Although nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) say socialism means equality, fewer (17%) correctly identify socialism as an economic system where the government controls key factors of production and distribution, according to a Gallup poll in 2018.
The same poll found that 42% of Americans said they feel positively about socialism.
Despite such apparent support for socialism, many Americans don’t have a good grasp of the implications of this system, or even what socialism really looks like.
A recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that only about 3% of American colleges require students to take a course in economics. Ten times as many schools require a literature course in their core curriculum. Similarly, a class in economics isn’t a high school graduation requirement in half of the states.
In terms of practically preparing students to be engaged and informed citizens in this way, our schools are missing the mark.
Instead of developing a framework for economic thinking in the classroom, most Americans hear about socialism from politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has said: “To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means; it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.”
Sanders does not, however, offer a realistic summary of what socialism really would mean for Americans.
Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation, calls socialism as seen today in Venezuela and Cuba “a pseudo-religion grounded in pseudo-science and enforced by political might.”
Basic economic ideas such as supply and demand, scarcity, cooperation, trade-offs, and self-interest are crucial to forming realistic and sound economic policy.
A 2016 paper in the Journal of Economic Education found that students who major in economics graduate more disposed toward free markets and minimal government intervention than they were when they began college. In other words, students who have studied economics are less likely to be favorable to socialism than they would have been had they not studied economics.
Fully 42% of millennials said they felt favorably toward socialism, according to a Reason-Rupe Poll in 2014, but significantly fewer–32% of respondents–said they favor a “government-managed economy.”
So, one of the best weapons against socialism simply may be teaching students what exactly socialism is.
Even a basic grasp of economics would give Americans the tools they need to ask the hard questions about the socialist policies of politicians on the left such as Sanders.
For example, students would learn that socialism not only requires drastic government control over the economy, it has failed everywhere it has been tried. By examining the components of economic growth, students would learn that capitalism has been the single biggest driver of heightened standards of living throughout human history.
The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom shows an undeniable correlation between economic freedom and prosperity around the world.
Without a good understanding of economic trade-offs, it’s no wonder that many Americans find the promises of socialism attractive. Offers of “free” college or “free” health care are enticing. Politicians rarely explain the costs of these expensive and detrimental programs, though.
Understanding basic economics would fill the gaps in many Americans’ understanding of the economy and clarify the serious sacrifices that socialism requires.
Everyone in society benefits when voters are knowledgeable about the policies they’re voting on. Americans need not be misinformed or misled about economic topics and policies.
Colleges and universities in America should make economics classes a priority for students. And certainly far more than 3% of American colleges should recognize the fact that an understanding of economics is a key component of a civic education.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.