Self-identified socialists don’t know what they’re talking about

Back to Article
Back to Article

Self-identified socialists don’t know what they’re talking about

Raka Sarkar / Staff Illustrator.

Raka Sarkar / Staff Illustrator.

Raka Sarkar / Staff Illustrator.

Raka Sarkar / Staff Illustrator.

By Jordan Drischler / Columnist

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Lost in the chants of “Make America great again!” and the “I’m with her” hashtags is a potentially more serious — and longer-lasting — effect of the 2016 presidential election: millennials’ acceptance of socialism.

This election season, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders’ primary performance gave credence to socialism as a mainstream political and economic ideology, with much of his support coming from young voters.

According to a May 2016 poll by Gallup, 55 percent of millennials — the segment of the population born between 1980 and 2000 — have a favorable view of socialism.

But while millennials seem eager to jump on the socialism bandwagon, fewer are willing to agree with a technical definition of the term. A 2014 report by the Reason Foundation stated that only 16 percent of millennials were able to accurately define socialism — which means the government has at least some form control of the economy.

An accepted definition of socialism is an economic and social system in which the community as a whole — rather than individuals — controls the means of production. This includes governmental control.

This inability to agree upon a technical definition has led to the spread of inaccuracies about both socialist and free market economics, perhaps none of which are cited as often as the supposed success of Scandinavian socialism.

Sanders himself invoked this line of reasoning in the first Democratic debate while defending his “democratic socialism,” arguing that Americans should look to countries like Denmark when developing economic policy.

There’s one small problem, though, when looking to these Nordic nations as an example of socialism’s success: They’re not socialist. This has led to a muddled and dishonest discussion regarding the economic model as well as people justifying their support of a term based on a completely different system. People attempting to compare economic systems are instead comparing collections of inaccurate talking points.

In reality, the means of production in Scandinavian countries are controlled by the market and owned by private companies and individuals, not the government. So how did the myth of Scandinavian socialism come to be so popular? The answer is in a closer look at its history.

Take Sweden, for example. Once a poor country, its economy surged under a capitalist system from the early to mid-20th century. At this point, it enjoyed tax rates lower than the U.S. Then in the 1970s, Sweden doubled its tax burden, regulated its market and saw massive government intervention. It is this period encompassing the 70s and 80s that forever linked the term socialism with its economy. Incidentally, this period resulted in a decline in economic growth. The fourth-wealthiest country in 1970, by 1993 Sweden was fourteenth in this category.

Despite this, much of Sweden’s success during the previous decade still lingered into this period of government intervention. As a result, many credited this success to the increase in government programs.

Following overhauls once again in the early 90s and again with the election of the Moderate Party as the majority in 2006, Sweden returned to a free market economy. But some aspects, including universal health care and high tax rates, remained. These lingering effects of Sweden’s socialist era has led to individuals incorrectly labeling their current, largely free market economy as socialist.

A similar trend is in descriptions of other nations in the region, such as Norway and Denmark. In fact, so many people have invoked Denmark as a model for successful socialism, that Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen felt compelled to right the fiction.

“I know that some people in the U.S. 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,” Rasmussen stated in a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last October.

Furthermore, in its annual Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, in partnership with the Wall Street Journal, ranked Denmark as having the twelfth freest economy in the world -— just one place behind the United States.

This is not just an argument over technical nomenclature.

Incorrectly using socialism to describe the economic models of these nations is dishonest and deceiving and has stifled what could be a productive debate about the role of government in the economy. Supporters in the United States claim they strive to implement the Nordic model of socialism and therefore promise the same results. But as their policy proposals are drastically different from the free market system of Sweden and the like, they are promising the same results from two different systems.

So if you’re a millennial caught up in the Sanders revolution and are looking to socialism to bring about the social harmony and economic success of Scandinavia, ask yourself if what you support is in line with the technical definition of socialism or if you instead support a model like that of Nordic nations. If it is the latter, be advised that you should be looking to the free market — not socialism — to encourage similar prosperity.

As Corey Iacono, a Thorpe Fellow with the Foundation for Economic Education, summarized, “Sanders has convinced a great deal of people that socialism is something that it is not, and he has used the Scandinavian countries to prove its efficacy while ignoring the many ways they deviate, sometimes dramatically, from what Sanders himself advocates.”

For example, the countries of Scandinavia have no government-regulated minimum wage, a major component of the platform of those who wish to implement a form of socialism in the U.S.

Scandinavian nations are also some of the most globalized countries in the world and have been described by The Economist as “stout free-traders.” This is in sharp contrast to the position of Bernie Sanders, who penned a New York Times op-ed this June stating, “Let’s be clear. The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and around the world.”

So be cautious when invoking other nations to support your proposals. You may be comparing apples to oranges while leaving those in need starved.

Write to Jordan at

Leave a comment.