The phrase American exceptionalism emerged in the late 1920s in debates between American Communist Party members and their counterparts in the Soviet Union about why the United States did not seem to follow the general laws of Marxism or need a socialist revolution. Over time, the phrase took on additional meanings, but America’s hesitancy to embrace socialism persisted. In his January 23, 1996, State of the Union Address, Bill Clinton confidently proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.”
Fast forward a decade. The Great Recession that started in George W. Bush’s administration (and continued under Barack Obama’s) prompted lawmakers to legislate bank bailouts and regulation, as well as massive stimulus spending. The November 24, 2008, cover of TIME magazine featured Barack Obama photoshopped as FDR. Its headline read, “The New New Deal.” On its February 6 cover the following year, Newsweek’s headline proclaimed, “We’re All Socialists Now.” A year later, Obama signed into law the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (popularly called “Obamacare”), which massively increased the role (and costs) of the federal government in healthcare provision.
This all took place before 2016, when Bernie Sanders—a self-described democratic socialist—nearly became the Democrat party candidate for president. The same year saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—an ally of Sanders, and also a democratic socialist—to the U.S. House of Representatives, along with many other socialism-friendly politicos. In 2020, Joe Biden handily defeated Sanders in the Democrat presidential primaries, but the “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations” list heavily to the port side of the American political sea.
America may have been exceptional with regard to socialism a century ago, but it is no longer so today.
Socialism’s rise in popularity has been rapid. According to a 2019 survey by the libertarian Cato Institute, Democrats’ favorable feelings toward capitalism and socialism flip-flopped between 2010 and 2019, from 53% favoring capitalism in 2010 to 64% favoring socialism in 2019. Fully half of Democrats say Donald Trump’s presidency has made them like capitalism less.
For Iain Murray, socialism’s rise is alarming. It does not produce a fair society, threatens individual freedom, and eviscerates civil society. The Socialist Temptation, as he has titled his book, must be resisted.
But what precisely is socialism? That’s hard to say. The classic Marxist definition of socialism as “the workers’ ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” seems too narrow. Contemporary socialists largely disavow Communist totalitarianism, opting instead for varying levels of state control of market economies, whether democratic socialism (Britain’s postwar Labour Party), social democracy (most western European nations), market socialism (countries in the former Yugoslavia), state capitalism (China), or radical environmentalism (European Green parties).
This definitional diversity means enterprising socialists can always deny that the socialism they dislike is really socialist. As a corollary, it means that they can rebut conservative descriptions of a given policy as “socialist” as a conflation of socialism (good!) and communism (bad!). Defining socialism is thus like nailing jello to a wall.
Murray eventually defines it as a sociopolitical regime “in which the individual is subject to control by the collective, to the determinations of bureaucrats, and to the expropriation of wealth.” Helpful as this definition is in identifying three core elements of socialism—collectivism, bureaucracy, expropriation— it still seems too broad. All democracies are majoritarian, all have bureaucracies, and all tax the populace for ostensibly public purposes. Perhaps socialism has to do with the weight, size, and scale of these elements?
Given the vagueness of socialism’s definition, what accounts for its persistence and popularity? In Murray’s words, “why is socialism so alluring to modern Americans?” To answer that question, he draws on a field of study called “Cultural Cognition,” which derives from the anthropologist Mary Douglas the sociologist Aaron Wildavsky. Cultural Cognition suggests “a relationship between the values we hold and how we perceive risk,” Murray writes. “As different political ideologies offer packages of solutions to risks, our values make those ideologies more or less attractive to us.”
According to Wildavsky, Americans fall into three basic value groups: “hierarchists” (whom Murray calls “traditionalists”), “egalitarians,” and “individualists.” They value “order and stability,” “fairness,” and “liberty” as their primary value, respectively. Note that these things are not their sole value. Each group values the other things, too. But these things are their primary value, the value that norms the others.
According to Arnold Kling, whom Murray cites, each of these value groups talks about politics differently. Traditionalists see political contest as occurring between “civilization and barbarism,” egalitarians as between “oppressors and oppressed,” and individualists as between “freedom and coercion.”
Socialism, obviously, is an egalitarian movement. Its class analysis of economic conflict fits the oppressor/oppressed mold Kling mentions. However, socialism has appeal—and makes arguments—beyond egalitarianism. The bulk of The Socialist Temptation is an outline of the cases for and against socialism couched in the three primary values and moral languages outlined above. So, Murray asks in successive parts of the book:
- Can socialism deliver a fair society?
- Can socialism free the individual?
- Can socialism sustain communities?
Murray’s answer—unsurprisingly, given the title of his book—is no.
With regard to a fair society, Murray writes, “Where there is equality, it is often the equality of misery, and that misery is usually caused by oppression, violent or otherwise, inflicted in the name of equality.” This is a purple-prose way of stating the paradox of socialism: To the degree that a society centralizes decisions about production, distribution, and exchange in order to enrich people, it impoverishes people. The greater the centralization, the greater the poverty. Additionally, to the degree that a society centralizes decision-making, it empowers bureaucrats at the expense of the people. The greater the centralization, the greater the disempowerment.
With regard to a free society, Murray notes that socialists typically speak of freedom in positive terms, whereas classical liberals (today’s conservatives) speak of it in negative terms. Positive freedom is “the freedom to engage in the common government of the polity.” It correlates with positive rights, “the right to have something provided for you—the right to a job, for instance, or to welfare.” Negative freedom is “the freedom to be left alone, free from constraint.” It correlates with negative rights, “rights not to have something done to you. The right that the government won’t interfere with your speech or religion, for instance.”
If this seems somewhat abstract, just keep in mind the debate over Obamacare’s contraception mandate. It pitted women who claimed a positive right to employer-provided contraception against the negative right of religion-minded employers not to fund abortifacients. Both sides made an appeal to freedom, but what they each meant by freedom was very different.
Murray makes the argument for negative freedom and negative rights and concludes: “Socialists use the language of freedom, but a close examination of their aims reveals how hostile they are to the value of freedom.” By this, he means the value of freedom in advancing a socialist vision of equality. Free speech is for the oppressed, to equalize their situation against their oppressors. It is not for the oppressors, whose speech is called “hate speech” because it is oppressive, and whose “privileged” voices must be “canceled” or “deplatformed.” Consequently, Murray writes: “Where socialism allows freedom, it does so on the basis of dictating what you are allowed to do with that freedom.”
Finally, with regard to sustaining communities, socialism has an obvious appeal. It is, after all, about the social dimension of human existence, about our common life together. Socialism seems community-minded. Capitalism by contrast, or so socialists contend, is only about greedy individualists.
But that’s not quite right, is it? The question is not whether a society has a state, that is, the machinery of government. Nor is it about whether a society has a market: all societies have markets where goods and services are produced, distributed, and exchanged. The question, rather, is who decides. Under socialism, a society’s decisions are increasingly centralized in bureaucracies, often government bureaucracies. Under capitalism, those decisions are decentralized.
This doesn’t leave the individual standing powerless before the state, however, for civil society exists as a mediating institution between the individual and the state. In free societies—negatively free, with negative rights—civil society institutions are many and robust, from churches to softball leagues to the Rotary Club and (surprise!) even to labor unions. In socialist societies, there is a tendency to (wittingly or not) strip civil society of its powers and transfer them to the state. Private charity, for example, becomes public welfare, delivered with all the warmth only an impersonal bureaucracy can muster. In other words, in a socialist society, the state tends to coopt the institutions of civil society, which over the long haul, is not good for the flourishing of that society.
In summary, then, Iain Murray’s argument is that socialism doesn’t deliver on its promise of a fair or free society, nor does it sustain community in the most important sense. My guess is that some, like me, will find this argument persuasive, even if there are quibbles here and there. My guess is also that others are going to dispute this book at every point, arguing that Murray’s negative examples mischaracterize what real socialism requires or has accomplished.
Which brings us back to the all-important definitional question: What is socialism? My guess is that how you define it will largely determine your evaluation of this book.
Iain Murray, The Socialist Temptation (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2020).
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