By Alan W. Dowd
Nearly 50 percent of American adults born since 1981 (the Millennial Generation and Generation Z) say they would “prefer living in a socialist country.” Harvard polling reveals that 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 reject capitalism outright. For anyone who believes in freedom and in America’s role defending freedom, these numbers are cause for worry—and action. With capitalism in the crosshairs, it’s time to educate these generations about the benefits of free enterprise—and the problems of socialism. People of faith can make this case with a clear conscience
Whereas there was once a stigma attached to socialism, today it’s capitalism that has become a four-letter word in some circles.
That’s regrettable and worrisome, because capitalism is really just another term for free enterprise and free markets—the system that has shaped America and fueled much of the world’s progress. Characterized by high levels of individual liberty, private ownership of property and freedom of choice, this way of organizing an economy and meeting the needs of society, while imperfect, has proven more effective than any of the alternatives humanity has tried.
Socialism—an economic system characterized by high levels of state control, government intervention and wealth redistribution—is one of those alternative systems. Indeed, it was the main alternative to free enterprise for much of the 20th century, until its chief proponent—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—failed.
For a time, the Soviet system’s collapse served as proof of the futility of socialism and the superiority of capitalism—especially among Americans. But with new generations coming of age that lack the firsthand memory and/or the historical understanding of the problems associated with socialism (Millennials and Generation Z will represent 37 percent of the electorateby 2020), America’s default distaste for socialism is disappearing. Speaking of the Soviet system, only 55 percent of Millennials think “communism was and still is a problem.” Sadly, they either don’t know or don’t care that communism was responsible for 100 million murders in the 20th century.
Equally sad, many political leaders seem more interested in tapping into this treasure trove of new voters than in educating them on socialism’s record, which explains the torrent of socialist rhetoric and legislation: calls for government control over corporations, universal income stipends, nationalizing healthcare, and reengineering America’s entire housing infrastructure and energy grid according to standards determined by government’s “commanding heights.”
What’s this socialist revival have to do with faith and foreign policy?
Regarding our faith, while the Bible never explicitly endorses free-market economics, it has much to say about freedom, work, property and wealth—and how we should use those things to serve our fellow man and reflect our Lord.
Genesis tells us God gave mankind a vast garden to tend and a free will to use. From this, we can gather that we are made to be productive, to work, and to be sovereign and free. Freedom was the natural state of man in the beginning. Indeed, the story of God’s people is one of freedom misused, lost and regained. God wants us to be free—free to choose His path or another, free from the shackles of sin, free from Pharaoh and Haman and Caesar, free from Lenin and Hitler and Stalin, and free to decide how to use the wealth generated by the work we do. The more of that wealth that’s confiscated by government, the more freedom is diminished.
Governments have been promising to end poverty for centuries. All of them have failed. Why is that? The problem of poverty is surely a function of our fallen nature. As a result, some people are poor because of their own choices; some because of the choices of others; some through no fault of their own and no apparent fault of anyone else. There is an inherent unfairness and unjustness in our broken world. As Jesus sighed when He gazed upon our brokenness, “The poor you will always have with you.” And so, one of the constants of scripture is the challenge to pursue justice and to help the poor.
The redistribution of wealth—which is at the core of socialism—fails on both counts. Consider that Washington has redistributed some $22 trillion waging war on poverty since 1964. Yet “the percentage of Americans dependent on government has remained virtually unchanged,” according to Heritage Foundation research.
To be sure, a good and great nation should provide a safety net where it’s most needed. But there must be limits on what government takes to maintain that safety net, or else government runs the risk of discouraging enterprise. And there must be limits on the size of the safety net, or else government runs the risk of encouraging idleness.
As to fairness and justice, scripture’s repeated message is that it’s wrong for anyone—even a king—to take what is not his. The Ten Commandments teach us, “You shall not steal…you shall not covet your neighbor’s house…or anything that is your neighbor’s.” These commands apply to the rich and poor alike. Proverbs teaches, “He who tends the fig tree will eat its fruit.” Paul adds, “the hard-working farmer…ought to have the first share of the crops.”
The one who works the land, makes the sale, designs the operating system, repairs the refrigerator has earned the right to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Those advocating for socialism need to explain how it is just for government to confiscate her wealth and give it to someone who didn’t earn it—yet unjust for her to deploy her wealth as she deems fit.
This is not to rationalize selfishness. Selfishness is a sin against God and our fellow man, especially against the poor. God cares deeply about helping the poor and promoting justice, which means we should as well. Jesus identifies with the poor, the thirsty, the naked, the sick. He asks His followers to see Him in their needs—and to use our wealth to help them. Importantly, He doesn’t make us; He asks. Consider the Church of Acts: “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea,” and “From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
As socialists point out, these verses are echoed in the Marxist slogan “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” What they fail to notice or note is that Marx envisioned the state forcing people to hand over their wealth for redistribution, while the Church asked believers to give as each “decided.”
There’s an enormous difference between these worldviews. Just as God wants us to love Him because we choose to do so, He wants us to share our blessings with those in need because we choose to—not because we’re ordered to.
Our challenge is to help Millennials and Generation Z recognize that free enterprise addresses humanity’s enduring problems better than the alternatives. Free enterprise allows for wealth creation, which free people can use to help those in need. Indeed, where and when the free enterprise system falls short is where and when people of faith must step up.
Defense and Dependency
No government—no matter how benevolent or powerful—can meet all the needs and wants of all people. Consider the Soviet Union, which controlled every aspect of the economy, turned the individual into a cog of the state and adopted the most extreme form of socialism. Yet it failed to meet the basic needs of its people. But don’t take my word for it. Mikhail Gorbachev recalls how, as the Soviet Union collapsed around him, “I was ashamed for my country—perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn’t provide toothpaste for our people.”
Or consider the Koreas. Communist North Korea’s GDP is $28.5 billion, per-capita GDP $1,700 (215th in the world) and average life expectancy 70 years. Capitalist South Korea’s GDP is $2.02 trillion (15th in the world), per-capita GDP $39,400 (47th in the world) and average life expectancy 82 years. As James Morris noted when he headed the World Food Program, “The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a ten-year-shorter life expectancy than his seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea.”
The free market is anything but perfect. It has flaws, excesses and limitations. However, the Koreas illustrate that it’s more effective, humane and just than socialism. And a growing body of research shows that higher levels of free enterprise correlate with better environmental outcomes than socialism (see here and here), less corruption, more education opportunities, better health care, higher living standards, and less poverty. If America ceases to recognize this, America and the world will be worse off.
That brings us to foreign policy. The effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy is partly related to the liberal values it promotes, partly to the military muscle it possesses. But both of these are tied to the U.S. economy. America’s reach and role overseas have always been a function of America’ economic strength at home. If those advocating a lurch toward socialism have their way, America’s economic dynamism will diminish—and with it America’s ability to influence the world and defend itself.
The drive to expand existing programs and create new programs is increasing the cost of government in an unsustainable way. Safety net and redistribution programs already account for 50 percent of federal spending (up from 40 percent in 2009 and 26 percent in 1974), while defense accounts for 15.2 percent of federal spending (down from 21 percent in 2009 and 30 percent in 1974). Simply put, on our current spending trajectory, there won’t be much money left for defense. And if Washington adopts a socialist agenda enfolding Medicare for All ($3 trillion annually), the Green New Deal ($51.1 trillion over 10 years) and Jobs for All ($2 trillion annually), there won’t be any money for defense. “Socialist governments,” as Margaret Thatcher wryly observed, “always run out of other people’s money.”
While it would still be misguided, this socialist revival—with its withering away of defense—wouldn’t be so dangerous if our enemies were beating their swords into plowshares. But Russia is rearming and redrawing Europe’s map. China is annexing vast swaths of the open seas. Jihadist terrorism is lapping at civilization. Rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea are menacing U.S. allies and interests.
In short, this is no time to idle the furnace that fires the arsenal of democracy. Civilization still needs America’s military, which means America’s military needs resources, which means America needs a growing economy. That won’t be possible if Americans choose the stagnation of socialism over the vitality of free enterprise.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.