This is an idea that I was knocking around on social media with some friends recently and it seems to be more than just a passing fancy in the news cycle. It’s no secret that younger Americans are engaged in a dangerous flirtation with socialism these days, though it’s often couched in the defensive reflex to make sure they say “democratic socialism.” (In the interest of comity, some of us try to refrain from pointing out that “democratic socialism” is quite literally an oxymoron.)
But this new, youthful attraction to socialist leanings isn’t simply restricted to embracing certain socialist values and amplifying them in our republic. There’s a growing trend to condemn the entire concept of capitalism as the root of most of society’s evils. If you want to check out how this pervasive movement is infecting the commentariat, take a look at this opinion piece from Tom Krattenmaker at USA Today. As with many before him, Tom tries to sing some of the praises of capitalism but then cautions everyone that we need to somehow “fix” it before the young folks sail off entirely under a socialist flag.
If you are going to invoke capitalism’s superiority, you’re going to have to account for some of the ways it has been falling down on the job: its role in climate change, for instance, and the reality of new generations finding the system failing them. No, you can’t blame the latter on the up-and-comers being lazy. Because they’re not.
A case for capitalism can certainly be made. Some of those making it are Democratic presidential contenders, Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren among them. They are worth listening to because they are talking not only about capitalism’s selling points but also about the flaws and excesses in the system, and how these can be tempered for the sake of a capitalism that serves more people better.
Capitalism has worked wonders as a means of raising standards of living around the world. But there are cracks in its facade, and its champions are going to have to repair them, not paper them over. Conjuring the Red Menace is not enough.
If you read the author’s full account you’ll see that the main selling point here is the need to “fix” capitalism. The reasons given are many, and they no doubt build a compelling argument for aspiring young socialists who are afraid to take the plunge and invoke “the s-word” with a capital S. And yet, Krattenmaker is missing out on some of the tunes being played in progressive circles around the country.
I listen to a couple of non-political podcasts each week with significant followings that are hosted by people who are clearly on the far left when the conversation strays over into the realm of politics. And I’m increasingly hearing casual references to all of the supposed evils in the world being related to capitalism. (I’m not going to subtweet – or is that sub-blog? – any of them by calling them out here.) Rich people are bad. Elon Musk is trying to destroy the world for his own benefit. We’re not doing as well as our parents and it’s not fair because capitalism has poisoned the well.
The real cause of climate change? Capitalism. Nobody could get a decent job from 2007 to 2016? Capitalism is to blame. You can’t afford to buy a house? It’s the demon of capitalism.
Krattenmaker himself summons up the specter of climate change and challenges people face today. He refers to the era of “Greed is good” in the 80s as if everyone back then was rolling in dough and had a couple of homes in their twenties. Excuse me for pointing this out, but I lived through the whole Eisenhower through Reagan period and I didn’t have a ton of money or own my own home at an early age. I had to wait and save and work for it. Perhaps some of our younger folks today have taken too much of their impression of that period from movies.
The point is, the economy is now ramping back up. Unemployment is down and despite what Krattenmaker points out about some jobs, wages are starting to rise again. Nobody is locked out of buying a home if they’re willing to save money, put aside some instant gratification and work toward that as a goal. There are some jobs that are better than others, but you have to compete for them.
Capitalism isn’t without its flaws and our form of government is designed to rein in its worst case extremes by providing protection for workers and a social safety net. But that doesn’t make capitalism the problem. Democracy relies on a basis of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. The former is found in capitalism. The latter defines socialism. And the two are not compatible.