Millennial Malaise: Why Young People Are Turning to Socialism

This post was written by Jacob Bruggeman, a student at Miami University (OH) and a member of Miami's AEI Executive Council.

“The post-­Cold War capitalist order has failed us,” declared Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation. Leonard recently wrote of “today’s under-35s,” pronouncing this demographic as economically distraught, and thus now “more in need of a robust leftist platform than ever.”

How forgetful and careless Leonard is, to invoke memories of the trials of the Cold War and then proclaim capitalism as “something to fear, not celebrate.” The decades of the Cold War witnessed millions perish from famine and the use of state power under communist and socialist regimes. Indeed, as scholars have shown, collectivism in the 20th century cost humanity 65 million lives in China, 20 million in the USSR, and 2 million—one quarter of the population at the time—in Cambodia. Many millions more suffered, teetering on the edge of death, but were eventually saved by freer societies in the West and liberated by the forces of the market.

Translating the collectivist impulse into government action has been shown to result only in unspeakable horrors. What is more, the post-Cold War capitalist order has not, in fact, failed—as socialist regimes, their downfalls so painfully memorable, have—and the data are conclusive.

As reported by the World Bank, the number of people living on $1.90 a day has almost been cut in half, the number dropping from 1,840,000,000 people in 1990—almost two billion people, constituting over one-fourth of the global population—to 777,000,000 people in 2013. Furthermore, in the past 40 years the world has witnessed the percentage of undernourished people in the world cut in half. Yet, unsurprisingly, Leonard seems to be unaware of these data.

Bono, the lead singer of U2 and a dedicated fighter of poverty, on the other hand, is not. In fact, Bono has finally “found what [he’s] looking for” in his fight against poverty. “[I’m a] rock star preaching capitalism,” acknowledging, as he now does, that “commerce is real,” that “commerce—entrepreneurial capitalism—takes more people out of poverty than aid.” The post-Cold War capitalist order has enabled economies to grow, thus lifting billions of lives out of poverty.

In Leonard’s view, though, millennials in the West are now constrained by the market. The data, Leonard notes, evidence a decline in millennials’ economic opportunity: “The post-Cold War capitalist order has failed us: Across Europe and the United States, millennials are worse off than their parents were and are too poor to start new families. In the United States, they are loaded with college debt (or far less likely to be employed without a college degree) and are engaged in precarious and non-unionized labor. Also the earth is melting.

Because some millennials have experienced economic struggles of late, and thus are “ready to grab” the “left wing […] torch and run with it,” Leonard leads readers to think that capitalism has failed this demographic. But less than a solid argument for capitalism’s failure as an economic system, Leonard’s avalanche of evidence is a cri de coeur, a panging of the heart. It is an argument full of desperate pathos, aimed at those of us who have been blighted by, and are in the recovery from, recent economic crises.

These data, pulled together as they are to form the core of Leonard’s claim that the post-Cold War capitalist order has failed modern economies, amount to not much more than an argumentum ad lazarum. Yet, given the extraordinary global economic data mentioned above—which is far more telling of a global system’s successes or failures than Generation Y’s income over the past 30 years—Leonard cannot substantiate her claim that capitalism has failed the world since the collapse of the USSR.

Leonard does not see this battle as one to be fought by, say, starting a small business—29 million of which are in the United States, and from which we are provided with 60 to 80 percent of all new jobs. Instead, Leonard fights for democratic socialism’s implementation in the United States; forgetting, it seems, the failures of socialism in the 20th century, of which there is an all too extensive and painful historical record. Her enemies reside in, and her battles will be fought on, “Wall Street and in the City of London.”

I do not reject Leonard’s repulsion at the ways in which the young, myself included, are being deprived of economic opportunity, encumbered by ever-increasing loan balances, and robbed of global environmental stability. Nevertheless, her claim of capitalism’s failure is inconsistent with the global poverty data mentioned above, and all of us should find folly in the rapidity with which she would embrace socialism, ‘democratic’ as it may be, and disregard the explosion of economic growth and opportunity in the United states over the past half century—an explosion produced by the post-Cold War capitalist order. Neither do I—a quasi-leftist and registered Democrat—reject at face considering collectivist approaches to today’s pressing economic problems; however, I do reject the reckless abandon with which Leonard proposes we embrace democratic socialism. Indeed, crucial to health of the collective is the freedom of the citizens that constitute it.

The collectivism to which Leonard calls us will produce neither a viable global economic system, nor a replacement for capitalism in the United States—a country in which our historical inheritance and general welfare call us to steward this great system in which we live, in which each of us is free to pursue our self-interests in such a way that benefits the common good.

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