Socialism, Nationalism, and Political Control: Iain Murray on The Remnant

My colleague Iain Murray had a fascinating conversation this week with The Remnant’s Jonah Goldberg about his excellent new book, The Socialist Temptation. One of the most interesting points they cover, which we generally take for granted in daily conversations about politics, is how socialism is really defined. Iain quickly covered the major differences between Marxism imposed through class war (revolutionary socialism) to central economic control imposed via the electoral process (democratic socialism) to an expansive social welfare state financed through taxation of a market economy (social democracy). These can be thought of as a spectrum from more severe and doctrinaire to less stringent and more watered-down versions of Marx’s original vision.

In that sense, all modern government interventions into economic life are just 50 shades of socialist gray, ranging from dekulakization on one end to having to pay your local city $100 for a business license on the other. But obviously government intervention into economic life predated the published works of Marx and Engels. Iain and Jonah, for example, get into a discussion of if, and how, nationalism and socialism are fundamentally in conflict, or perhaps just parallel permutations of the same underlying impulse. An energetic nationalist government would, after all, likely engage in many of the same economic controls over employment, production, and distribution of goods that a socialist one does. The main difference is not the actual policies or their unfortunate (and foreseeable) economic effects, but the emotional rationale for implementing them.

Which brings us to Iain’s argument about how cultural values are upstream of political allegiances. We tend to support policies, parties, and politicians that we think will defend and advance our most important values. A socialist wants to stop her fellow workers from being exploited by the capitalists, so she supports nationalization of industry. A nationalist wants to stop his fellow countrymen from being exploited by, say, international corporations with overseas manufacturing facilities, so he supports tariffs on imported goods. Both desire control and a way to punish their ideological antagonists.

But no group achieves political power in a vacuum. Using the force of the state to punish your enemies leads to angry enemies and generates more conflict. The advantage of a democratic republic with limited and enumerated powers—combined with a market-based economic system—is that it allows the angry factions the opportunity to achieve a societal détente. Operating under a constitution that limits the powers of the federal government and guarantees our rights, no one group can ever amass enough power to comprehensively dominate the others.

A market economy also allows people who want to chase billions to chase them, but also allows everyone else the ability to start a farming co-op or a nonprofit social service organization. No billionaire can force you to stop farming organically, but advocates for the workers also don’t get to perform any anti-billionaire tributes to Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. We could all stand to be a little more thankful for those limits.