Walter Block: Why Is Socialism So Popular?


Why is socialism so popular?

Why do Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attract such large crowds, especially of young people, to hear their economic nostrums? (We are talking here of coercive socialism, not the voluntary variety of the kibbutz or the commune.)

One answer is that Hollywood is a preserve of the left, as are the universities, the pulpit, the major media. Elementary school teachers drum these schemes into their charges and this continues unabated into the high schools and beyond.

This goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of socialism, but how do we account for this state of the world in the first place?

Milton Friedman once blamed the war in Vietnam for this sad state of affairs.

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Young leftists took advantage of the university deferment from the draft; rightists fought abroad. The former subsequently took over the campus. This has undoubted explanatory power, but how did the future academic radicals initially attain their viewpoints?

This might explain the sad state of academia, but what of the rest of the culture?

We have to dig deeper. One possible explanation stems from biology: We are hardwired to be socialists, except for the few of us who are in effect mutants. Say what?

This account is based on the fact that eons ago, when our grandparents were in the caves, we lived in groups of only a few dozen, most of whom were relatives.

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If a man came back from the hunt with a deer and didn’t share it, he was booted out of the tribe and tended to leave fewer progeny than would otherwise have been the case. Egalitarianism springs from such a source.

In Tribe A, if someone was sick this week, you helped him. Next week, you were ill, and he reciprocated. Tribe B had no such practices. We stem from the former, not the latter. Hence we for the most part tend in the direction of being amiable with one another. This is the source of benevolence.

But whence sprang our instinctive predilection toward free enterprise? We also have some of that, but it is far weaker. Few of our ancestors engaged in what Adam Smith called “bartering and trucking.”

Markets, where people dealt with others in an arm’s length manner, came far later in human history. Cordiality, then, is far more deeply embedded in most of us than profit-seeking is. Many of us missed out when they were handing out the “gene” for appreciating the “invisible hand.”

This is why most people recoil in disgust at markets in used body parts. The thought of selling a part of yourself is loathsome. Our biology calls for us to donate kidneys for free. That is the decent thing to do.

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As a result, at a zero price control, some 80,000 Americans are condemned to kidney dialysis machines, and many of them die before their time. Were supply allowed to be equated with demand, via a free price system, such tragedies could be avoided.

“Obscene” profits are reviled. Gordon Gekko opined that “greed is good,” but our hardwiring recoils at any such insight. Ditto for profiteering, price gouging and all the rest. It is difficult to overcome biological hardwiring.

We still have free will. Our tendency to distrust the free enterprise system can indeed be overcome. But trying to convince people of the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism goes against the grain of many, especially the youth.

According to that old adage: “If a person is not a socialist at 20 years of age, he has no heart; if he still supports socialism at 50, he has no brain.”

Maybe there is still hope for us. Our present generation of young socialists will one day grow up.

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Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at the College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute.
Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at the College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute.

He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas.

He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books and thousands of Op-Eds for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows.

He was the the 2011 Schlarbaum Laureate at the Mises Institute and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008), the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Dux Academicus Award, Loyola University, 2007.

Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shaken his hand. He has never washed that hand since.