Scott Sumner  

First as tragedy, then as farce

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You Can't Benefit from Free Tr... Ricardo Hausmann on the Venezu...

Countries such as China and Russia are reluctant to come to terms with their history. Many of their residents are unaware of the horrors perpetrated by Mao and Stalin. I suppose that's no big surprise; people prefer to see their country's history in a positive light. More surprising is that young people in America and Britain also seem unaware of the horrors of socialism. Indeed polls show that under 25 voters in the UK favor Labour over the Conservatives by a 3 to 1 margin. And that's largely due to their strong support for the Labour leader (and odds on favorite to be the next British Prime Minister), Jeremy Corbyn.

Now you might argue that Corbyn is a European social democrat, not one of those bad socialists. But that's not really true. He's a big fan of Hugo Chavez's policies in Venezuela, and also Fidel Castro. His top aides include an apologist for North Korea and also a fan of Trotsky and Lenin. He really is a socialist.

And so is the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio:

what's been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there's a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that's the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development.

I'll give you an example. I was down one day on Varick Street [in the pricey Tribeca neighborhood], somewhere close to Canal, and there was a big sign out front of a new condo saying, "Units start at $2 million." And that just drives people stark raving mad in this city, because that kind of development is clearly not for everyday people. It's almost like it's being flaunted. Look, if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be stringent income requirements around income levels and rents. . . .

The problem is at the top end. In very few ways can we address the rampant growth of wealth among the one percent. The state and the federal government have the power to do that. . . . It frustrates me greatly that we don't have the power here to tax the wealthy in this city.


Sounds kind of like the "Red" London mayor Ken Livingstone, who ended up making peace with neoliberalism.

The National Review article where I found this quotation points out that de Blasio has been almost completely ineffective. And yet he remains popular, and is likely to win re-election overwhelmingly. Similarly, Trump's hard core supporters don't seem to perturbed by his lack of tangible accomplishments.

Jeremy Corbyn is no fan of free trade, and has always been somewhat skepticial of the EU. In contrast, his youthful supporters are huge fans of the EU, which is about as far from Venezuelan-style socialism as you can get. The EU actually has lots of regulations requiring free markets.

Similarly, I'd wager that lots of de Blasio's young supporters prefer a ride-sharing free market with companies like Uber and Lyft, over the regulated taxi cartel favored by de Blasio. Based on the track record of de Blasio, Livingstone, and Trump, I wonder if a Corbyn government would actually deliver much change to the UK.

Perhaps the modern infatuation with socialism is based on a combination of ignorance and fashion. They don't know anything about real world socialism, but think it sounds kind of cool. Thus those with Mao posters on their walls don't actually favor murdering rich people (many of their parents are rich) and those wearing Che t-shirts don't actually favor the sort of barbaric executions that he engaged in. It's just a pose.

Polls show that Trump supporters overwhelmingly support the DACA program, even though abolishing this program was a big part of the anti-immigrant movement that helped propel Trump to power.

I find all this rather depressing, but maybe I should look on the bright side. Maybe it's actually good news that socialism and fascism (in the West) are no longer actual policies that kill millions, rather just fashion statements.

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PS. If modern politics isn't really about anything, what happens if someday we accidentally elect someone who really means it.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Mark writes:

Tribal identification probably isn't very meaningful as far as predicting their particular beliefs at a given moment, but it may indicate openness to particular beliefs (like the ones troubling Scott).

If a true believer regales the yuppy soft-core 'socialist' with sob stories of cab drivers disemployed by Uber or how little bargaining power Uber drivers have, or stories of poor people losing their houses to foreclosures by big bad banks (or regales a Trump supporter with stories of factory workers losing their jobs to immigrants), do we think they will be steadfast in their opposition to extreme policies? Or will the Kerensky/Robles supporters mostly be content to support Lenin/Franco too when the time comes?

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

The continuing appeal of socialism is a puzzle to folk who are aware of the history. But that is based on a view of history as a past which informs and constrains, not history as the glorious future to be built. There is also a lack of a serious thought-out alternative to "capitalism", so there is a certain default appeal. A wise friend helped me grasp these points.

Thaomas writes:

The views that Scott addresses are quite troubling, but I doubt that more generalized knowledge of the historical failures of Socialism would help much. A naive belief in rent controls just does not feel to the believer like "socialism." Moreover, in the US the historical mislabeling of modest market interventions like ACA as "Socialism," and Liberals like Barack Obama as a "Socialist," have drawn the sting of the word.

My (Neo-liberal) solution is to encourage people who are troubled by "soft socialist" beliefs to join in developing attractive alternatives to problems. Given where we are now in policy space, I think this will in most cases require a trade-off of greater explicit redistribution for better market outcomes -- carbon taxes for "green" subsidies, higher EITC for minimum wage, progressive consumption tax for eliminating business taxes, etc.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Scott, you might want to check out if you are correctly ideologically placed here. It is a striking list you are included in ...

Scott Sumner writes:

Thanks everyone, good comments.

Lorenzo, I'm honored to be included on that list. I don't have a problem with the placement.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

The real question is not Corbyn's political beliefs but whether he offers a better alternative to Theresa May and the bankrupt Conservative party. Fortunately, as a US citizen it's not my decision to make.

With respect to the de Blasio comments, is he saying anything different from what Jane Jacobs wrote back in 1962 with her book, "The Life and Death of Great American Cities?" At the time it was Jacobs vs Robert Moses as regards to the future of Manhattan.

We are seeing the same thing play out here in downtown Bethesda MD with lots of high rise condo and apartments being built that are only affordable to 2 high income earners. 2 Bedroom condos start at about $1.5M and contrast that with my paid off 3 bedroom 2 1/2bath split level that is probably worth only $750K despite being only a mile away from all this new construction. My wife and I joke that if we had to move out of our home we could not afford to live in our neighborhood any longer.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Good on the placement, kudos for the inclusion ...

Larry writes:

Socialism-of-intent is appealing because it allows unlimited preening. We probably need a dose to educate the youth about how incredibly bad the results are.

TMC writes:

"Similarly, Trump's hard core supporters don't seem to perturbed by his lack of tangible accomplishments."

Many people are pleased with the rollback of Obama era regulations, the main brake the economy has had in the past four years. I also like his Supreme, and lower court judge picks significantly more than Obama's.

Foreign policy finally has people in charge of it that seem to know what they are doing; the flood of illegal border crossings has been cut by more than half; he fired 500 incompetents from the VA (instead of promoting them when they fail), authorized the pipelines, and got out of the TPP and Paris Accords.


As for the illegal DACA. He put legislating law back to Congress to allow them to pass it legally. A very good president.

I can't say I like everything he has done, but there are many wins there.

E. Harding writes:

"Thus those with Mao posters on their walls don't actually favor murdering rich people (many of their parents are rich) and those wearing Che t-shirts don't actually favor the sort of barbaric executions that he engaged in. It's just a pose."

It isn't a pose, but most of them will grow out of it.

Cjones1 writes:

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Liz writes:

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