Reflections on an Interview with Bernie Sanders
If you watch the interview of Bernie Sanders by Joe Rogan, which has been clicked close to eight million times, you will find that the Vermont senator and presidential candidate looks honest and persuasive. One reason is that he has been a politician for nearly all his life, but there is more than that.
One thing is that he stands on the shoulders of two centuries of socialists. He is promising lots of goodies: free college, free health care, free dental care, higher wages at no cost (nobody will lose his job), protectionism, a ban on assault weapons but no confiscation of the millions already owned, saving the earth, no oil, more income for everybody except the corporations and “the billionaires,” rebuilding communities, retrofitting buildings…
This looks like a winning program that would relieve much frustration and envy. Once the socialists are in power, Sanders is trying to say, the state will finally be us. “We” will take care of “us.”
For Sanders, as well as for all the Mr.-Jourdains who do socialism without knowing it, every problem has a solution available from some political authority and imposed equally to all. In principle, the political authority is “the people,” which means half of the people, or in fact half of the two-thirds who vote, which in practice means the leaders of the government and the bureaucrats who assist them.
Socialists have a poor understanding of incentives in general (everybody is a Rousseauvian “good savage” like them), and voters’ incentives in particular. Public choice theory has shown how the ordinary voter is “rationally ignorant”: he has no incentive to gather the information necessary to cast an informed vote, because his vote will have zero influence on the election results. Imagine if all Americans were obliged to own the same brand and model of car to be chosen by a referendum. How much time would you spend to get informed on what is the best car? Given that, the voter can only express a non-influential moral opinion; more often, he votes for the same reason that he applauds at a sports game, that is, not to change the level of noise but to entertain himself. (See my old Regulation article on this public choice approach.)
It is a strange thing that “democratic socialists” have only a pre-scientific intuition of how democracy works.
Another reason for the appeal of Mr. Sanders’s message is that it is well adapted to our time when socialism has come to mean not empowering individuals, but giving them the security of being to the state what children are to their parents. In a 2005 article in Public Choice (“Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as Desideratum”), James Buchanan predicted a revival of socialism under that form, which he called “parental socialism” or “parentalism.” Many of Mr. Sanders’ listeners were already looking for what he is promising: a powerful paternal figure that will take care of them. That is a bit different from the “we” sort of socialism and very different from a free society.
So when Mr. Sanders insists that his proposals “are not radical ideas,” he is right in a sense. They are a natural continuation of the drift from the ideal of individual liberty to the collective straightjacket.
We must remember that what the state gives, he has already taken from somebody, often from the same persons to whom it is giving (a process called “churning”). Politicians don’t pay for their promises out of their own pockets. Moreover, the taking is not only in the form of money but in the form of forcing people to do certain things or forbidding them to do something—or else, the nice socialists will send the cops. Also missing in Sanders’s approach, as in the general approach of socialism, is an understanding that the state can only provide all these free gifts by controlling a large part of society, levying heavy taxes on the people including ordinary people (like in Scandinavian countries), and grabbing a big decision power in individuals’ lifestyles (at least those that are not politically-correct for the moment).
Sanders invokes the example of Canada’s monopolistic, single-payer health-insurance system (in fact, there is one for each province). In that country, the median wait time between a referral to a specialist physician and actual treatment is 19.8 weeks (see the latest, 2018, survey by the Fraser Institute). And even these services are not really free: somebody has got to pay. People don’t go broke because of their medical bills, they go broke because of their tax burdens instead.
A related failure of socialism consists in its incapacity to understand how a society of free individuals is auto-regulating. This theory of the free society is not necessarily easy to understand, and much of economics has consisted in trying to explain it, starting with Adam Smith. Buchanan summarized this ideal in his book What Should Economists Do? (which I will review in the forthcoming issue of Regulation for the fortieth anniversary of its publication):
As a discipline or area of inquiry, economics has social value in offering an understanding of the principle of order emergent from decentralized processes, of spontaneous coordination. (The market is a classic example.) Such an understanding is necessarily prior to an informed decision on alternative forms of social order, or even on alternative directions of marginal distinction. The principle of order that economics teaches is in no way “natural” to the human mind which, in innocence, is biased towards simplistic collectivism.
At some point in the interview, Sanders deplores that somebody’s job has moved to China—or language conveying that impression. Does he understand that the job did not walk to the airport and take a flight for China. The job did not move, it is American consumers who decided to patronize somebody in China who could make what they want cheaper. Aren’t these American consumers people too?
Not all the questions Sanders rise are wrong, his intentions are not necessarily bad, some of his ideas are even good—such as decriminalizing marijuana and having a hard look at the criminal justice system. But simplistic collectivism characterizes his understanding of society. Hell would be paved with his good intentions.