Economists use beer to highlight socialism’s failings

November 22, 2019

Ray Carter

Socialism may be gaining in popularity among certain groups, but it remains a thoroughly discredited economic system, as two experts highlight in their book Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World (Regnery, 2019).

Benjamin Powell said he and co-author Robert Lawson chose to write the book for two main reasons—one serious, and the other less so.

“One, my co-author Bob wanted to get drunk in Cuba and I figured I could write it off my taxes if we started trying to write a book. That’s really 50 percent of it,” Powell said. “Then the other reason is we started this project in 2016. That’s right on the heels of Bernie Sanders having a relatively successful run in the Democratic primary identifying as a democratic socialist. And we were seeing all these polls talking about young people being attracted to socialism in the United States, and Bob and I thought we’d write a book that explains some of the teachings of economics but does it in a way that would reach an audience that wouldn’t read any of his boring journal articles.”

“Cuba has two types of beer, and they both taste like a Budweiser that was left out in the sun too long.” —Benjamin Powell

At one point, the publisher described the book as the “bastard stepchild of Milton Friedman and Anthony Bourdain,” Powell said, “which is exactly the style we were going for.”

Lawson is a professor at Southern Methodist University while Powell is a professor at Texas Tech University. Powell recently visited Oklahoma at the invitation of the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University and spoke to both student groups and adult audiences.

“Both of us have been on tours with this and spoken at dozens of universities now, this semester, since it’s come out, and the reception we get from students is generally pretty favorable,” Powell said. “That’s true when I’m at a place here like Oklahoma State, but it was equally true when I was at Dartmouth or schools like that.”

While college students are often portrayed as fragile “snowflakes” who descend into hysterics at exposure to new information, Powell said that has not been his experience. That observation held true even when he and Lawson attended the biggest gathering of socialists in the nation and visited with attendees, an event they recount in the book.

Powell said college students who identify with socialism often do so based on “a whole host of issues of things that they think are wrong in the United States or unjust.”

“The problem is just when we talk to the young people, they seem to have identified with socialism because they love the aspirational stated goals of socialism, such as ending oppression of all types, without actually understanding what it is in terms of how it organizes a system,” Powell said. “Because you ask these same people who identify as socialists, ‘So do you want to abolish private property and have the government own Walmart and the other stores?’ ‘Oh no, I don’t mean that.’ Well, socialism means something. It meant something to Marx. It meant something to Lenin. And it meant something to the economists who study it. And it means government ownership and/or control over the major factors of production. And the fact of the matter is lots of these young people who identify as socialists don’t really mean that.”

In both their book and public appearances, Powell said he and Lawson stress a few major points, including combatting false narratives.

“Sweden is not socialism,” Powell said. “It’s a highly capitalist country with a big welfare state. Now we can debate the merits of the big welfare state, and I can talk about its negative effects on growth, but we should not confuse that with being a socialist economic system.”

Another point they make is that the phrase “democratic socialism” is simply a more time-consuming way of saying “socialism.”

“The word ‘democratic’ isn’t magic that makes socialism not socialism,” Powell said. “There’s a necessary link between economic freedoms and political freedoms. And in order to maintain a large degree of your political freedoms, you also have to have a large degree of economic freedoms. Venezuela was democratic socialism. But socialism, because of the economic incentives and information under the system, is going to stagnate or destroy your economy. Voters would vote the bums out of office once that happens, but once you centralize control of your economy, you’ve also centralized the ability to punish dissent and you’ve derailed the democratic process. This is what happened in Venezuela. It was not a military coup. It was a democratic election that put (Hugo) Chavez in power. For a while, while they were skating on high oil prices, things looked good. But invariably, the economy collapsed, and it became merely socialism and as everybody knows it’s no longer democratic.”

Perhaps the biggest point they make is that the outcomes produced by socialism don’t match the promises of proponents.

“While socialism preaches about equality, if it delivers the goods at all, what it delivers is a bland sameness,” Powell said.

He said socialism delivers only a “complete and utter lack of variety and quality of products,” and few things highlight that better than the beer and wine available in each country.

“We basically discussed the alcohol, in particular the beer, of every country as we go through them,” Powell said. “And it serves as a metaphor for how the economy is functioning. Sweden has good beer, but it costs a hell of a lot because they tax the bejesus out of everything for their welfare state. Venezuela ceased beer production because the government didn’t allocate enough foreign exchange for the beer company to import barley. Cuba has two types of beer, and they both taste like a Budweiser that was left out in the sun too long. The North Korean stuff is godawful. In Georgia, the former Soviet Republic, the real story is wine. They have made major reforms and have shot up to being one of the top 10 most-free economies in the world. And as a result, they ripped up all their old Soviet vineyards that mass-produced swill and they’ve gone back to indigenous grapes in the hills and produced delicious wine that’s unlike any of the types that we get here in the United States.”

The book has sold well and one source of pride for the two authors is that it not only topped the list for the socialism category online, but the beer category as well.

“We didn’t set out with the goal to get it number one in the beer category,” Powell said, “but I’ll take it.”