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The Socialist Temptation: Socialism and American Values

One of the most important things I learned at the feet of CEI’s founder Fred Smith was that most Americans don’t think about politics in the way policy wonks do. They don’t particularly care about empirical data, trend lines, or confidence intervals. Indeed, if you try to reach the public by arguing along those lines, you’ll lose the argument. As Fred would say, “People aren’t stupid because they’re stupid. They’re stupid because they’re smart. And if you try to make them smart, you’re being stupid.”

Fred understood that the way to reach people is by making sure a policy accorded with their values. There are three main value groups in America—people who value, respectively, fairness, freedom, and community. If you can persuade all three groups that your policy matches their values, you are halfway to winning.

In my new book, The Socialist Temptation, I argue that the recent rise in popularity of socialism has occurred because socialism talks a very good game when it comes to values. The trouble is that it actually undermines those values.

We know there are things wrong with America. Part of the Socialist Temptation is that it offers easy solutions to those problems. We can cure inequality with redistribution of wealth and ending privilege, for instance. Americans care deeply about fairness and equality, so that appeals to them. The Socialist Temptation accords with American values.

Similarly, Socialists say that Americans aren’t truly free while there is oppression. Americans care deeply about freedom. And they say that American communities are being broken by capitalism. Americans care a lot about community. Yet the policies socialists will introduce will do far more damage to equality, freedom, and community than our current system does.

In particular, a generation of young people who don’t remember the misery that socialism inflicted on Russia and Eastern Europe is embracing it all over again. They are attracted to the apparent inclusivity of policies such as the Green New Deal, universal health care, free college, and other ideas that claim to help the American public but, in reality, come with disastrous consequences.

In my book I attempt to dissect this troubling resurgence and explain:

  • Why the socialist temptation is suddenly so powerful among young people
  • That even when socialism doesn’t usher in a bloody tyranny, it still makes everyone poor and miserable
  • That the Scandinavian economies are not really socialist at all
  • The inconsistencies in socialist thought that prevent it from ever working in practice
  • How we can show young people the sorry truth about socialism and turn the tide of history against this destructive pipe dream—by appealing to their values

I hope you will take a look at the book. We have an America where a self-proclaimed socialist almost won a major party nomination, twice. That’s never happened even once before. We have an America where free enterprise is curtailed by the pandemic response, and where justifiable anger at some police tactics has exploded into a movement that wants to tear down symbols of American freedom. The American political scene has never been more favorable to socialism. I didn’t anticipate two of those things happening, but they make The Socialist Temptation more relevant and timelier than when I wrote it.