Jonah Goldberg: Communism: still hip with the young and uninformed
"In America," Oscar Wilde quipped, "the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience." And they often do it in the pages of Rolling Stone.
Last week, the magazine posted a mini-manifesto titled "Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For." After confirming it wasn't a parody, conservative critics launched a brutal assault on its author, Jesse A. Myerson.
Myerson's essay captures nearly everything the unconverted despise about left-wing youth culture, starting with the assumption that being authentically young requires being theatrically left wing.
Writing with unearned familiarity and embarrassingly glib confidence in the rightness of his positions, Myerson prattles on about how "unemployment blows" and therefore we need "guaranteed work for everybody." He proceeds to report that jobs "blow" too, so we need guaranteed universal income. He has the same disdain for landlords, who "don't really do anything to earn their money." Which is why, Myerson writes, we need communal ownership of land, or something.
One wonders why he bothered to single out landlords, since he calls for the state appropriation of, well, everything. Why? Because "hoarders blow," and he doesn't mean folks who refuse to throw away their Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and old Sharper Image catalogs. He means successful people who "hoard" the wealth that rightly belongs to all of us.
Apparently "blowing" is an open warrant to undo the entire constitutional order. If only someone had told the founders.
In the ensuing kerfuffle, Myerson, whose Twitter hashtag is "#FULLCOMMUNISM," seemed shocked that any of his ideas sounded Soviet to his critics. Andrew McCoy, a conservative blogger, offered the specific citations for Myerson's proposals in the Soviet constitution. I suspect this was news to Myerson, but even if not, I bet he doesn't care. It is a permanent trope of the left that its ideas failed because we didn't try hard enough. This time is always different.
Obviously, this is the sort of fleeting controversy that pops up daily on the Internet like fireflies on a summer night. But that's what I find so interesting about it.
Sometimes it is hard for people to accept that there really aren't many new ideas. Sure, there are new policy innovations and new possibilities created by technology. But the really big ideas about how we should organize society vary between being merely antique and downright ancient. Plato argued for collective ownership of property on the grounds that it would erase social divisions. Aristotle disagreed, insisting that, "when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because everyone will be attending to his own business."
Interestingly, there were times when private property rights were distinctly leftish (populist is probably the better label) because they were seen as a bulwark against tyranny. Even the French revolutionaries included it in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). What really changes is our concept of freedom.
One of the wonderful things about America is that both the left and right are champions of freedom. The difference lies in what we mean by freedom. The left emphasizes freedom as a material good, and the right sees freedom as primarily a right rooted in individual sovereignty. For the left, freedom means "freedom from want." If you don't have money, health care, homes, cars, etc., you're not free. Or as FDR put it when pitching his failed "Economic Bill of Rights": "Necessitous men are not free men."
The relevance of the Soviets' effort to provide every goody imaginable isn't to suggest they came up with the idea, it's to demonstrate that when such ideas are put into practice and allowed to run their course, they fail — and often crush both kinds of freedom in the process.
Regardless, the failure of communism didn't put the debate to rest because the debate is eternal. Like those summer fireflies, it is a permanent fixture of the human condition, particularly among the affluent and fashionably rebellious young who are always eager to explain why this time is different.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.