Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The spectre of socialism in America

President Trump.
President Trump. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A spectre is haunting America — the spectre of socialism.

Question: Who said the following? “I believe that all good things taken to an extreme can be self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism . . . The income/wealth/opportunity gap is leading to dangerous social and political divisions that threaten our cohesive fabric and capitalism itself.” If there is no reform, “we will have great conflict and some form of revolution …”

No, it was not Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, nor Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. It was Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, which has around $125 billion of assets under management. Dalio himself has an estimated net worth of $18 billion. In a recent essay published on LinkedIn, he tore into the system that has made him a billionaire.


You can see why the capitalists are nervous. Last week, Bernie and AOC joined forces to propose new legislation to “take on Wall Street greed” by capping credit card interest rates at 15 percent (the “Loan Shark Prevention Act”). Also last week, AOC endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up the big technology companies. And let’s not forget February’s “Green New Deal,” with its “10-year national mobilisation” plan and its guarantee of “economic security” for people “unable or unwilling to work.”

It used to be a favorite question of the political scientists: Why was there no socialism in the United States? Werner Sombart asked it in 1906. He attributed it to the unpolitical character of the American trade unions; a national culture that revered capitalism and the Constitution; the stability of the two-party system; and the American worker’s relatively higher standards of living compared with his European counterpart. “On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie,” wrote Sombart, “socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom.”


Yet something is afoot on the American Left today. AOC is only the most famous member of

Democratic Socialists of America to have been elected to the House last year; Rashida Tlaib is also a member. And there are now about 35 members in state legislatures. More striking is the polling data. A Gallup poll last August revealed that only 47 percent of Democrats viewed capitalism positively, down from 56 percent in 2016; 57 percent viewed socialism positively.

The big story here is the growing enthusiasm for socialism among younger Americans. Whereas only 27 percent of over-65s have a positive view of socialism, according to an Axios poll conducted in January, 61 percent of those aged 18-29 do.

Of course, it all depends what you mean by “capitalism” and “socialism.” Ask Americans about “small business,” “entrepreneurs” or “free enterprise” and you get 79-92 percent approval, according to Gallup. By “capitalism” they seem to understand something closer to “big business.”

In its original sense, socialism (as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear) is “a system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society.” But that is not what young Americans think it means. They appear to associate socialism with government-provided health care and university education. (An ingenuous few think that socialism just means being sociable.)


As AOC put it to Anderson Cooper in a recent interview, “What we have in mind and what my policies most closely resemble are what we see in the UK, in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.” But just how socialist is Sweden, a country often depicted as utopia by progressive types who have never actually been there? In fact, the country comes 10th in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness league table; 12th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings; and 19th (out of 186) in the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom rankings.

Not only do American socialists not know what socialism is; they don’t know where it is either.

Socialism does still exist around the world in various forms. If you want to see state ownership in action, along with the corruption, inefficiency and poverty that invariably goes with it, I recommend Caracas, Pyongyang or—more picturesque—Havana. Don’t look for it in Europe, where even Social Democratic parties have been haemorrhaging voters since the 1990s.

But if you just want to have a debate about the degree of redistribution you want to do through the tax and benefits systems, don’t confuse yourself by talking about socialism. The democratic world is all capitalist now. Voters just choose how much they want to mitigate the inequalities inevitably produced by the market. At one end are the Chileans and Mexicans, who do very little redistribution; at the other are the Finns and the Irish, who do quite a lot. Everyone else is somewhere in between.


If Democrats are smart, they will zero in on health care, which their Republican opponents screwed up when they could not muster the votes to repeal and replace Obamacare. If Democrats are not smart, they will allow themselves to be associated with socialism. AOC and her followers may like the sound of that word, but most Americans retain their ancestral allergy to it. A new Monmouth University poll finds that 57 percent of all Americans think that socialism is simply not compatible with American values.

Yes, a spectre is haunting America — the spectre of socialism. That spectre could prove helpful to Donald Trump next year.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.