Anyone engaging in political discussion (both online and off) will be aware of certain classic right-wing and liberal talking points, which are often used to hand-wave away arguments and evidence provided by socialists. In order to deal with these common points, it is necessary to make a brief survey of the evidence. As always, all sources will be listed at the end.
Talking Point #1: “Socialism Always Fails, Just Look at Venezuela!”
It is quite interesting that people use Venezuela as proof that “socialism always fails,” seeing as just about every other Latin American socialist government has done exceptionally well. This point has been made by Venezuelan writers themselves; in an article for the Washington Post (appropriately titled “No, Venezuela doesn’t prove anything about socialism”), the anti-Chavista journalist Francisco Toro writes that he is “revulsed” by right-wing talking points surrounding Venezuela, stating:
It’s appalling to see my country’s suffering leveraged for cheap partisan point-scoring. […] Since the turn of the century, every big country in South America except Colombia has elected a socialist president at some point… the supposedly automatic link between socialism and the zombie apocalypse skipped all of them. Not content with merely not-collapsing, a number of these countries have thrived.
Toro’s words are well-supported by the empirical evidence. According to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (issued only a few months before the right-wing coup that overthrew Evo Morales), Bolivia’s socialist government massively increased GDP-per-capita and cut poverty in half:
Real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP grew by more than 50 percent over these past 13 years. […] Even as the Latin American regional economy slowed over the past five years, Bolivia had the highest growth of per capita GDP in South America. […] The country’s solid economic growth has contributed substantially to the reduction of poverty and extreme poverty. The poverty rate has fallen below 35 percent (down from 60 percent in 2006) and the extreme poverty rate is 15.2 percent (down from 37.7 percent in 2006).
These achievements were made possible by the wide-spread social and economic reforms put into place by the socialist government. To quote the aforementioned report:
Bolivia’s economic transformation was possible due to overarching political transformations in the country. These included a new constitution with significant economic mandates; nationalization and public ownership of natural resources and some strategic sectors of the economy; redistributive public investment and wage policies; policy coordination between the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry; and monetary and exchange rate policies directed toward de-dollarizing the Bolivian financial system.
The socialist government in Ecuador, led by President Rafael Correa, achieved similarly positive results. According to a CEPR report on the topic:
The poverty rate declined by 38 percent, and extreme poverty by 47 percent. […] The reduction in poverty was many times larger than that of the previous decade. Inequality also fell substantially.
Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil took millions of people out of poverty, overseeing what the World Bank called the “golden decade,” with high economic growth and increases to social spending. According to another report from the World Bank:
Brazil’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program Bolsa Familia helped millions out of the poverty and is among the most effective social protection programs in the world, having helped raise approximately 20 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2009 as well as significantly reducing income inequality.
In a 2016 article on Lula’s presidency, political scientist Terry McCoy (University of Florida) notes:
On his eight-year watch, the economy boomed, poverty plunged and incomes and living standards soared. Lula left office in January 2011 with an 83 percent favorability rating.
The leftist government in Uruagay (most notably under President Jose Mujica) oversaw a high rate of economic growth, and a sharp decline in poverty. According to an article in the Guardian, poverty declined from 40% to 12% under the leftist government. The article goes on:
Acute poverty has declined tenfold over the same period. The boom has coincided with the presidencies of Mujica and Vázquez, when the economy has grown by 75%, and public spending increased by almost 50%. Uruguay’s wealth gap has also closed, not least because Vázquez’s government introduced the country’s first income tax. Social spending has surged, targeting the poorest. All Uruguayan schoolchildren have free laptops, though parts of the school system remain dysfunctional.
All of this is not even mentioning the impact of US sanctions on Venezuela, which, while certainly not the sole cause of the crisis, have contributed greatly to the country’s economic decline. According to a 2021 report from the US Government Accountability Office:
The Venezuelan economy’s performance has declined steadily for almost a decade and fallen steeply since the imposition of a series of U.S. sanctions starting in 2015. […] The sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy, primarily by limiting revenue from oil production.
Overall, the socialist governments of Latin America have had some rather striking successes, and did a great deal to reduce poverty and inequality throughout the region. To call the entire Pink Tide a failure because of the crisis in Venezuela, especially when that crisis is driven in-part by US sanctions, is intellectual dishonesty, plain and simple.
Talking Point #2: “The Nazis Were Socialists!”
This claim comes from the fact that the Nazis included the word “socialist” in the name of their party, in an attempt to curry favor with working-class voters (something that they were mocked for at the time). Despite what this name may have implied, in reality the Nazis favored privatization and opposed socialist economics in every way they could. According to a study published in The Journal of Economic History:
Available sources make perfectly clear that the Nazi regime did not want at all a German economy with public ownership of many or all enterprises. Therefore it generally had no intention whatsoever of nationalizing private firms or creating state firms. On the contrary the reprivatization of enterprises was furthered wherever possible.
Nazi ideology, as well as practical policy, emphasized the role of private businesses:
Irrespective of a quite bad overall performance, an important characteristic of the economy of the Third Reich, and a big difference from a centrally planned one, was the role private ownership of firms was playing — in practice as well as in theory. The ideal Nazi economy would liberate the creativeness of a multitude of private entrepreneurs in a predominantly competitive framework gently directed by the state to achieve the highest welfare of the Germanic people.
On the rare occasions when they were forced to make use of state-owned factories, they included a contract option allowing private owners to purchase it. In addition, they avoided the creation of state-owned enterprises whenever possible, favoring private investment:
State-owned plants were to be avoided wherever possible. Nevertheless, sometimes they were necessary when private industry was not prepared to realize a war-related investment on its own. In these cases, the Reich often insisted on the inclusion in the contract of an option clause according to which the private firm operating the plant was entitled to purchase it. Even the establishment of Reichswerke Hermann Goring in 1937 is no contradiction to the rule that the Reich principally did not want public ownership of enterprises. The Reich in fact tried hard to win the German industry over to engage in the project.
These findings are backed up by another study, this one from the Economic History Review. According to this paper, not only did the Nazis favor privatization, they did so in a time when other capitalist governments were generally expanding public ownership, nationalizing various industries, etc. Nazi privatization was actually “against the mainstream,” as they call it:
The Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government. The firms and the services transferred to private ownership belonged to diverse sectors.
Libertarians and conservatives often make the argument that while Nazi Germany did have private ownership, it was so heavily curtailed and directed by the state that the economy was effectively state-run. However, the empirical evidence does not support this claim. To quote the aforementioned study from The Journal of Economic History:
Private property in the industry of the Third Reich is often considered a mere nominal provision without much substance. However, that is not correct, because firms, despite the rationing and licensing activities of the state, still had ample scope to devise their own production and investment profiles. Even regarding war-related projects, freedom of contract was generally respected; instead of using power, the state offered firms a number of contract options to choose from.
In a 1923 interview with George Sylvester Viereck, Hitler stated that Nazism “unlike Marxism, does not repudiate private property. Unlike Marxism, it involves no negation of personality, and unlike Marxism, it is patriotic. We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party. We chose to call ourselves the National Socialists.” In this quote, Hitler not only states that Nazism affirms the right to private property (thus automatically distinguishing it from socialism), but admits that the term “National Socialism” was essentially arbitrary. This is far from the only anti-socialist statement from Hitler; in a 1935 speech to the Reichstag, he said:
We National Socialists see in private property a higher level of human economic development that according to the differences in performance controls the management of what has been accomplished enabling and guaranteeing the advantage of a higher standard of living for everyone. Bolshevism destroys not only private property but also private initiative and the readiness to shoulder responsibility.
In addition, the book Hitler’s Table Talk includes the following statement:
I absolutely insist on protecting private property. It is natural and salutary that the individual should be inspired by the wish to devote a part of the income from his work to building up and expanding a family estate. Suppose the estate consists of a factory. I regard it as axiomatic, in the ordinary way, that this factory will be better run by one of the members of the family that it would be by a State functionary — providing, of course, that the family remains healthy. In this sense, we must encourage private initiative.
In other words, the Nazis had no issues with private property; they cared only about “racial purity,” and exterminating those who did not fit their warped notions of ethnic propriety.
Talking Point #3: “Socialism = No iPhone!”
In her book The Entrepreneurial State, the economist Marianna Mazzucato notes that technological innovations (such as those that produced the iPhone) have overwhelmingly involved large directing action by the state. In a summary article, published in the Guardian, Mazzucato says the following:
[All] the technologies that make the iPhone so smart were indeed pioneered by a well-funded US government: the internet, GPS, touch-screen display, and even the latest Siri voice-activated personal assistant. All of these came out of agencies that were driven by missions, mainly around security — and funding not only the upstream “public good” research but also applied research and early-stage funding for companies.
In other words, active industrial policy and public action provided the basis for modern technological innovations. It was not the work of scrappy entrepreneurs sitting in garages (an idea which was largely the work of clever marketing); rather, it was government funding and intervention that spawned many of these ideas and products that we now take for granted. The idea that socialism (i.e. the expansion of public control over the economy) would somehow have prevented the development of this technology is nonsensical.
Talking Point #4: “What About Human Nature?”
This argument assumes that human nature is primarily selfish, focused entirely on the accumulation of personal wealth, with no consideration for the common good. However, this is not the case: altruism plays an important role in human nature, which is itself largely environmentally and culturally determined. To quote an article in Nature:
Experimental evidence indicates that human altruism is a powerful force and is unique in the animal world. […] Current gene-based evolutionary theories cannot explain important patterns of human altruism, pointing towards the importance of both theories of cultural evolution as well as gene–culture co-evolution.
This idea has been validated by more recent research. An article in Science, reporting on a study from the University of Zurich, had the following to say:
Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need.
In addition, there is evidence that large inequalities (such as those produced by free-market capitalism) are psychologically harmful to human beings. Inequality is strongly linked to higher rates of depression and mental illness, as well as lower levels of happiness (an effect that extends throughout society). This indicates that, if anything, it is capitalism which goes against human nature.
Hopefully this post has clarified some matters of confusion and corrected some widespread misconceptions. If the reader notices any problems or omissions, I encourage them to let me know, and I will do my best to address their concerns.
- The Washington Post | No, Venezuela Doesn’t Prove Anything About Socialism
- Center for Economic and Policy Research | Bolivia’s Economic Transformation
- Center for Economic and Policy Research | Decade of Reform: Ecuador’s Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes, and Results
- World Bank | Retaking the Path to Inclusion, Growth, and Sustainability: Brazil
- World Bank | Lifting Families Out of Poverty in Brazil: Bolsa Familia Program
- The Conversation | As Brazil Tilts Rightward, Lula’s Leftist Legacy of Lifting the Poor is At Risk
- The Guardian | Jose Mujica: Is This the World’s Most Radical President?
- US Government Accountability Office | Impact of US Sanctions on Venezuelan Economy
- Journal of Economic History | The Role of Private Property in the Nazi Economy: The Case of Industry
- The Economic History Review | Against the Mainstream: Nazi Privatization in 1930s Germany
- The Guardian | 1923 Interview Between George Sylvester Viereck and Adolf Hitler
- Translation of Hitler’s 1935 Speech to the German Reichstag
- “Hitler’s Table Talk” (recorded by Heinrich Heim, Henry Picker and Martin Bormann)
- “The Entrepreneurial State” by Marianna Mazzucato
- The Guardian | Let’s Rethink the Idea of the State
- Nature | The Nature of Human Altruism
- Science | Human Altruism Traces Back to the Origins of Humanity
- World Psychiatry | Income Inequality and Depression: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Association and a Scoping Review of Mechanisms
- The Lancet | Income Inequality and Mental Illness-Related Morbidity and Resilience: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Psychological Science | Income Inequality and Happiness
- Harvard Business Review | Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy