why do we still avert our eyes from the truth?
In sum, socialism has failed empirically and morally. So, why are so many young Americans, enjoying political freedom, stable institutions, and economic opportunities envied and desired by so many other people across the world, willing to sell their birthright for a failed, regressive ideology?
I’m not sure I can add much to the powerful cases against socialism made by Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. But, knowing how my generation values personal essays and lived experiences, I think first-generation immigrants and those with family from former and current socialist countries have a unique voice to add.
The Romanticization of Communism
Writing in the Harvard Crimson, Romanian student Laura Nicolae lambasts her peers for strutting around on campus in Che Guevara T-shirts and romanticizing communism:
Roughly 100 million people died at the hands of the ideology my parents escaped. They cannot tell their story. We owe it to them to recognize that this ideology is not a fad, and their deaths are not a joke.
Communism cannot be separated from oppression; in fact, it depends upon it. In a communist society, the collective is supreme. Personal autonomy is nonexistent. Human beings are simply cogs in a machine tasked with producing utopia: they have no value of their own.
In USA Today, Venezuelan student Daniel Di Martino recalls living under and fleeing Chavez/Maduro’s socialist regime and warns his adopted country not to embrace the failed statist policies that destroyed his homeland:
I watched what was once one of the richest countries in Latin America gradually fall apart under the weight of big government.
I didn’t need to look at statistics to see this but rather at my own family. When Chavez took office in 1999, my parents were earning several thousand dollars a month between the two of them. By 2016, due to inflation, they earned less than $2 a day. If my parents hadn’t fled the country for Spain in 2017, they’d now be earning less than $1 a day, the international definition of extreme poverty. Even now, the inflation rate in Venezuela is expected to reach 10 million percent this year.
Venezuela has become a country where a woeful number of children suffer from malnutrition, and where working two full-time jobs will pay for only 6 pounds of chicken a month.
Socialism Causes Destruction
I’ve heard plenty of horrific stories from my parents, who grew up in Maoist China, with regular food shortages and deprived of other basic needs we take for granted today. Censorship and ideological conformity were rigidly enforced in an environment that has been described as an “Auschwitz of the mind.” My mother’s grandfather and uncle were killed during the Cultural Revolution, for the crime of being privileged landlords. Red Guard thugs beat them to death with shovels and dumped their bodies in a nearby river—a favorite disposal site, which was used so frequently that the waters flowed red with blood.
Such ghastly accounts were common during that era. Communism produced destruction and death on an unprecedented scale in the world’s oldest civilization. The Red Guards destroyed more Chinese treasures and artifacts in one decade than the European imperialists and Japanese invaders combined. Millions perished. Tens of millions more were persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, beaten, or tortured (often in horrifically creative and sadistic ways). It was only after Mao’s death, once the chaos from the Cultural Revolution had subsided, that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms gradually (and still incompletely) opened up one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century.
Young people concerned about marginalized groups should be especially aware of the dangers of concentrating coercive power.
In 1993, as soon as the opportunity emerged, my mother immigrated to the US, with less than $200 in total assets. My father and I followed a few months later. Like so many others before us, we arrived as strangers in a new land, found freedom and opportunity, gradually assimilated into our adopted country and eventually worked ourselves into the upper middle class.
Many Immigrants Have Suffered Under Oppressive Governments
I feel an affinity with Cubans, Eastern Europeans, Koreans, Venezuelans, Vietnamese, and other first-generation immigrants who made similar choices, given the terrible circumstances they faced. As Jordan Peterson points out, despite coming from countries so different in geography, history, and culture, all their narratives share the pain of immense suffering under a government imposing socialist ideology. Immigrants who have experienced real material deprivation and systemic oppression firsthand truly understand and appreciate what it means to experience the blessings of liberty.
The resurgence of socialism in our adopted country has spurred many of us to speak out. This gives me hope as an American citizen concerned about the future of the country. As the United States becomes more diverse and technology makes it ever easier to make connections, it is time for us to reach out to socially conscious peers committed to making the world a better place.
Young people concerned about minorities and marginalized groups should be especially aware of the dangers of concentrating coercive power, even under democratic control. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the best foreign observers of the American political system, highlights democracy’s timeless problem, the tyranny of the majority:
In the United States, political questions cannot be taken up in so general and absolute a manner; and all parties are willing to recognize the rights of the majority, because they all hope at some time to be able to exercise them to their own advantage. The majority in that country, therefore, exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a power of opinion which is nearly as great; no obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress, so as to make it heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future.
Balancing Popular Sovereignty and Minority Rights
Although he was cautiously optimistic about the American experiment, Tocqueville could not see any legal guarantee or barrier to check the tyranny of the majority but the “circumstances and the manners of the country.”
Balancing the exercise of popular sovereignty, while protecting the rights of minorities, is an ongoing challenge in the age of globalization. Furthermore, minority status does not stop at ethnicity or religion. Consumer preferences and lifestyle choices differ widely among members of a pluralistic society. Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf raises serious questions about politicizing decision-making over the allocation of scarce resources:
How popular is Islam? How many Muslim prayer rugs would the democratic majority of workers vote to produce? How many Korans? How many head scarves? How much halal meat would be slaughtered? What share of construction materials would a majority of workers apportion to new mosques? Under capitalism, the mere existence of buyers reliably gives rise to suppliers. Relying instead on democratic decisions would pose a big risk for Muslims. And Sikhs. And Hindus. And Jews. And maybe even Catholics.
How important would worker majorities consider hair products for African-Americans? What if a majority of workers decided that only English-language commercial reading material should be printed in the United States? Would planning bodies decide for or against allocating materials for sex toys? Or binders for trans men? Or sexually explicit artwork?
Would you prefer a socialist society in which birth control is available if, and only if, a majority of workers exercise their democratic control assents? Or would you prefer a society in which private businesses can produce birth control, per their preference, in part because individuals possess economic rights as producers and consumers, the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned?
Socialism Fosters Corruption and Cronyism
These are not hypotheticals. Unorthodox beliefs, eccentric causes, unpopular groups, and dissident individuals will be thrown under the bus when a political majority can force their vision on everyone or when people need a scapegoat. No amount of propaganda or political will can eliminate the constraints of limited resources or the reality of human nature. The well-connected and unscrupulous have the most to gain from the growth and centralization of government power. Far from abolishing corruption, cronyism, and privilege, socialism delivers a megadose of the disease itself.
Tracing the rhetorical strategies of demagogues that come into power riding the wave of compassion and humanitarianism, economist Bryan Caplan notes that the “transition from bleeding heart to mailed fist is common.” To bring about the “abolition of capitalism,” the vision and openly stated goal of the Democratic Socialists of America, massive government control is all but required over people’s lives and livelihoods. As Matthew Harwood of the American Civil Liberties Union recognizes, social and personal freedoms, including the “individual’s liberty to think, speak, write, work, and associate as they wish” will have to be sacrificed at the altar of collectivization in a socialist political order.
Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek dedicated his classic The Road to Serfdom to “the socialists of all parties.” Acknowledging the sincerity of most egalitarian reformers, he nevertheless warns that central planning is inherently incompatible with liberal democracy:
That democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable, but that to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences, many will not believe until the connection has been laid bare in all its aspects.
The painful consequences were felt by tens of millions of Chinese, Cuban, Korean, Romanian, Russian, Venezuelan, and Vietnamese people. For them, the road to serfdom was not an academic thought experiment, but a lived experience.
Today’s internet generation grew up in a world in which the Cold War is a distant chapter in a history textbook—no wonder so many young people find it difficult to connect socialism to the tyranny, poverty, and oppression that have been the hallmarks of every self-described communist and socialist regime.
Mises and Individual Liberty
But, for first-generation immigrants from such countries, memories remain fresh. We know that monsters are real. My mentor Laura Tartakoff regularly documents human rights abuses from Cuba to China. The legacy of socialist tyranny is not over. It is our moral duty to share our stories and remind our fellow Americans that freedom should not be taken for granted.
The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises showed immense moral courage by standing virtually alone against the dominant socialist intellectual zeitgeist during the darkest days of the 20th century. Although his foes enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority and widespread institutional support in academia, journalism, and government, Mises continued to argue for individual liberty and never compromised his principles:
Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. No one can stand aside with unconcern: the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.
Vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the millions freed from socialist despotism, the ideas of Mises continue to inspire people today. By every major benchmark, today is the best time in history, thanks to the triumph of free peoples, free minds and free markets. We should be grateful for our inheritance and should make it even better. I am proud to add my voice to this intellectual battle. I hope more courageous young people with similar views and backgrounds do the same.