The enduring appeal of socialism

A recent multi-national study commissioned by the Fraser Institute revealed, among other findings, that many people – particularly young people – continue to view socialism as the ideal economic system. 


Over the decades, different political directions and trends come and go, depending on the conditions at the time and the appeal of various politicians. Back in the 1960s and 70s, the left was in ascendance with Pierre Trudeau in Canada, JFK and Lyndon Johnson in the US, and other progressive leaders in many parts of the world after World War II. The 1980s saw conservatives come into power with Brian Mulroney in Canada, Ronald Reagan in the US, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and the collapse of socialist regimes such as the USSR. Even though more liberal-minded governments were subsequently elected, conservative principles such as balanced budgets and sensible monetary policy still seemed to resonate with governments like Jean Chretien in Canada, Bill Clinton in the US, and Tony Blair in the UK, after which conservative governments such as Stephen Harper’s were once again elected. 

More recently, socialism seems to have been rejuvenated despite its horrific record of abject failure throughout history, its abysmal economic performance and the misery it inflicts upon the people living under socialist governments. A study done by the Fraser Institute in conjunction with the Leger polling organization surveyed people in Canada, the US, Australia and the UK in late 2022 examined support for socialism and capitalism and had many interesting and some disturbing findings. The full study can be found here.

One key conclusion of the report was that support for capitalism was weak among those in the 18-34 age group in all countries except the US. The US results showed that capitalism was positively viewed as the ideal economic system in this age group with 52 per cent in agreement. Support for capitalism increased with age for all countries studied. In Canada, the view that capitalism was the best system increased from 39 per cent of the 18-34 age group to 60 per cent of those age 55 and over. 

Not surprisingly, support for socialism was strongest in the 18-34 age group in all countries. As well, a significant proportion of respondents in all countries believed that a transition to socialism would improve the economy and the well-being of citizens, while this sentiment decreased with age. In Canada, 46 per cent of the 18-34 age group showed a strong preference for socialism, versus 29 per cent that disagree, with very similar numbers for Australia. Among the countries studied, support for capitalism was consistently highest in the US, including among younger respondents. 

The study also proposed three different definitions of socialism and gauged respondents’ reactions. The first definition was the traditional one, that of government owning the means of production so that government essentially controlled the economy, received the least support. The second definition was one in which government provided more services, with the third being that government provided a basic guaranteed level of income. The definition preferred by most was the second, with the UK being the exception in slightly preferring the third option. Overall, most respondents seemed to view socialism as an expanded role for government but not complete government control, even though the latter definition is the one most commonly used for socialism. 

The final section of the study pursued the question of how this expanded role of government should be paid for. Four different tax options were proposed, and the results showed that the two options which involved higher taxes on the wealthy were favoured. So basically, although many respondents were positive about a bigger role for government, they had no intention of paying for it as they figured a higher tax on the “rich” would not affect them. The other tax options proposed – a broadly-based income tax increase or a much higher value-added tax – received much lower levels of support as respondents undoubtedly believed they would end up being negatively affected by such tax measures.   

This study reinforces and quantifies the usual finding that most people want more from government but want someone else to pay for it. It also demonstrates once again that people generally, and young people in particular, have a poor knowledge of the history of socialism and its consistent failures over the centuries. They also misunderstand the results of “taxing the rich”, as that has also never worked for countries that have tried it. Indeed, most countries that have wealth taxes or other means of shifting the tax burden too heavily onto the wealthy end up abandoning this approach as it never raises the revenue expected and creates more problems than it solves. 

The old saying that “If you’re under 30 and not a socialist you have no heart, but if you’re over 30 and not a capitalist, you have no brain” does seem to be borne out by this study. Another famous quote credited to Winston Churchill states that, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The findings of this study would suggest it is a good time to do a better job of teaching history to our young people. 


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