May 6, 2021

In today’s political culture, socialism is gaining in popularity. What does this mean for the future of America—and what can be done to stem this tide?

For the latest Goldwater Institute webinar, Iain Murray, the director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, joined Goldwater Vice President for Litigation Timothy Sandefur to take on these questions. Murray is the author of The Socialist Temptation, which delves into why socialism holds such sway over people, even in the United States.

Murray himself is quite familiar with what it means to live under a socialist system, growing up under “late-stage democratic socialism” in the United Kingdom. After the Labour Party embarked on large-scale nationalization, including nationalizing manufacturing and utilities, the vast majority of the workforce ended up working for nationalized entities. This led to very strong labor unions that frequently exercised their power through strikes. Murray remembers doing homework by candlelight because electrical workers were on strike, and not being able to get to school because public transportation workers on strike. While many people don’t think of Britain in the 1970s as a “socialist” country per se, socialism does just not mean the gulag or a utopia, Sandefur said—“it’s much more like an endless series of staff meetings,” where people must jump through hoops to get anything from government.

So why is it that people are attracted to socialism? Murray explained that it’s because socialism speaks well to the American values of fairness, freedom, and community. However, this rhetoric, as appealing as it might be, doesn’t match the way socialist policies and the way they work in practice.

And indeed, many people don’t comprehend the contradictions that are inherent in socialism. For instance, while socialism’s supporters decry the market economy, a centrally planned economy can never match the efficiency of the market, because there’s no way that even the most intelligent planners can work out exactly where there will be needs at a certain time and ramp up production to satisfy it.  “Markets can aggregate knowledge in a way that the planners never can,” Murray explained.

But this lesson isn’t resonating on our shores, especially with younger Americans. Many young Americans—those born after the end of the Cold War—aspire to create an America that acts more like, say, Sweden. But few realize, Murray said that Sweden did go down the road of nationalization for a time. Starting in the 1970s, Swedes rejected the course and elected a series of reformers who took away central planning but left the welfare state in place. Interestingly enough, Sweden today is in some ways more free market than the United States: School choice in Sweden is supported by the teachers’ unions, something that would likely be anathema to a so-called American socialist.

And while we might associate the rise of socialism’s appeal in the U.S. with the Left, Murray said that there is increasingly confusion on the right about what socialism is, too. Conservative opposition to socialism has failed so far because conservatives haven’t defined free market principles well—and even further, according to Murray, we’ve witnessed a rise of socialist thought among self-styled conservatives—going so far as to advocate for the establishment of a new workers’ political party.

So what can we do to withstand the socialist wave? Murray said that we must point out the contradictions of socialism (if socialism is supposed to be about democracy, why are there so many bureaucrats?), but we have to also make the positive case for the free market system in a way that talks about the value of community and fairness. If we do these two things, Murray said, those who want to push back against socialism will do a much better job of advancing their arguments.

You can watch the full webinar above. To see other Goldwater events, click here.

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