Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World is a timely contribution in a world where the horrors of the Soviet Union are receding ever-farther into history and socialism is making a rhetorical (and political) comeback, particularly among people who were barely out of diapers or not born yet when the Berlin Wall came down. Socialism Sucks could hardly be more timely.
Readers expecting a grand academic treatise suitable to a seminar room or professional conference presentation will be disappointed and will need to go elsewhere, like the authors’ published academic work. Socialism Sucks is the conversation that happens at the bar after all the Very Formal and Very Serious academic presentations have ended for the day.
Their boozy tour of “the unfree world” will be familiar to people who are friends with the authors—as I’ve been for pretty much my entire professional life—and perhaps a bit shocking to people who aren’t. Imagine Anthony Bourdain had written The Road To Serfdom while traveling with Hunter S. Thompson. Socialism Sucks isn’t quite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it’s definitely not the kind of dry academic treatment for which economists are (in)famous.
The book starts in Sweden, but not as chapter 1: as an introduction titled “Not Socialism: Sweden.” This makes it pretty clear right off the bat that Sweden shouldn’t be on the itinerary of anyone looking to enjoy the fruits of La Revolucion. Sweden has a big welfare state, high taxes, and a heavily-regulated labor market, but it is still a fundamentally free-market economy—sitting just barely at the top of the second quartile of the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The other darlings of American democratic socialists—Denmark, Norway, and Finland—are very comfortably situated in the top quartile, and they are all separated by a few tenths of a point.
No, to find actually-existing socialism, you need to cancel your Airbnb reservations in Stockholm and Copenhagen and join Lawson and Powell in Venezuela, Cuba, along the border between China and North Korea, and in formerly-communist Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. They describe their experiences of socialist realities that are really quite different from the lofty visions of American politicians and intellectuals who were extolling Venezuela as a socialist success story before it started to fall apart and suddenly became “not real socialism” or yet another variant on “state capitalism,” at least rhetorically. Life in Cuba even as a rich tourist is flavorless (literally) and disappointing, and the place to go to experience the very best that Cuban culture and cuisine has to offer isn’t Cuba itself but Miami. Intellectuals may love it, but people vote en masse against socialist regimes by leaving.
The beer and wine selection—or more accurately, the absence of a meaningful beer and wine selection—is their preferred illustration of exactly why socialism sucks. I doubt they will convince Bernie Sanders, who has decried the assortment of underarm deodorants as an absurdity of capitalism and who would probably say “why do you need more than two kinds of beer?” Bearded neosocialist hipsters, however, might pay more attention to Lawson and Powell’s free-market message after learning that communist Havana doesn’t exactly have a bustling craft microbrew scene. For all of the neo-socialists’ fine words about the virtue of the local, it has been the slow and steady march of economic freedom that has reinvigorated traditional Georgian wine production that had been largely suppressed by communism and its crushing uniformity.
Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell have written a useful and important book for a very weird time. Inexplicably, in light of its repeated economic failures and its unfortunate tendency to lead to mass starvation, prison camps, and death squads, socialism enjoys resurgent popularity. Lawson and Powell invite you, though, to pull up a chair, crack open a beer, and learn an important fact about actually-existing, on-the-ground socialism: it sucks.