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You Have No Idea How Soviet We Really Are

If anything, Niall Ferguson understates the case.


The historian Niall Ferguson launched his new column at the Free Press with a banger, “We’re All Soviets Now.” His comparison of the United States in 2024 to Russia in 1987 offended Jonah Goldberg and Noah Smith, among others, but their criticism of Ferguson gets it backwards. The only problem with his column is that it didn’t go far enough.

Ferguson’s points of similarity between modern America and late Soviet Russia are—to condense a column of substance to a bare list—gerontocratic leadership; bloated government; lack of trust in institutions; high death rates; and “a bizarre ideology that no one really believes in.”


Good points, all of them, yet in each case Ferguson soft-pedals his argument.

In the case of the economy, for example, is the most Soviet thing about America really that our projected federal deficits exceed 5 percent of GDP, as Ferguson notes? Ferguson bemoans that the “insertion of the central government into the investment decision-making process” represented by “the Biden administration’s ‘industrial policy.’”

Surely that’s small potatoes compared to the fact that one sixth of the American economy is devoted to health care, a sector where, as a recent piece by TAC’s own Jude Russo hilariously details, the numbers are all fake. The amount of money sloshing around insurers and hospitals is absolutely massive, yet the prices involved bear no relation to utility or even reality. In exchange for devoting such a big chunk of our economy to medicine, what do we get in exchange? The occasional miracle, and a lot of overtreated octogenarians and routine care at inflated costs.

Higher education is another incubus sitting atop the American economy. It employs 4 million people and is responsible for $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, yet a layman struggles to see where any value is being created at all, much less value proportionate to the expense. As with health care, higher ed produces a small number of genuine miracles—groundbreaking research or brilliant scholarship—dwarfed by a vast army of functionaries whose net value to society is, frankly, negative. Everyone can tell that the system is rotten, yet schools still have the power to squeeze middle-class parents for every penny they’re worth.

Beyond “eds and meds,” what other growth industries are politicians betting their states’ and cities’ future prosperity on? Legalized weed and gambling. That is New York’s plan for making up its post-pandemic revenue shortfall. Many states are banking on sports betting as a source of fresh taxes. Even if these vice industries created as much revenue as their advocates promised—and early evidence suggests that they do not—they would still be pernicious, destroying more value than they create. 


The essence of a late Soviet economy is not that the state plays a big role. It is that the average citizen looks around and thinks, This can’t possibly continue forever. The whole system is fake and insane. That is why Ferguson is wrong to look for evidence for his thesis in budget projections rather than the industries like health care and higher ed, which are neither capitalist nor socialist but mutant combinations of the worst of each.  

Ferguson rightly cites America’s “deaths of despair” as a symptom of decline. But one phrase that does not appear in his column is “birth rates.” That is the bigger clue that American society has lost the will to perpetuate itself. It is possible to downplay the declining life expectancy that Angus Deaton and Anne Case detected among white Americans as a temporary blip caused by specific policy errors, such as opioid overprescription. The fact that other European countries have not seen similar drops suggests that the causes may indeed be specific to America and remediable. 

The fertility decline is a much bigger problem. It can be seen everywhere liberalism touches. It is apparently a fundamental side effect of our system. It represents a deep nihilism and desire for oblivion no less than alcoholism or suicide. And no one has any idea how to fix it.

The ideology that props up late Soviet America the way communism propped up the USSR is, obviously, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Here, again, Ferguson points in the right direction but does not go far enough. He contrasts the promise of DEI, namely that it is “devoted to advancing hitherto marginalized racial and sexual minorities,” with the reality that DEI programs “do nothing to help poor minorities.”

That is one downside of DEI. But surely a bigger one, which truly deserves to be called late Soviet, is that in 50 years the average American will no longer be able to count on his doctor being able to perform basic medical procedures or his plane not falling out of the sky

It will take decades for these results to manifest, of course, but they are the inevitable result of the decline in standards being implemented in the name of DEI today. The Soviet economy lumbered along for decades, too, despite its intrinsic dysfunctions, and it even delivered a rising standard of living for much of that time period. That is the real late Soviet predicament: Everyone can see the disaster coming, yet no one seems to have the power to stop it.

We like to reassure ourselves that, if we were really in a late Soviet situation, we would know it. Think of Boris Yeltsin and his boggling at an American grocery store. The contrast between capitalist abundance and empty shelves at home was obvious. There is no equivalent experience for an American today, say the optimists. In fact, there may well be—just ask the many visitors who come back from East Asia with the impression that over there, at least, things work. 

But set aside those comparisons for a moment, since, after all, there may be a Potemkin quality to those travelers’ impressions. The more important point is that the average Soviet citizen knew perfectly well that his consumer goods were inferior to America’s but had soothing excuses to reassure himself why his system was nevertheless superior. Long before Yeltsin’s trip to Texas, there was the “Kitchen Debate” between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. The American National Exhibition in Moscow showcased the many labor-saving devices our housewives enjoyed. The response of the Russian public, far from being dazzled, was mockery. 

“Is this the national exhibition of an immense country or the branch of a department store? Where is American science? Where is American production machinery? Can we really base our judgment of it on these lawn-mowers?” one woman told Izvestia.

“Is it possible that you think our mental outlook is restricted to everyday living only? Where is your industry? We expected the American Exhibition would show something grandiose, similar to Soviet sputniks…and you want to surprise us with the glitter of your kitchen pans,” one Russian wrote in the visitors’ book.

Khrushchev echoed the same argument: “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”

To an American reader seven decades later, these remarks sound lame and unconvincing. But rather than bask in our feelings of superiority, let us examine ourselves. 

Think of your local CVS or Target. If you live in a big city, chances are that many items, from deodorant to laundry detergent, are under lock and key. Even with these precautions in place, shoplifters still wander the aisles, brazenly filling garbage bags and walking out. This is only one of the many ways the day-to-day experience of shopping has gotten worse in America, on top of inflation and declining product quality.

If a foreigner pointed out these problems and told you things were better where he came from, in Moscow or Beijing or Dubai, would you have a reply? Answers could be given to all of the above criticisms. Annoyances can be justified as the unfortunate cost of some worthier goal. But as you ponder the tradeoffs that might justify your city’s dysfunctions, stop occasionally and ponder whether your justifications are more convincing than the lady in Izvestia’s.