Public opinion polls over the last year show that over 50 percent of millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—have a positive view of socialism compared to a market-based economic system and society. The polls also suggest that when pressed to explain what they mean by “socialism,” these young respondents have nothing but a vague view of a government that “takes care of people” and provides “free stuff.”
This is what happens when a new generation does not know the reality of recent history.
This is unfortunate because the last century offered more than a laboratory experiment with real-life devastating consequences when societies accepted or had imposed on them systems of government command and control.
Nov. 7, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the socialist revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin. The stated ideal of its leaders and the belief of most of its followers was that it would create a bright and beautiful “new world.” The reality was a chamber of horrors.
The Human Cost of Building Socialism
Political scientist R.J. Rummel (1932–2014) spent his professional career studying the impact of tyranny and war on mankind in the 20th century. He calculated that upward of 64 million people might have been killed by the socialist regime in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1986. In the case of China under Chairman Mao, from the time he came to power in 1949 to his death in 1976, as many as 80 million men, women, and children may have perished in the name of a “workers’ paradise” for the Chinese people.
Adding up similar human costs in trying to create socialist societies in other countries, the total for the twentieth century is likely over 150 million people.
These tens of millions of human beings—innocent and unarmed men, women, and children—were killed through execution, torture, starvation, and slave labor. At the same time, those who lived and survived in these societies experienced the reality and the failure of socialist central planning.
Private property and free enterprise were done away with. The government nationalized or heavily regulated all agricultural production and industrial manufacturing. What was produced, how and where it was produced, and in what quantities and qualities were now determined and dictated by the government’s central planning agencies. From toothpaste to toilet paper, from clothes to canned corn, government bureaucracies determined the availability of everything, and to whom it was supplied.
The Poverty of Government Planning
I witnessed this in the last years of the Soviet Union, when I was traveling there on a fairly regular basis as a consultant on economic reforms. The government retail stores in Moscow were supposed to be the showcase for socialism. They either had empty shelves of those goods people really wanted or untouched shelves of shoddy, low-quality goods nobody wanted and wouldn’t buy.
Having long-ago abolished private businesses and outlawed the profit motive, there were no incentives for the state managers of the government enterprises to be concerned with or interested in producing and selling what the Russian people actually wanted to buy. They were answerable not to the consumers of the society whose demand for things would determine whether they earned a profit or suffered a loss, like under private enterprise.
No, those state enterprise managers merely had to fulfill the production quotas given to them by the central planning agencies. Meet those, and you keep your job, get a bonus, and are allowed access to special stores and choice vacation resorts supplied to you by the government.
This led to corruption and black markets. Since you often could not get what you needed or wanted through the official government retail stores, you turned to “connections,” with those having access to the things you might want, and got them to supply it to you through illegal bribes or some favor you could do for them through informal off-the-books exchanges for what they could do for you.
The Farce of Civil Liberty Under Socialism
At the same time, since the government was responsible for the producing and supplying of everything in society, this also placed matters of art, literature, music, and culture in general at the discretion of the same government planning agencies providing shirts, sandwiches, and soap.
The Soviet Constitution spoke of freedom of speech and the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. But in reality, the government controlled and restricted all of these, based on its own goals and attempts to limit or prevent any discontent or disagreement with what those in political power set as priorities and plans.
Controlling the supply of paper and the printing presses, the only books, newspapers, or magazines published were those planned for and approved by the socialist government leadership. Dissenting or opposing views never were allowed the light of day.
Recording studios for music, as well as movie and television production facilities, were likewise under the control and command of the government. The only music, movies, and television shows available to people were those the socialist planners considered consistent with a socialist vision and view of a good and healthy society—as decided by the government officials above the central planning bureaucrats.
There was an underground world of forbidden music, books, and films. But getting caught with any of them—as buyer or seller or user—could result in a long-term imprisonment, including to a forced labor camp, or even execution as an “anti-social” black marketeer and “enemy of the people.”
The Dictatorial Dead End of Socialism
Rather than the fair, equitable, and “just” society that socialism as an imaginary dream seemed to many people, its reality was a dismal, dirty, and discouraging world in which human beings had to conform to the dictates of the state and the planners. After all, with the end to private enterprise, the government was left as the only employer in town. Your entire future in terms of career, job, salary, living accommodations, and quality and standard of life was transferred from your own hands to that of those in political power.
This was socialism-in-practice in every country that attempted to fully implement that dream of a world without free enterprise, personal liberty, and freedom of association based on voluntary exchange and trade.
It will be no different if the millennial generation gets their wish to live under a future socialism.
Richard Ebeling is the BB&T distinguished professor of ethics and free enterprise leadership at the military college The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.