Why ‘Socialism’ Sounds Like ‘American Values’ to so Many

According to Iain Murray, socialism does a good job of speaking to core American values, even if in practice it undermines those values
August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

Support for socialism in America isn’t new, nor is the successful push for socialist policies. It seems to reemerge every few decades, but what’s new this time, according to Iain Murray, is a much poorer understanding of what socialism actually is.

“At the moment, it’s hard to pin down what they mean by socialism,” said Murray, who directs the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.

If he asks, one might answer “an economy like Sweden’s,” except that Sweden ranks higher than the United States in free-market trade, has a competitive school-choice model, and taxes corporations at about the same rate as the United States. People are likely referring to Sweden’s welfare system, which includes free health care, not considering that such a system creates more demand than supply can meet.

“So you then ask, ‘So, what do you really want?’ and socialists will say, ‘We just want democratic control over all things,'” Murray said. “They tend to mean a massively expanded regulatory state, so they’re basically calling for the same sort of thing that was rejected by Western Europe. Rather than calling for direct control of industry and public services, it’s a micromanaging, indirect control—which will eventually result in the same thing: the bureaucrats are in charge and not the entrepreneurs.”

In Murray’s new book, “The Socialist Temptation,” he pins down why, specifically, socialism is so tempting to Americans—and not just students, but even longtime conservatives.

“It does a very good job of speaking to core American values, and it speaks to them at that value level,” he said. “There are three really core American values, and they are fairness, freedom, and community.”

Promoters of socialism say the current society isn’t fair, and that socialism is the solution that will create fairness. They say people can’t be properly free in this society, being oppressed and exploited (see: bank bailouts and mountainous student debt), but a vote for democratic socialists is a vote for freedom.

Unions and other coalitions are also core to socialism; they speak to good jobs for life, and how good jobs will rebuild American communities, Murray said.

“It speaks directly to these values,” he said. “A lot of people say socialism is simplistic, and I don’t think that is the case, but it is easy. It does seem to provide intuitive, easy answers to these problems.”

Murray mentions “cultural cognition” in his book, which separates Americans into four value groups: traditionalists, egalitarians, individualists, and fatalists. The latter believe everything comes down to luck, and they typically don’t vote, so that group isn’t the main focus of any political campaigns. Meanwhile, the other three value groups can vote or migrate across party lines, and successful campaigns speak to these groups in their own language, Murray said.

The egalitarians are the ones who have been cheated by socialism time and again, as society has never been fully equal, Murray writes, but you might see an individualist support wealth redistribution in the name of agency; traditionalists buy into socialist policies that penalize businesses, because companies often don’t stand up for traditional values.

“It’s a very idealistic philosophy, and idealism tends not to worry about the detail, but it’s the detail which is very important,” Murray said. It might speak to American values, but in practice “they undermine those values.”

Democratic Socialism in Britain

Murray grew up in Britain in the 70s, when it was a democratic socialist country.

“All the industries and utilities and so on were nationalized, and to tell you the truth, it was a dreary and depressing place in the 1970s,” Murray said. The labor unions were all-powerful, so those who weren’t in this class suffered professionally.

His father was an electrician who couldn’t get a job because he wasn’t in the union, and couldn’t join the union because he didn’t have a job. His mother was a schoolteacher and would come back from interviews knowing she had already lost the job to one of the bureaucrats interviewing for the same position.

The unions, exercising all of their collective bargaining rights, also led regular strikes. That meant the loss of public services and utilities were a part of everyday life, and on a bigger scale, there was national inflation and the loss of savings.

“During the strikes, because these were essentially public services, they were being disrupted. So as a child, I had to do my homework by candlelight because the power workers had gone on strike. Then you got to the situation in the late 70s when this all became actually absurd. There was one period called the Winter of Discontent, where every public service went on strike in one way or another, whether it be hospital workers, or even gravediggers,” he said.

“You got to the point where there were huge piles of trash in the street because the sanitation workers were on strike and the dead were lying unburied because the gravediggers were on strike. And that’s when people said, ‘No, we’ve had enough of this.'”

Britain, like Sweden, later began to privatize industries after socialist experiments drained national wealth and lowered standards of living.

Of course, Murray, as most will when listening to a socialist explain policy, often hears “any attempt to create a socialist state in the past wasn’t real socialism.”

The same exact cycle plays out, whether it’s in South America or Europe.

When socialist policies are passed into law, people celebrate the fact that true socialism is finally happening.

“The first few years, everything seems to be working, then the wheels start to come off. Things start to go wrong because of the inherent contradictions of socialism, because you can’t have democratic control over every economic decision,” Murray said. At that point, socialists start to blame saboteurs, from domestic to foreign agents. Then, when the inevitable crash and burn happens, they can walk away claiming that it wasn’t real socialism.

While Britain was referred to as the “sick man of Europe” during Murray’s childhood, it is once again in recent years.

“The Labour Party in Britain, it went more extreme socialist in its last election campaign since I have seen since the 1980s; they very much have exactly that rhetoric: ‘We know previous socialist administrations failed, but we’re going to get it right this time,'” Murray said.

Their downfall was actually in promising too much free stuff.

“Even former Labour Members of Parliament were criticizing this because they knew at some point, people are going to stop believing your promises. And clearly, given the scale of the Labour Party’s defeat, they really went over the limit there, and were too easy to reject,” Murray said.

Murray primarily hopes Americans will come to understand what socialism is. He adds that those who do may need to speak to American values.

“The important thing is to point out the contradictions of socialism. Ask why, if socialism is about equality, does it always lead to a new ruling class of bureaucrats with their own special privileges?” Murray said. “Why, when socialists say they want to be like Sweden, why don’t they want the free and open economy that Sweden has?”

In the book, Murray also notes that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the election by speaking to values at the value level: a fairer society, freedom and entrepreneurship, and strengthening community.

If those who are against socialism want to succeed in their messaging, they will need to do the same, he said.