The tide turned for the Soviet Union in 1989. It wasn’t just the Polish national elections in June of that year, which saw the rise of the Solidarity Party. And it wasn’t merely the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
It was also Boris Yeltsin’s visit to a Houston-area supermarket. Yeltsin, then serving as president of Soviet Russia (he had not yet succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev), was astonished at the abundance that free markets provide. There was food on the shelves and no lines of impoverished workers hoping for a loaf of bread or a few moldy vegetables.
As Houston Chronicle reporter Stephanie Asin wrote, Yeltsin “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement.”
“Even the Politburo doesn't have this choice,” he reportedly said. “Not even Mr. Gorbachev.”
The organization I lead, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was founded in 1989—the year of Yeltsin’s grocery aisle epiphany. Thirty years later, the Soviet Union is history. Yet I find that the free markets and personal liberty that Yeltsin surrendered to must now be defended anew.
But to be fair, that’s largely a belief in a Socialism of Soft Definitions. When asked what it is about socialism they admire, Gallup explains, many Americans have trouble. Their definition of socialism is “nuanced and multifaceted.”
Support for socialism is also historically untethered. Their view of socialism is markedly Scandinavian, not Soviet. Blame U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders—who knows better—for this disconnect.
As he said during the 2016 presidential campaign, “When I talk about democratic socialist, I'm not looking at Venezuela, I’m not looking at Cuba. I'm looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
Let’s set aside the fact that Denmark and Sweden aren’t socialist at all, according to the Scandinavians themselves. The policies of Sanders and his allies, including New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are decidedly Soviet, not Swedish.
Here’s just one example. In 2015, Sanders famously complained that Americans have too many choices, and there’s something very wrong about that.
“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country,” Sanders declared.
That statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of free markets. Of course, no one needs all 23 different kinds of underarm deodorant; but each of those kinds is obviously meeting some need (or it wouldn’t earn valuable shelf space in a supermarket or drug store). There are hypoallergenic deodorants, aluminum-free deodorants, heavy duty deodorants and deodorants that make you smell like lilacs. Americans are free to choose which one best suit their need.
Furthermore, each of those 23 kinds represents jobs and family livelihoods—in other words, the fact there are many choices means many fewer children are hungry in this country.
Clearly, Sanders’ democratic socialism is really just the plain, old garden-variety socialism—government control of the means of production. His Medicare-for-All plan, in just one example, would nationalize the U.S. health care system, and make all health care providers into government employees.
For her part, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s new anti-poverty legislation, the Just Society bill, would impose national rent controls, expand welfare benefits to those who are here illegally and impose strict rules on benefits that government contractors must give their workers—and these are just the first steps.
Add to these plans the Green New Deal, which Ocasio-Cortez’s own then-chief of staff acknowledged “wasn’t originally a climate thing at all… Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” Entire industries would be eliminated by government fiat, and workers retrained to take government-approved positions in other, politically sanctioned industries.
That’s what socialism is—top-down, government control of the levers of the economy. Under this vision, neither bold nor new, Americans would be told where they could live, what they could drive, where they could work and how much they could consume.
On the other hand, there’s good news for America and for free markets—good news, in fact, on just about every front. Free markets have lifted billions out of extreme poverty in recent decades. Poverty here in American continues to decline, dropping from 14.8 percent in 2014 to just 11.8 percent in 2018 (about 20 percent in just four years). And our environment is cleaner than ever.
Boris Yeltsin saw the dichotomy clearly for the first time 30 years ago in a Houston supermarket.
“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”
This is the choice we face today—whether our young people know it or not.
Kevin Roberts, Ph.D., (@kevinrobertstx) is executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.