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Millennials use the word ‘socialism’ — and may not know what it means

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For conservatives and libertarians, the news that millennials are embracing socialism is frightening. They shouldn’t fear, because the United States is not going to nationalize the economy any time soon. That’s because the word “socialism” doesn’t mean what our newfound socialists use it to mean.

To people who don’t like it, socialism means “state control over the means of production.” Turn to your nearest dictionary and you’ll find something like that. But it means something different to the people who use the term as a positive thing. Your coworker’s son who wants to take America in a socialist direction? He simply wants more government.

{mosads}Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asks for higher taxes and more redistribution of wealth. He’s not calling for the state to own the factories.

All those people advocating for socialism are not calling for the dictionary definition of socialism.

Yes, bigger government can start to look like state control of the means of production. Our medical industries are heading more and more toward state control. But the intent of most Americans using the term socialism is not state control.

Remembering the distinction between bigger government and state control of the economy can help the rest of us communicate with the people who are self-declared socialists or think the United States can use more socialism. It will help prevent us from assigning false or unintended attributes to them. If you think your socialist friend really is calling for the end of private property, when in fact he’s calling for mandatory maternity leave, your political conversations won’t go far. You’ll just be shadowboxing in Plato’s cave.  

That trend for younger people to have a positive association with socialism makes some sense. I’m an older millennial, so I vaguely remember the world before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but many millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — do not. The dictionary definition of socialism is not an active force in the world, let alone a menace to the free peoples of the world. It’s relegated to backward dictators of failing nations.

True, socialists exist in the different coalitions of European governments. But the social democrats and socialist parts in Europe are political factions that exist to exercise power. They are not ideological movements designed to bring about some socialist utopia. Instead, they push for more government spending on social programs and higher taxes. They work for pragmatic policies within what we at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy call the Overton Window.

And those socialists have had success and gotten some big government programs. But their countries wind up with that strange mixed economy where big government and free-market policies coexist. As contradictory as that may seem on an ideological level, just note that no country is the embodiment of any ideology, and modern democracies reflect the ideas of their citizens — whose ideas, even at the individual level, often conflict.

There are bona fide Karl Marx-loving socialists in the United States and Europe. European parliamentarianism gives them a little more legitimacy and some avenues to pursue hard socialism that appears only around the fringes of American political discourse.

The use of the word “socialism” to mean big government may be surprising when American political discourse already has a term for big government tendencies: liberal. The term gets used by conservative commentators when discussing people who call for more government spending.

Yet the term “liberal” leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who support socialism. It’s too tied into traditional party politics and the national debate between conservatives and liberals. The people who argue for socialism are not pushing primarily for Democrats to be elected. They want the policies, and not necessarily the politicians.

To conservatives and libertarians, talking about the distinction between socialism and liberalism might feel like an argument about different shades of the same color. That’s fine; libertarians and conservatives are not the ones being wooed by the term “socialism.” But the people who oppose it at least should understand how people who like it use the term.

You could argue that libertarians and conservatives are right to think that our new socialists are simply misusing the word. The dictionary has a pretty black-and-white definition, after all. Except that, political discourse evolves; it responds to fashion and taste. “Liberal” used to mean the opposite of what it does today, at least in America, frustrating the people who now insist on being called a “classical liberal.”

These days, if you hear people spouting the benefits of socialism, don’t assume that they’re talking about the socialism you probably loathe. They’re more likely talking about promoting big government — and more of it.

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.

Tags Bernie Sanders Economic ideologies Libertarianism Political philosophy Social democracy Socialism Socialist economics

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