Thinking In Public

February 1, 2021

The Temptations of Socialism: A Conversation With Economist Iain Murray

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Iain Murray serves as the vice president of strategy and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is a public think tank devoted to economic issues. Born in the United Kingdom, Mr. Murray earned his master of business administration from the University of London and then a Master of Arts from Oxford University. He began his career as a public servant in the UK, working for prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her successor, John Major.

Albert Mohler:

Since coming to the United States, Mr. Murray has published numerous articles providing regular commentary in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and National Review. He's the author of three books. His most recent book, The Socialist Temptation, is the topic of our conversation today. Iain Murray, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Iain Murray:

It's a delight to be with you today.

Albert Mohler:

Your book is really important. I think it's the best one volume work in the current literature explaining socialism as a contemporary temptation and threat. But I want to back up just a little bit and say that arguably, the rise of socialism in an organized political intellectually understandable form, is one of the surprises of the last, say 20 years, that shouldn't have been a surprise.

Iain Murray:

I think that's very much the case. I come from that generation that the thought that we defeated socialism, certainly in Britain that you have some somewhat different threats over here, but we thought we'd beaten it. And when the Berlin Wall came down in 1990, that was the end we thought. Nobody could ever fall for this benighted ideology again. And yet, somehow, it has crept back into the political conversation and crept back in and places that it had never crept before. So that's one of the reasons I wanted to write The Socialist Temptation, to analyze why that had happened.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think actually your background in the UK is quite important for the writing of the book. And in a lot of ways my formation was very similar to yours well maybe at least in the same generation, I was born in 1959. And when I came of age socialism was a very alive idea in the UK, not so much in the US, but in the UK it was a very alive idea. We'll talk more about this in the future of our conversation here, but the Labor Party was an officially socialist party in the UK in the 1970s when I was a teenager trying to understand the world around me.

Albert Mohler:

But with the fall of the Berlin wall and The "End of History "as Francis Fukuyama infamously claimed, we did think it was defeated, but the one thing we had to recognize was that the left never gave up on the grand idea of socialism. So the political left, and by that, I don't just mean Democrats and the Labor Party, that's a for later in the conversation, but the political ideological left never gave up on socialism, it's always been there.

Iain Murray:

That's very much the case. And I think that you can see that most clearly in the popularity of socialism and other hard left ideals in academia. When it had been defeated in the political arena, it found a new home and a very nurturing one in the green halls of academe. In my book, I talk about how back in 1990, there was a roughly 50-50 split between academics who regard themselves as liberals and academics who regarded them as conservatives. Now, it's got to the stage where the conservatives are almost extinct, and in fact, they are outnumbered by those who regard themselves as hard left or communists and socialists make up most of the remainder.

Albert Mohler:

Well, those numbers are actually quite firm, they're quite objectively true. And frankly, the left brags about them when it's convenient and then tries to obfuscate when called on them. But you're right, the fact is that the hard left outnumbers anyone who could be considered a conservative in elite academia, that is in the campuses that are primary in ideological formation and cultural influence. Even in the Western world today, we're looking at something like 30 campuses that really determine the academic an ideological tenor of the rest of academia. And they're clearly, every single one of them, in the hands of the ideological left and increasingly open about socialism.

Albert Mohler:

But I think we've committed a bit of a fault here in the beginning of our conversation. We haven't actually defined terms very well. And when I first picked up your book, The Socialist Temptation, one of the first things I wanted to see is if you were brave enough to define your term and you did. And yet you recognize that it's a contested term right now.

Iain Murray:

That's very much the case. Traditionally, socialism was based on the works of Karl Marx, there was some utopian socialists before him, but they're essentially irrelevant. For well over 100 years, socialism meant a philosophy that derived from the works of Karl Marx. Essentially socialism as it would come to be put into practice in countries all over the world meant workers control, or popular control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. So nationalization of industry whether it would be total as it was in the Soviet Union or partial as it was in democratic socialist countries, like the UK where I grew up. After the fall of the Berlin wall, as we mentioned earlier, something started to change there was a morphing of what socialism meant.

Iain Murray:

Now, it got to the stage where if you try to debate a socialist and ask them what socialism means, you can get some motion sickness from the number of times that they moved the goalposts. Sometimes socialism is just described as just being nice to each other, just being kind to each other. Well, what does that mean for a religious process? Then we get to the stage where they say, "Well, we certainly don't mean all the things that the Soviet Union did. We mean what's happened in Scandinavia." At which point you have to ask them, "Well, didn't Scandinavia actually reject socialism in the 1980s. They kept the welfare state, yes. But they rejected a lot of the policies that you, as socialists, are talking about." So it can get very difficult to get a socialist, to really define what they mean. But when you get down to it, when you look at the policies they are pushing, it's back to the old Marxist idea, it's that popular control of the economy.

Albert Mohler:

I want to suggest one etymological or linguistic matter here, and that is that I think in our context, in the American context, English speaking context, you're clearly right when you say popular control, but that's going to be misunderstood because it actually means state control. And Marx was actually quite clear about that, and the successive Marxists. So, they claimed that this would be in the name of the people, but when people hear about workers controlling the means of production, and the means of distribution and the distribution of labor, it sounds like a good thing until you figure out that it's actually not the workers, it's a vast bureaucracy in the name of the workers.

Iain Murray:

This is exactly the point. They talk about democratic control, they talk about popular control, workers control— but it only takes a moment's thought to realize that the workers, the people, the democracy can't oversee all the myriads of economic transactions that happen every day. They have to delegate that task. And every time socialism and has tried, there is a process of delegation. That delegation is to a new class, a class of bureaucrats of commissars, of apparatchiks, whatever you want to call them. But in the end, that new class essentially becomes a new ruling class.

Iain Murray:

And this is why I say that anybody who wants to understand socialism, the first thing that they should do is read George Orwell's magnificent allegory, Animal Farm. The animals take over the farm, they paint their slogan, all animals are equal on the wall, and then the pigs take over and eventually they start walking on their hind legs. And that slogan has changed, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. And it's always the same with socialism.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, it reminds me of an anecdote, actually invented of course, but very effectively by the late president, Ronald Reagan. He said, "In every country, there are limousines and there are people who drive a little cars, but the difference between the United States and the Soviet union is that when an American sees some rich person goes by in a limousine, he says, 'Everybody ought to drive a car like that!'" And he says, "When the Soviet citizen, the communist sees a limousine pass by, he says, 'No one ought to ride in a car like that!'" But the point is, there are limousines in both cultures there is a political bureau somewhere.

Iain Murray:

Oh, indeed, the ZIL may not have been made by Buick or Chevrolet, but it was definitely still a limousine.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely, but about this definition of socialism, there has been an attempt to try to democratize socialism. And so we have a democratic socialism, we have a social democracy, and they're not exactly the same thing. Nonetheless they're accommodations of the socialist ideology to a democratic or electoral system of government one way or the other. But the fact is, it never actually quite works out that way. I think the reason why it's so important to stick by a standard definition of socialism as state ownership of the means of production, and the means of distribution and the distribution of labor. It's because eventually no matter what you call it, it has the power of the state behind it and it has to use coercion. Margaret Thatcher, the late British prime minister was perhaps more eloquent than anyone else and saying, "You can't have socialism without someone exercising massive coercion and confiscation."

Iain Murray:

Well, that's it. In the end that popular control, that workers control does actually devolve to bureaucratic and in many cases, unfortunately, military coercion. We see that those places where they really try to go all the way to that Marxist ideal of democratic control of everything. It's always the military that exercises that control. And it's the military who ends up dragging people from their beds in the middle of the night because they don't want to be coerced.

Albert Mohler:

You made reference to the fact that there were socialist utopian ideas before Marx and Marxism Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, you also had someone as classic as Plato with some ideas that would tend towards a common ownership in his own dystopian vision. But nonetheless, when you're talking about socialism, you're exactly right to say we were tracing it back to Marx, these are various forms of Marxist thought and Marxist economics. But the end of the 20th century came with the pretty clear revelation that it hadn't worked anywhere, and by that, I mean nowhere, not one square centimeter on planet earth did socialism work.

Iain Murray:

This is a very interesting phenomenon. How they have managed to get round that. And I'm grateful to my colleague Dr. Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London for first laying this out so adroitly. There's a three-part process that goes on with a socialist state. The first part is when the social status comes into being, whether through a democratic election or through revolution. All the commentators turn around and say, "This is it. At long last that the international brotherhood of man is here. We have a socialist state, this is real socialism."

Iain Murray:

And then a few years later some of the internal contradictions of socialism start to bite and the wheels start to come off the economy and things aren't going so well. At that point, the second stage is, these same commentators turn around and say, "Well, this can't be the fault of socialism, can it? Socialism is perfect. It must be the fault of wreckers or saboteurs, the old ruling class, or often foreign agents, the CIA." That's I think where we are with Venezuela at the moment. Every good socialist worth his salt will say that what's happening in Venezuela is actually the fault of economic sanctions and the CIA interfering.

Iain Murray:

And then finally, when everything has gone to heck in a handbasket, when there may, in the worst case many thousands of deaths, those same commentators who hailed it as real socialists and turn around and say, "Well, it wasn't real socialism. It can't have been real socialism because it failed." And so this gives socialism of get out of jail free card because when you when do you turn around and say, you don't want to institute socialism because look at what happened in all these other socialist countries, they just say, "Oh, well, that wasn't real socialism." So this time we're going to get it right." And as a result the history is always erased and socialists get away with saying that it's going to be different this time.

Albert Mohler:

It makes me think as a historian of ideas that this can be traced, at least in part, to the Hegelian superstructure of Marxism, because a Hegel can never be disproved or Hegelian, let me put it this way, will never admit that the theory has not worked because they just misread at what point in the unfolding of thought they were. You just have to recalibrate your place in history, it's never recalibrate the idea. But looking at-

Iain Murray:

I think that's exactly right.

Albert Mohler:

Looking at Marx, I did a thinking in public just recently with Paul Kengor of Grove City College, who does such a phenomenal job once again, of just demolishing the myth of Marx the man. I mean, just a horrifying human being actually. And with death and despair everywhere around him, not by accident. And thus, his ideas actually didn't have much traction. And Marx and Engels, both thought that this a socialist revolution would come in the great industrialized cities of the world and there were nowhere more industrialized than in the UK. And so it would be in Birmingham, and Manchester and especially in London, but it didn't happen. And instead, it happens in arguably the least industrialized of the nations imaginable, that would have been Russia at a moment of the imminent collapse of the Romanov dynasty.

Albert Mohler:

And yet they had to keep arguing that it was working. And they had fellow travelers, they had friends of the communist revolution in the English-speaking world who kept saying that it was working, but there were the signs from the very beginning that this was never going to work. It led to massive famine, the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

Iain Murray:

Oh, indeed. One of the chapters of my book deals with the Holodomor, literally, the killing by starvation that that happened in the Ukraine when Stalin realized that there was a class of peasant to had actually done quite well under the old czarist regime and were being resentful about what was happening to them under communism, so he decided just to eliminate the Kulaks as a class. So this led to one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Ukrainian history when so many people were dying that the Soviet authorities actually had to put up posters that said cannibalism is not a good thing, people were actually eating their dead relatives.

Iain Murray:

This all came about as a result of the collectivization of land and the attempts to eliminate the Kulaks as a class, and that obviously succeeded. But the ridiculous thing about this is Western journalists, those commentators I was mentioning earlier such as Walter Duranty of The New York times actually saw this happening and ignored it, or in some cases, willfully misrepresented it-

Albert Mohler:

And won a Pulitzer.

Iain Murray:

And won a Pulitzer which The New York times still proudly has in its halls to this day, it has never been repudiated. But thanks to crusading journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge of The Guardian in London, well, actually Manchester in those days. And Mr. Jones of a movie, Out of The Moment, which is well worth watching, an American journalist who uncovered this truth and finally revealed to the world that when people had said, "I've seen the future, it works," it definitely was not working and it was in fact killing people.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, in the 1970s I'm trying to find the right authors to read. And it was actually then a reference of William Buckley Jr., that I found Malcolm Muggeridge. And when I was a teenager, there was no internet, obviously and so I had to track it down and use interlibrary loan to find some of his reports. But Muggeridge was so clear and he gave me one of the categories that's had lasting significance in my thought, which is a great liberal death wish. But in the reporting, which you cite so well in The Socialist Temptation, Muggeridge is saying, "Look, you don't have to have theory to understand the failure of communism. All you have to have his eyes."

Albert Mohler:

You also acknowledge the fact that if you go to the average 18-22 year old on a college campus, they actually are probably not going to answer in defining socialism as the state ownership of the means of production, means a distribution, distribution of labor. Instead, they're going to say something like we want to be Sweden, but Sweden is not socialist. Just ask the Swedes, just look at their GNP, just look at their economic system, they're not socialist.

Iain Murray:

That's exactly the case. If you look at the index of economic freedom, for instance, of The Heritage Foundation, and you look at the various ratings for economic freedom, you'll find that Sweden is about level in aggregate with the United States, but that includes a massive marking down because of the size of its welfare state. Aside from the welfare state and the level of taxation that is needed to support it, Sweden is actually, probably a freer economy than the United States is. For instance, Sweden has fully embraced school choice and did so with the enthusiastic approval of the teacher's unions. They have privatized large parts of social security; they deregulated and privatized the industries that they have so much control over during the premiership of Olof Palme and his fellow old-style socialists.

Iain Murray:

They got rid of this in the '80s and '90s and moved towards being a much freer economy. Yet, if you would ask the average socialists, whether they are in favor of school choice, they will almost certainly say no. And so the rhetoric and the reality again, did not match up. Sweden is not by any means a socialist country. And yet Democratic socialists say they want to see policies which are much more socialist than Sweden, and then say they want to be like Sweden. It just doesn't add up.

Albert Mohler:

I want to press you on a couple of points and you actually deal with this very responsibly in your book. And I want to say that. If you do talk to these college students or graduate students even more dangerously or their faculty teachers, on many of these campuses, what you're going to hear is the statement, we want to be like Sweden, but actually the policies they're advocating are for more like Moscow than Stockholm. You see this with someone like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez kind of the socialist of the moment.

Albert Mohler:

And one of the things that talked about on my program is the fact that she is a current cover, a photograph of AOC, as she is now iconically known, an iconic socialist. She is now on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, which is a very interesting barometer of America's aspirational culture. But the thing is that she's presented as this a ‘non-threatening’ socialist, a democratic socialist, let's put the word democratic in there, she insists. But the actual policies that she's suggesting are radically confiscatory, they have the hard fist of government when you actually look at the Green New Deal. I mean, it could have come right out of a Soviet five-year plan.

Iain Murray:

That's very much the case, there's something very interesting going on in Europe. And I think this is being reflected in the sort of socialism that AOC and her comrades and the squad espouse, if you look at what's happened to the old socialist parties in Western Europe, except the Labor Party in Britain, they've virtually all eroded. They've seen their vote share go down in each successive election until now they're really minor players. What's replaced them is Green Parties. And those Green Parties, they used to call themselves Ecology Parties, and they were all about environmental policy. Now, they are about using that environmental policy as an excuse to reimpose socialism.

Iain Murray:

So the Green New Deal is half energy and environmental policy and half new deal policy, a complete restructuring of the economy. And there are versions of the Green New Deal all over the Western world, the Green Industrial Revolution, it's being called in Britain. Green deals without the new part, in much of Europe. But the policies are all very much from the old socialists' playbook. There are some new tweaks, such as replacing the welfare system with the universal basic income which may mean that there's less means testing, which might actually be an improvement on the current welfare state. But nevertheless, the sort of levels that they're talking about for universal basic income, it's going to be very, very hard to find the tax base to actually fund that.

Iain Murray:

So when you look at the actual policies of the Green New Deal, you realize that there's a reason why some people refer to this new version of environmentalism as watermelon environmentalism, because it's green on the outside, but red on the inside.

Albert Mohler:

An apt metaphor indeed. And again, it points to the dishonesty going on here, because I'm looking at this Vanity Fair cover story about AOC the socialist, but it is also taking very expensive photographs of her in very, very expensive couture. Very expensive fashions, those do not come out of Moscow, they certainly don't come out of Beijing or Cambodia under Pol Pot. And it's this basic hypocrisy. I see the same thing, and it frustrates me with all these college students, by increasing numbers and by some estimates, more college students support some form of socialism than any form of conservative thought right now, at least on the college campus. And yet they will pick up their iPhone, and use the latest app, and demand the latest clothing and all the latest things of a consumer society without recognizing that there isn't a socialist society on earth that has come close to producing anything like that because socialist societies, they don't actually produce well.

Iain Murray:

This is because one of the first things that goes under a socialist or a communist regime is innovation. That's because the innovator loses all incentive to innovate. If the bureaucracy is in charge and the bureaucracy is going to be looking over the plans and the idea of permissionless innovation such as we've had in America and the Anglosphere that disappears, everything has to be permitted. And then there's the question of confiscatory tax rates. If you look at the history of Britain and indeed Sweden in the 1970s, you will see that the tax rates reached as high as 95%. In Britain's case, there was a super-tax of over 100% of one point that made the Beatles of all people, recording a song called "Taxman", bemoaning that back creativity wasn't being rewarded, it was going instead to the taxman.

Iain Murray:

So innovation is a real casualty of socialism. But the socialists have come up with a new argument, which is the argument of the entrepreneurial state, which is that without the foundation of the state, entrepreneurialism would be impossible. So, this leads to things President Obama saying, "You didn't build that,” to entrepreneurs. And so, socialism has got it in heads that innovation would be impossible without a degree of socialism. And so, again, there's a cognitive dissonance going on here.

Albert Mohler:

This was a major issue of discussion amongst a conservative political theorist and I was a part of many of those conversations 20 years ago. And it had to do with how minimal the state can be, which implied how minimal the state should be. And so for instance, you would have the argument that in an unstable world, in a dangerous world, the first responsibility of government, in a democratic, that is to say liberty-minded construct, it would be to establish adequate order for commerce and society to function. And beyond that, to encourage commerce, in the only way that the state might be able rightly to do so, which would be by for instance, guaranteeing the free passage of goods from one state to another.

Albert Mohler:

But when you get beyond that you begin to reach the old chicken and egg problem, but the socialist always begin with the egg being the government. It's always the government. So when you talk about the state entrepreneurism, it implies that the state is the basic unit. It doesn't recognize that prior to the state, it was a pre-political society. The state actually emerges out of that, it doesn't produce that the state can't produce that. The federal government did not produce the American people, the American people produced the federal government.

Iain Murray:

This is precisely the point, the genius of the west, and in particular, the genius of the Anglosphere has been to let the people— in many ways it's a more democratic system than socialism— because it is based in the genius of the people and trusting the people so that the people can actually come up with this spontaneous order that we see that underlies the most successful western societies. In the end, one of the questions I think that socialism fails to answer properly is how much do you trust the people. In their rhetoric, you'd think they would trust the people absolutely. But because of the way socialism is always implemented, it shows that there is no trust in the people whatsoever.

Albert Mohler:

Liberty-minded conservatives have a shared concern with the far left about the issue of income inequality, a shared concern. We both recognize it as a morally significant category. The question is to answer what causes it, and then to actually define what it is, and then to suggest a remedy, but income inequality is being used right now as an argument for the imposition of socialism, which after all could very well, at least on a far broader segment of the society, create greater economic equality. But it would be the equality of reduction, not the equality of addition.

Iain Murray:

The central issues with income inequality, is that the people who seem to be the most concerned with it never really ask the question, how are the poor actually doing? Because when you asked that question and look at the data that answers it, you will see that the poor do the best in economically free societies and do the worst in societies where they are controlled in one way or another, whether it be by socialist, or fascist or authoritarian regimes.

Iain Murray:

Once you get beyond that, you start to look as you were saying at the difference. Margaret Thatcher put this brilliantly bid in her farewell speech in the House of Commons when she turned to the Labor benches and she said, "You don't care if the poor are here as long as the rich are here, I would like to see the poor here and the rich up here." And that is the difference between the two definitions of income inequality. The conservative would like to see the incomes of everybody rise so the income inequality ceases to be a topic of conversation. Whereas the socialists would like to see everybody's income suppressed so that there is no theoretical problem of income inequality at all.

Albert Mohler:

But then they are never going to say that. But here's how it works, you spoke of the poor, I'm going to speak of the middle-class for a moment because politically the middle-class is the center of gravity in western democracies. So looking at this, the fact is that if you say to people, "Look, there are going to be some Warren Buffetts, there are going to meet some NBA stars, there are going to be some speculators who are going to do very well and are going to become mega billionaires. And what about you?" Well, I mean, if you take an Elon Musk, his net worth is, I mean, I don't even have an exponential formula for it, but he's basically gone from being nothing to being now, they say that second, third or fourth richest man on the planet, depending on how you're counting.

Albert Mohler:

Well, he's worth thousands, if not tens of thousands and more and more of me. But the bottom line is, I am economically vastly advantaged over my parents. And they were vastly economic advantage over their parents. And even in my parents' adult lifetime holding basically the same job for 40 years, the house got bigger, the cars got bigger, air conditioning arrived. So, but my parents' income may have doubled in 40 years, whereas it may have been amplified a million times over amongst others. But the fact is my parents would not trade socialism where their income had stayed the same for 20 years.

Albert Mohler:

And I think that there's a fake resentment being built in here. And it's not to say that we don't want the middle-class to do better, we don't want the poor to be raised up, we certainly do. We want to create the economic conditions in which that will happen. But we're not making very good moral arguments, I think Mr. Murray.

Iain Murray:

I think that's very much the case saying that there is a confusion between dollars and value that is fundamental to this issue. If you take, for example, how long you need to work to pay for an hour's worth of light. In the 1950s, you actually had to work quite a decent chunk of time. Today, it is literally seconds that the average person has to work to get that hours' worth of light. And Bjørn Lomborg, the skeptical environmentalist, tells us a story of how in his day King Louis, the 14th, the Sun King had 300 chefs at his disposal.

Iain Murray:

Well, if you have one of these (referring to his phone) and the DoorDash you have probably had 300 chefs at your disposal as well. And yet, in terms of relative worth, the King was theoretically much, much wealthier than you. But would you trade your position, the average middle-class person, would they trade their position for the Sun King in an era before penicillin? As my wife likes to say, there were no good old days before the invention of penicillin.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, or modern dentistry, let me add. And the flushing toilet. In other words, you look at these inventions and how we take them for granted. And so, again, it frustrates me that you look at the magnates of industry that made their fortunes, and basically, it's their heirs who give it away and subvert the very means whereby the wealth was created. But you have the campuses that have the buildings named for them where people enjoy the air conditioning, the constant WIFI, I mean, all the goods and they demand even more and yet they declare themselves absolutely opposed to the own conditions in the history of humanity that have produced them.

Iain Murray:

It's astonishing, isn't it? I remember I was caught up in a demonstration, one of the poll-tax riots in Britain in the 1980s. And there was an anarchist hanging from a lamppost, what in those days was a very expensive camera, of course, these days we have cameras in our phones, but those days he had a very expensive camera and I yelled up to him, "Property is theft!" And he just grinned at me and started to take pictures of me. So this isn't a new phenomenon by any means. It is one of the great hypocrisies of socialism over the years that they will take advantage of the benefits of a free society in order to try to overthrow.

Albert Mohler:

Mr. Murray, I want to test a theory with you along those lines. And this is a theory that has emerged from my own experience in academic engagement. The people who have what they believe to be the intellectual advantages, the goods of higher education. They believe they're going to come out on top regardless of the formal situation. So it's always about the other people. And so this is one of the frustrations I have when I'm talking to people on the left on American college campuses. They are not about to give up their tenure, they're not about to give up their endowed chair, they're not about to give up their private parking space, but it's always about the other people. And it reminds me again of that Orwellian insight, this is always done on behalf of someone else, whether someone else wants it or not.

Iain Murray:

Oh, indeed, and of course, as Margaret Thatcher once said, "The trouble of socialism is that you'll eventually run out of other people's money." And those other people are very often the middle class or the people that the socialists claim to be championing. Just to return to Sweden for a minute, one of the things that today's Democratic socialists never admit, they will say, "Oh, we only need to raise taxes on the rich. If we raise taxes on the rich, we can pay for everything." But if you look at the welfare states like Sweden, they can't pay for the welfare states, just from taxes on the rich, they have to have very high levels of taxation on the middle classes. So yeah, I think it's something like 70% tax rates, when you get to about $80,000 in Swedish equivalent. So there's always a very high tax burden placed on the people that they claim to champion. And one final thing about the intellectuals, remember what happened in Cambodia, where just having glasses was viewed as a sign of being an enemy of the state.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, the ability to read, that was enough. In thinking about Sweden, just to take an example, one of the things that's also often not acknowledged by the left and especially with the Green New Deal is the fact that the welfare state, so much of Scandinavia had been underwritten by North Sea oil. In other words right now, if you're an economist in Scandinavia, you're quite concerned about how the welfare state can be sustained because one way or another that carbon income is leaving.

Iain Murray:

Yes, well, to be fair to Sweden, they didn't have that. They're not on the North Sea and they don't have much of the North Sea oil, but.

Albert Mohler:

Right, but the rest of Scandinavia does.

Iain Murray:

Norway, just next door. That's exactly the case. Norway has a sovereign wealth fund, which is the source of a lot of the country's income, but at some point, that's going to start winding down and we see my equivalent, the think tanks in Norway are trying to work out how on earth to deal with this. And generally, the answer that they're coming up with, and the answer that Norwegian people seem increasingly sympathetic to is that they need to free up their economy somewhat. I think it would be very interesting to see which direction Norway goes in. Does it go down the route of say, some of the Eastern European countries that have not done terribly well, like Belarus and so on, or does it go down the road that Sweden and Britain has gone down and dismantle their large state. I think it's probably going to be the latter.

Albert Mohler:

I think so, too, because that raises another huge point. And by the way, one little footnote here, I have to say as a proud American and a concerned American, is that if you look at much of Western Europe, they're also able to fund a welfare state because they're not spending what they should be spending on national defense. The United States and its nuclear umbrella and NATO have given them extraordinary infusions effectively of cash by the trillions of dollars. And so, forgive me, that's a footnote.

Albert Mohler:

But the larger issue is, I was looking at something last night and someone said the now-discredited Laffer curve. And you remember that the curve, which had to do with the fact that if the government taxes 0%, it receives zero income, but if it taxes 100%, it receives zero income because the economy dies. And the thing is that that curve is not discredited because it's self-evidently true. The meaning of it is open to interpretation.

Albert Mohler:

But similarly, I argued that there's a tax curve in democratic governments. And one of the interesting things about the November the 3rd elections here in 2020, is that the most liberal state in the union, arguably California, the voters turned down a tax increase. And frankly, it was a tax increase, that was disguised so it didn't even look like it was a tax increase on the middle-class, but rather on corporations, but voters in the most liberal state in the union saw through that.

Albert Mohler:

And so, my argument is that the limitation upon socialism in the Anglosphere is the voter. And that certainly, that's what you could speak of better than I, as the UK experience. But even in California, it turns out they're not ready to go socialist, even though they just elected a president by 67%, who's committed to some form of it.

Iain Murray:

Well, yeah, so what's very interesting is that in all the major economies of the Anglosphere, whatever the highest tax rate is, you never get more than about 30%-33% of GDP actually paid in taxes. There's a sort of resistance to high taxes that's built into economic reaction to taxation. We will find ways to avoid paying the tax when it's at very high levels. There is a boundary that's there, it's almost an iron law, that you can't get above that level of taxation. And that in many ways is the Laffer curve in action.

Iain Murray:

But what's very interesting about California, I think in the recent elections, is not just the rejection of taxation, but also for instance, the rejection of the attempt to destroy the idea of independent contracting. To say that you must be an employee rather than a free contractor. The California's rejected that by a massive margin and that shows that level of individual enterprise, that belief in making your own future of which independent contracting and freelancing is probably the purest form, there's still a belief even in California, that must be an option for people. That I think is a great demonstration of the American spirit at work.

Albert Mohler:

Now, by the way, that gets back to your point however, the argument is that California voters were just victims of being infused with false consciousness. They voted against their own values, as the left would say, when in reality, they want to be able to use their app and call an Uber car, and they might want to work for Uber and work two hours a week and not be told that they have to be full-time employees.

Iain Murray:

Exactly the case. And they want to be able to use that DoorDash app with independent contractors delivering the products of the 300 chefs to them.

 

Albert Mohler:

You do something else in your book, The Socialist Temptation that I think is actually incredibly helpful. And that is so up-to-date, you're in conversation with the people on the left right now who are really pushing socialism and doing so quite effectively. One of them is Bhaskar Sunkara and through Jacobin magazine. And I've been following this— to me, it's the perfect example—you have a very slick magazine that could only emerge from a consumer culture attacking, pretty honestly, the economy that produced it. I picked up his book, The Socialist Manifesto. Now what surprises me, Mr. Murray is that this is really old style uncut socialism. I don't think most Americans recognize how influential, however, Sunkara is for instance, in the modern Democratic Party.

Iain Murray:

Well, this is exactly it when people say that they only want to be like Sweden, the Democratic socialists say they only want to be like Sweden. You really have to push them on that and get beyond that initial piece of rhetoric and ask them what their policies are because they'll inevitably come up with policies like those that Bhaskar Sunkara uses, not just promote but lauds in The Socialist Temptation. Policies, which are far more radical than any western socialist party has espoused apart from the British Labor Party in recent years, but they're far more radical than those any Western socialist party has espoused for at least 50 years.

Iain Murray:

It really is turning back the clock to a putative golden age of socialism that never really existed. It's particularly interesting that he says that the Labor Party of Jeremy Corbyn presents a marvelous opportunity. We'll, at last, be able to see how these policies work properly, because previous times weren't real socialism, as we discussed before. And what happened to Jeremy Corbyn in the British general election of 2019, he was routed, just defeated ignominiously, the worst electoral performance a Labor Party leader has ever had since the foundation of the party.

Albert Mohler:

That's just because British voters don't know what's good for them, Mr. Murray.

Iain Murray:

Indeed, the false consciousness is there, but even the members of the Labor Party as I said, they'd have enough and got rid of Jeremy Corbyn and replaced them with a much more Blairite moderate who actually expelled Jeremy Corbyn from the party when their own internal inquiry found that he was a complicit in antisemitism, which it's astonishing.

Albert Mohler:

You didn't need an inquiry, you just needed a search engine. His antisemitism has been there in public for a very long time. By the way, as I was looking at Bhaskar Sunkara's book, The Socialist Manifesto, which again, is beautifully packaged. This is exactly what you see in the front table of an American bookstore. What shocked me in this, and I like to think sometimes I really can't be this shocked, but I was shocked. In that, Sunkara argues that the Corbyn-Bernie Sanders moment is not enough because they're Democratic socialists. He wants far more fundamental socialism, but he wants to take advantage of it. But he applauds Bernie Sanders because he says, Sanders is committed to increasing class antagonism. And that's true. It's kind of obviously true, but to say it out loud in the United States, I'll admit I was shocked, I still am. Even just telling you, I'm still shocked. I mean, how many people who went and voted for Bernie Sanders in a primary, for that matter, consider themselves democratic socialists. Some kind of socialists on college campus know that what this is calling for is tearing apart western civilization.

Iain Murray:

When you have an unreconstructed Marxist like Bhaskar Sunkara, you have to go back to Marx and you have to look at the rhetoric that was involved in Marx's work. When you read Marx, it's clear that the class struggle is central to his philosophy. Socialism without the class struggles, I think somebody like Bhaskar Sunkara would admit, is meaningless if you are a Marxist. So, it should come as no surprise that the foremost Marxist in American politics is all about the class struggle.

Albert Mohler:

But that means telling American middle-class people that they really are being oppressed. And convincing them that they would do better under another system. And I still believe maybe it's just my American optimism, I still believe that the response to that has to be good luck with that.

Iain Murray:

I believe that that will be the case if a policy package like Bhaskar Sunkara is ever actually submitted to the voters. Actually, I think it has been, I think that they're happy in American socialist candidates in the past. And they've got 1% or 2% of the vote utmost, worse than the libertarian party, which is saying something. But the fact is that the policies that socialists actually want to see put in place are just antithetical to the idea of American freedom and American entrepreneurialism and American values. And that is, I think the reason why socialism will always remain a temptation in America, and we'll never actually succeed at the ballot box.

Albert Mohler:

I pray you're right. Your book, The Socialist Temptation, I've said it before, it's brilliant, it's extremely timely. But it was written before the election in the United States and released before that. So, I just want to ask you in closing, bring us up to date after November the third, after developments in the UK, what is your up-to-date synopsis of where we stand since you completed the book?

Iain Murray:

I think what we saw was very interesting from the exit-polls and everything that showed that especially immigrants, especially those from South American countries that have called themselves a socialist, they rejected socialism. The association of socialism and the Democratic Party, they rejected that absolutely. And that helped propel many Republican candidates to victories that most people probably didn't see coming. I think what we're beginning to see is a debate within the Democratic Party about whether or not being associated with socialism is actually an advantage. And at the moment it looks like the socialists are playing on the back foot. But I do worry, as I mentioned earlier, environmentalism has replaced socialism in much of Western Europe. And I think what we'll see is a pivot from talking about socialism to talking about environmentalism and talking about green policies rather than socialist policies. And I think we might still end up with a lot of the same policies being pushed on us, just not in the name of the people but in the name of the environment.

 

 

Albert Mohler:

And what's required is honest men and women speaking honesty and truth into the situation. You've helped us with your book, The Socialist Temptation, Iain Murray, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Iain Murray:

It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for the conversation.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest Iain Murray, for thinking with me today, if you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find well more than 100 of these conversations @albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public for more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to spts.edu for information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public until next time, keep thinking, I'm Albert Mohler.

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