9 March 2023

Many young Brits really do want socialism – how can they be convinced it’s a bad idea?


It’s something of a cliché for us old fogeys to shake their heads at the attitudes of the younger generations. ‘Kids these days…’ and all that. Nevertheless, the news that a majority of British millennials and ‘Zoomers’ think socialism would be ‘the ideal economic system’ for the UK is still a cause for concern. A majority of people in the same age group (56%) also believe that a ‘shift to socialism in the United Kingdom would improve the economy and well-being of Britons’ – and only one in ten (9%) disagree.

These are some of the findings of an alarming new report published by the Fraser Institute, a Canadian free-market think tank, in cooperation with the Foundation for Teaching Economics in the US, the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia, and the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK.

The report’s findings are, to some extent, a confirmation of what we already know. Over the past seven years or so, there have been plenty of surveys which show that Millennials (people born between the early 1980s and the mid-to-late 1990s) and Zoomers (people born since then) in the English-speaking world tend to support socialist ideas. But it also adds some novel insights.

One problem with previous surveys was that it was often not quite clear what exactly people mean by ‘socialism’. Do they really mean the dictionary definition of socialism, ie ‘governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution’? Sure, the more active and outspoken socialists clearly do, and they say so very explicitly. But there are also plenty of people who confuse ‘socialism’ with social democracy, and plenty more who use the term to describe a fluffy set of values rather than an economic system. 

The Fraser Institute’s report tries to account for this in two ways. Firstly, they repeat the same question, but replace the word ‘socialism’ with the more radical-sounding and less ambiguous term ‘communism’. In some countries and age groups, this makes a huge difference. In Canada, for example, support for ‘socialism’ drops by more than 30 percentage points when you call it ‘communism’ instead.

But this pattern is not repeated everywhere. Among British Millennials and Zoomers, support also drops, but much less dramatically. Remarkably, one in four Zoomers, and one in three Millennials, believe that “the ideal economic system for the United Kingdom is communism”.  

The pollsters also asked people more directly by presenting them with three (not mutually exclusive) possible definitions of socialism. Two of those options describe arrangements that could exist under both capitalism and socialism, namely “government providing a minimum guaranteed income”, and government extending the provision of services like healthcare, education, and childcare. The other option is a simplified version of the dictionary definition: socialism means ‘the government taking control of companies and industries to control the economy’

The former two options are uncontroversial. Across virtually all countries and age groups, a clear majority agrees that socialism involves a guaranteed minimum income and/or state provision of services. 

Results for the classic definition are more mixed. In Canada, there are more people who reject that definition than people who accept it. It therefore seems fair to say that the apparent popularity of ‘socialism’ there is more of a semantic confusion. But the same is not true in the UK: almost half (46%) of British Millennials and Zoomers accept the classic definition, while only one in four (23%) reject it. Among those who support socialism (and this is surely the subgroup that matters), 56% accept the classic definition. 

In short, when surveys indicate that the majority of young and middle-aged Britons want to live under socialism, we need not take this entirely at face value. Not all of them want to overthrow capitalism, and turn us into the Socialist People’s Republic of Britain. Then again, a fair few of them really do. And this should concern those of us who still hold the unfashionable opinion that capitalism is a lot better than its reputation suggests.

So what can be done?

Broadly speaking – we need both a ‘materialist’ and an ‘idealist’ response. 

We know from previous studies that high housing costs tend to push people in a leftward direction. Britain’s self-inflicted housing crisis is therefore the perfect breeding ground for a socialism revival. Conservatives, in particular, need to understand that they cannot just be the party of Nimbyism. 

But we also need to get better at debunking the fatal misunderstanding that socialism was a noble idea, which has just been ‘distorted’ or ‘badly implemented’ in practice. Socialism has been tried many times, and every socialist experiment has ended in abject failure. Whenever this happens, socialists avoid taking responsibility by claiming that this was simply not ‘real’ socialism. Thus far, they have always managed to get away with this. We should no longer let them.

Socialist leaders of the past did not start out with the intention of creating horrible dictatorships. They started out with ideals remarkably similar to those of modern-day socialists. There are systematic reasons why socialism always leads to tyranny and destitution, and these reasons do not depend on the intentions of the people in charge.

This is difficult to explain, especially when you are debating an opponent who is talking in clichés, soundbites, and clever-sounding abstract waffle. But this is the challenge we have to rise to.

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Dr Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.