Dear Children: When I was about your age, starting in college, I loved the movie Red Dawn, which had just come out. The story was that American liberty is under assault from advancing worldwide Communism and a group of teens in Colorado take to the mountains as the last line of defense to resist an invading Soviet army. As a Colorado boy, from time to time I imagined myself in their place, taking shots at Spetsnaz forces with Grandpa’s .22 hunting rifle. Of course, it never came to that.
Now, American liberty is in your hands. You aren’t being called upon to go to the hills and wage war. You have an easier task, but I urge you to take it very seriously. Think hard before you vote. You may be the last line of defense.
Four years ago, two of you got behind Bernie Sanders, and I understood why. He was an underdog fighting a corrupt—or, at the very least, over-ripe—machine. He was consistent and “authentic.” No constant recalculating of positions or personas to match fluctuations in the polls. He didn’t say one thing publicly and the opposite in private sessions with Wall Street executives. And Hillary Clinton seemed so certain to win that voting for Bernie was more a statement than a serious electoral choice.
This is different. After his successes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Bernie is a real contender. He leads national polls of Democratic voters. At this moment, many analysts judge him more likely to win the Democratic nomination than any other candidate. And it is the young who have given Bernie these successes. So now you really have to decide what you want. The choice is consequential. Though some pundits argue that Bernie can’t win in 2020, they said the same thing about Donald Trump four years ago.
I’m going to suggest that there are some questions that you should ask yourselves, and Bernie, before you proceed.
Bernie proclaims himself a “democratic socialist,” a notoriously squishy and ill-defined concept, an empty vessel into which people are apt to pour their own naïve dreams. Do you know for sure what he means by it? Traditionally, socialism has been defined as “state ownership of the means of production.” No variety of cell-phone providers. Just the government. No variety of airlines. Just the government. No variety of automakers. Just the government. No variety of insurance options. Just the government. In the past, Bernie has indicated that he supports this concept in many industries, including factories, banks, energy firms, and the internet. Yours is a generation that values and expects choices of all kinds. Are you ready to give that up? The chief variation on classic socialism was the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany, which featured (to a large degree) not state ownership but private ownership coupled with overbearing state control. If state ownership is not what Bernie is talking about, is this?
Some like to think—and sometimes Bernie himself suggests—that his “democratic socialism” is best represented by Scandinavia, in the minds of many a utopia of “free” health care and cradle-to-grave welfare. Leaving aside the problem that nothing is free, and average Scandinavians—not just the rich—pay for their welfare state with extremely high taxation, substantial medical co-pays, and lower incomes, the more immediate problem is that Scandinavians themselves typically call what they do “social democracy,” not democratic socialism. It is a subtle but important difference, for the Scandinavian countries have private ownership and free market economies. In fact, a recent study indicated that private property has stronger legal protections in Sweden than in the United States. The Scandinavians know that only a free market economy can produce the resources needed to underwrite a welfare state. The problem with utopias is that they don’t exist.
Then there is the “democratic” part. It seems obvious enough: “democratic socialism” would be socialism achieved through democratic means and maintained through democratic processes. But this cannot be taken for granted. Historically, one can see cases in which socialism was achieved through manipulation of legal, democratic means but, once in power, socialists dispensed with the democracy. One can also see many cases in which the language of democracy was artfully used to cover over fundamentally undemocratic or anti-democratic realities. Indeed, one of the surest lessons of political labelling is that the more vehemently a group labels itself “democratic,” the less democratic they usually are. The North Korean dictatorship officially presides over the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The East German police state during the Cold War was officially the “German Democratic Republic.” Vladimir Lenin, the first tyrant of the Soviet Union, came up with an ingenious label for his style of governance: “democratic centralism.” Let’s just say the reality was heavier on the “centralism” side than on the “democratic” side by a wide margin, at least as understood by most Americans.
The far Left often defines democracy in a different way, however—not as a set of procedures such as fair, competitive elections that guarantee ongoing consent of the governed, but as a set of (left-wing) outcomes. This result-oriented understanding of democracy can be quite dangerous, as it permits no real differences of opinion (anyone who disagrees with left-wing outcomes is by definition “undemocratic”) and leaves the door open for an “ends-justify-the-means” approach to politics. It is a definition which makes possible the grotesque distortion of calling North Korea or East Germany “democratic.”
This observation leads to another question: how does Bernie square democratic socialism with his past infatuation with dictatorial socialism? This is a question he doesn’t like to answer and his supporters don’t like to ask, but if he is going to be considered seriously for the presidency of the United States, he needs to have something coherent to say about it.
It is a cold, hard fact that Bernie Sanders has a long history of deep sympathy with a number of regimes that exemplify the model of socialism combined with the pseudo-democracy of a Communist mindset, including Communist Cuba, North Vietnam, Sandinista Nicaragua, Bolivarian Venezuela, and the Soviet Union itself. In some cases he has backtracked, but when it mattered most he’s sided with these regimes. Just this week he defended Cuba again—of course, he said, we don’t like the authoritarianism, but they have a literacy program! As if these two facts somehow balance each other out; as if literacy is a great boon in a dictatorship that controls what you are allowed to read and write. Every one of these regimes was run by a small junta claiming to act in the name of “the People” while crushing dissent. Every one of them produced riches and power for the party elite, and misery and poverty for the rest. (And, not incidentally, every one of them was a bitter enemy of the United States and their own free neighbors.) And yet, time and again, Bernie fell for them.
Indeed, Bernie was so taken with the Soviet Union that he chose to honeymoon there. So romantic! Do you remember when we visited the forest outside Kyiv where the NKVD buried 100,000 victims of the purges? Same Soviet Union. The same Soviet Union that murdered 30 or 40 million people and that maintained the largest slave-labor camp system in the world (the Gulags so fulsomely praised, and promised, by one of Bernie’s South Carolina organizers). The same Soviet Union that fueled wars from Hungary to Angola and Afghanistan to spread the joys of Communism. The same Soviet Union that erected statues to the 12-year-old Pavel Morozov for having turned in his father to the secret police. Think hard about whether there is any good reason that someone who chose to take his honeymoon in the Soviet Union of all the places in the world should not simply be disqualified from being a contender for president of the United States. Think hard about whether there is any good reason to see this differently than we would have seen it if a candidate running in 1972 had chosen to take his honeymoon in Berlin in 1938. That candidate would have been disqualified by most people, and rightly so. The issue of Bernie’s honeymoon might seem a small thing. It is not a policy, a promise, or a platitude. But it is something more important. It is a window into his heart. What does it show you?
Bernie’s rise, logically enough, has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing general sympathy among the young for socialism and even Communism. What accounts for this rise is a complicated question which probably has something to do with disillusionment with capitalism following the 2008-09 financial crisis; the one-sided ideological tendencies of our education system, popular culture, and social media; and the disappearance of the Soviet bloc as a pungent warning. Whatever the causes, it is striking that support for socialism has risen despite no noticeable increase in its success rate. If you are going to take the plunge with Bernie, you and he need to confront the question of why you or anyone else should believe things will turn out better this time.
To assess that question, one must look seriously at why things have gone so wrong so often. Thinkers from Aristotle to Friedrich Hayek have sought to answer that question. It seems to boil down to three basic problems.
First is what one might call the “classroom problem.” Imagine you are in a class and the teacher gives an exam. Half the students study hard and get As, while the other half don’t study and get Fs. The professor then says, “In the interest of fairness and equality, I am going to take two letter grades from the top students and give them to the bottom students. Then everyone will have a C and be equal.” At the next test, it is obvious what will happen. The students who got Fs before will still not study—why would they?—but neither will the A students. So those who got Fs before will still get Fs, while those who got As might get Cs. This time, when the professor redistributes grades for the sake of equality, everyone will get a D. And so on, until you reach the bottom and are eating zoo animals, like they are doing in Venezuela. Whatever one wishes to call it, an extreme devotion to redistributionism is part of Bernie’s program.
Second is the problem of insufficient information. Though Bernie doesn’t much care for them, free economic markets are the real bottom-up system. Millions of consumers—you—get to “vote” on the products or services they like. Those millions of individual decisions are turned into economic outcomes. The result is, among other things, the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket, which is so easy for us to take for granted. In a socialist system, by contrast, a handful of government officials get to decide what is made, where, and for how much. It is a top-down system that gives up “the wisdom of the crowd” for “the wisdom of the bureaucrat” who must guess (or dictate) what people want—and quite frequently guesses wrong. Free markets are messy, but they have an underlying logic that usually advances the common good. Socialism operates on a claim of precision—an arrogant claim to infallibility by economic policymakers at the top—that is rarely correct. This is why shortages of even basic goods are common in socialist systems. The “Green New Deal,” endorsed by Bernie, is one of many examples of his embrace of centralized economic decision-making by bureaucratic authorities and “experts.” So is his past call for the nationalization of many important industries.
The third big problem is not economic but political. Equality of condition might be the socialist goal, but in a complex civilized society it is not a natural outcome. (It is also frequently unjust, if by justice one means getting what one deserves.) When people are left to their own devices, there will be some As, some Fs, and some folks in between. In order to produce “equality,” someone has to be empowered to use coercion to hold some people down artificially and raise others up. So immediately you have no equality. You have an elite with the power to arrange the economy forcibly in order to achieve their social vision. You have the “teacher” in the classroom above, or the government as omnipotent parent and the citizens as perpetual children. Once that happens, it is predictable (some would say inevitable) that the wielders of that power will begin to abuse it, tyrannizing over their fellow citizens and using it to advantage themselves. In the USSR, the 6% who were members of the Communist Party had access to the best apartments, special stores with goods no one else could get, and travel to the West. Same in Eastern Europe. Same in Cuba. There is a reason Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, great apostles of socialist equality, are now estimated to be billionaires. Whoever gets to exercise the levers Bernie has in mind to bring about equality of condition will immediately be unequal to the rest of us.
When these problems collide—a small, arrogant elite with enormous power over everyone’s lives, and a country whose economic well-being is fixed on a downward spiral—the result can be horrific repression, as the state’s functionaries, in frustration, use harsher and harsher measures to beat down a human nature they don’t want to admit exists. (See the Soviet collectivization of agriculture and Ukrainian famine, circa 1931.) As a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations once pointed out, “Totalitarianism is utopianism come to power.” Can anyone deny that Bernie and his movement are neck-deep in utopianism, married to an utter lack of humility about the capacities of government?
Let’s be clear. Taken together, these problems are not a bug of socialism. They are a feature. They are not accidental by-products that can be easily fixed if well-intentioned people just try harder to make it work. They are at the core of socialism, by whatever name one gives it, inseparable from its essence. They have occurred in one form or another, over and over again, with little variation. This is hard medicine to swallow for those who want to believe. So most who want to believe simply avert their gaze.
Though he has given us many clues, no one can really know Bernie’s intentions beyond making the federal government far more powerful, far more intrusive, and far more costly than it has ever been. His proposals add up to tens of trillions of dollars of federal spending, an unprecedented augmentation of regulatory power in unaccountable federal bureaucracies, and constitutional changes that would dismantle a system designed to protect minority rights, promote deliberation, and spread power around a large and diverse federal republic. Perhaps you are comfortable with Bernie holding the reins of such power. (Are you really?) But if you are afraid of Donald Trump holding the power he does today, you might ask whether you really want to run the risk that a future Trump will hold far greater power. And if your answer is that after Bernie no future Trump will be possible, I invite you to consider whether you have already answered the question of exactly how “democratic” Bernie’s “democratic socialism” will be.
We live in strange and dangerous times. The norms and constraints that have allowed people of varying views to live together in democratic society are fraying. Political actors are acting like spoiled three-year-olds. Social tensions are rising. There is no common moral foundation any longer. There is much to regret about our political life today. Moreover, well-functioning free market systems do require positive legal definition and a certain amount of regulation to protect society against market externalities. Reasonable people can disagree about how much state involvement is appropriate in a free society.
But people who take what they have for granted and act as if nothing could be worse are usually wrong. Things can almost always get worse. We are living in one of the freest, most prosperous nations in the recorded history of the human race, by almost any reasonable standard. The idea that we can’t wreck it—that you can’t wreck it—is unwise. The idea that we have more to gain than to lose from radical political or economic transformation is not grounded in reality.
When you vote, do what you feel you have to. Some lessons must be learned the hard way, and it will be your country for much longer than it will be mine. But it will be your children’s, or your niece’s and nephew’s, for longer than it will be yours. How much risk are you willing to load onto their shoulders? At the end of the day, like the high-schoolers in Red Dawn, you need to decide how much you cherish the spirit of ’76. Because if you don’t remain vigilant in the defense of liberty, you will lose it. And if you lose it, you won’t likely get it back in your lifetimes. And it is far from clear that Bernie Sanders values it at all.
Last time, you wanted to light a match under your chosen party. Fair enough. This time you are playing with fire. And we could all wind up getting Berned.