The Socialist Temptation | Book Review

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.

Book Reviewed
Iain Murray, The Socialist Temptation (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Review of ‘Why Study History?’ by John Fea

images John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

Why study history?

John Fea sets out to answer this question in his eponymous new book, which is subtitled, “reflecting on the importance of the past.” Fea is associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. An evangelical Christian teaching at an evangelical college, he has written or edited several books, including Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction[1], The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. He blogs regularly at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Fea pitches his book primarily to college students interested in the study of history as a major, but also to history teachers and history buffs. I fall into the last category. And as a history buff, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend this book, for several reasons.

First, it helped me understand what good historians do. In chapter 1, Fea outlines the task of a historian with five Cs: (1) “chronicle change over time,” (2) “study the past in context,” (3) pay attention to “causality” and (4) “contingency,” and remember that “the past is complex.” If this is what historians do, then history is an inherently “revisionist” project, though not a relativist one. We can know the past, but we must admit that our current understandings may be inadequate to it.

Second, Fea helped me navigate the various reasons why people study history. Chapter 2 outlines and critiques some of those reasons: for inspiration, to escape the pressures of modernity, to form a personal or social identity, for role models, to advance certain political positions. Chapter 3 identifies a basic problem with all these reasons in the words of L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” When we forget the strangeness of the past, we distort it for present purposes. For Christians, especially in America, one of those distortions is a providential reading of American history that all too often exaggerates our nation’s goodness and downplays its sins. Chapter 4 provides a sympathetic critique of such readings.

The critique of providential readings of history does not mean that Christian historians have no theological resources to bring to bear on their vocation. Chapter 5 shows how the imago dei, the reality of sin, the Incarnation, and moral reflection all should influence how Christian historians do their craft. “The human experience is a drama with many ethical twists and turns,” Fea writes, “but the historian is not always in the business of using his or her voice to preach.”

Fourth, Chapters 6 and 7 showed me how historians—and history-minded citizens—can positively influence civil society. There is an inherent tension between the desire to present the past without ideological blinkers and the desire for history to influence civil society. The way Fea resolves this tension is not by proposing this or that account of history but by emphasizing the virtues of historical consciousness. Studying the past in all its foreignness, seeking to understand it on its own terms and in its own context, draws students of history outside of themselves and their ideological commitments. It is, in other words, a powerful tonic for narcissism.

Finally, in chapter 8, Fea shows history students what they can do with their major. I was not a history major in college, and this chapter had the least relevance to me. Nonetheless, in an era when the financial bottom line plays an often decisive role on what college students choose to major in, and when the humanities especially are taking a lot of hits, it’s nice to see someone present anecdotal evidence for the fact that you can study history and still get a good job.

In an appendix, Fea outlines a proposal for the creation of a “Center for American History and a Civil Society.” If I had some money, I’d definitely invest it in this project. Fea’s vision of how Christians (and others) should study the past and work for a more civil society is one that resonates with me.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

[1] I reviewed Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? here and interviewed Prof. Fea here.

“You Didnt’ Build That”: Why What President Obama Said Is Still Problematic, Even in Context

Joseph Knippenberg offers an astute analysis of why President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment is problematic, even when understood in context.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith offers an account of the transtion from feudalism to freedom in terms of the changes in relationships of dependence.  Where the retainer and the serf are dependent upon the patronage of one lord, the craftsman and the merchant are dependent upon the patronage of numerous customers.  They are thus functionally independent, not because they are utterly self-reliant, but because no one can exercise the influence over them that one lord can have over his retainers.

By insisting in an exaggerated fashion on our dependence upon government, by overlooking the ways in which multiple sources of support in civil society and the marketplace afford us a kind of independence, President Obama would, in effect, turn the clock backward.  For him, the transaction that seems to matter the most is between the officeholder dispensing what can only amount to patronage and those who look to him for the things they need.  Tammany Hall and the various machines that ran Chicago politics come to mind here,  But in those days, you could escape from New York and Chicago, seeking greater opportunities and less dependence outside the city limits.  What the President seems to have in mind is much greater in scope and much more pervasive in its reach.  In squeezing civil society and in effacing the distinction between levels of government, the President’s vision would seem to leave little room for the development or maintenance of a rightly ordered relationship between the individual and the community.

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