Bernie Sanders’ Philosophy Examined

Bernie Sanders has announced he is seeking re-election. As such, I thought it best to examine his philosophy as espoused during the 2016 election. If you do not enjoy discussing philosophy or politics, you can skip to the Common Bernie Myths section for low hanging fruit for discussion. I’d like to start this note by offering a few important quotes.

“Democracy is indispensable to socialism.”

“The way to bring down Wallstreet is to place it between a rock and a hard place – taxation and inflation.”

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the 1% are to represent and repress them in Congress and the White House.”

“Capitalists are no more capable of self-sacrifice than a man is capable of lifting himself up by his own bootstraps.”

The above quotes represent a number of Bernie Sander’s political ideas. His rhetoric includes the use of the word “Democracy” to sanitize a pejorative – “Socialism.” He rages against the wealthiest class in America – one he sweepingly calls “Wallstreet” (he sometimes uses the phrase “special interests”). He runs on a platform of “the people” and believes those in politics are made up of the wealthiest class in America, and do not look out for the needs of “the people” – a phrase that typically represents the average worker in America when he employs it. Bernie, likewise, does not believe capitalism does, or can, take care of the poorest around us.

To the aging or the history buff, all of this rhetoric sounds familiar. This is probably one reason why Sanders, though being quite up in years himself, does poorly with senior citizens. The primary reason Sanders’ platform sounds familiar is because not long ago a man named Vladimir Lenin espoused the same politics. In fact, the quotes above are actually Lenin quotes updated for today’s American generation. Lenin used the word “bourgeoisie” to describe the upper capitalist class. Today, Bernie utilizes “top 1%”, “Wallstreet”, “Special interest groups” and “the wealthy” to describe the same class of people.

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Lenin chose the word “Proletariat,” while Bernie uses the terms “the people” and “workers.” Both Bourgeoisie and Proletariat have the same meaning as their Bernie modern counterparts, but keep in mind they are considered pejorative – and for a reason. The political philosophy behind these words comes from Marxism – an intermediate system between capitalism and communism. Marxism is all about handing political power to a ‘worker class.’

What a Capitalist and a Marxist Agree On

Marxism readily admits that a perfect Marxist state could not exist without a capitalist forerunner. Lenin believed his ideology could only be implemented in a developed nation. The gist of the politics is this: capitalism is necessary to make a country prosperous (Lenin used the term ‘developed’), and from there the working class can take over the nation’s political power to bend the capitalist class to its will. In this regard, both the Capitalist and the Marxist agree that capitalism is the best way to develop a nation’s economy. Where the Capitalist jumps ships, though, is where Leninism institutes an idea called the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Bernie Wants a Mixed Economy

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is an intermediate phase between private ownership of property/wealth/business, and collective ownership of these things. In Bernie terms, it is where we expand social programs and regulation to collectively “redistribute” wealth and political power to the “working class.” You have probably heard many Bernie supporters say some of the following things: “We already have social programs” or “Bernie wants a mixed economy.” The truth of the matter is, Vladimir Lenin also wanted a mixed economy. He created the NEP or “New Economic Policy” which he dubbed as being “State-Capitalism.” This allowed for some people to create small businesses, but “large corporations” (to update it in Bernie terms) were still controlled by the government. Lenin believed this type of mixed economy was good enough to appease capitalists – but believed it was the last stage of capitalism before socialism could take over.

We see this evident in Bernie’s rhetoric too, even though he doesn’t come out and say it outright. He wants to move the economic needle in America closer to that of more socialist states in Europe. It’s a lot like boiling a frog or a lobster. You don’t go straight from cold to hot water, or the frog will jump out – rather you warm it up slowly, make it comfortable, and then when it’s too relaxed and weak to escape, it slowly boils to death. That was Lenin’s belief on a mixed economy. See, Bernie is correct, we already have a mixed economy with a few social programs, but the danger is always present in believing “a little more can’t hurt” when it comes to socialism.

A Lesson in Speed Limits

The Bernie/Lenin philosophy on taxation and ownership can be compared to speed limits. Speed limits are always set as a compromise between efficiency and safety. If there were no speed limits, then the chances of getting into car wrecks would go up. On the flip side, if the speed limit was perpetually set at zero, then no one would be at risk of dying in a car wreck – given everyone obeyed the law. This principle carries over into taxation. If there were zero taxes, we would not have as nice of infrastructure as we have – even though we would maintain a great deal of economic freedom. If there were 100% taxes, then we would have no economic freedom. The secret, then, is to strike a balance. America has somewhat hit that balance.

At this point, I give away roughly 15-20% of my income, and then am taxed on about 25% of my total income minus deductions for my giving. I’m able to then carry home about 60% of what I earn in order to pay for my bills, provide for my family, and enjoy entertainment. With everything in me I wish I did not have to pay 25% of my income to the state because I would then have more economic freedom to give more of my money away to those around me in need, to save, to pay off my debt, or to spend on entertainment. I understand, however, that I enjoy less terror threats than those living in Europe and the Middle East due to the fact my taxes go to pay for my neighbor’s bullet proof vest as he fights in our military.

The higher the taxation gets, though, the less I’ll be able to give away to those in need around me, to purchase goods for my family, to invest in my company in order to create more jobs, and to even pay my employee’s wages. In this case, a ‘little more’ socialism can really hurt if that also means “a little more taxation.”

By the way, for those of you who wanted to know what happened to Lenin’s mixed economy – it, in fact, did evolve once Stalin came into power. The people were already increasingly becoming more dependent on the State, the privatization movement failed in the midst of government collectivism – it wasn’t much of a leap. This is not a slippery slope fallacy. A SSF would be me arguing that Bernie’s proposition to expand the State inevitably will lead to communism. That is not what I’m arguing. I am arguing that his proposition to expand the state has historically lead to communism; I am arguing that we should learn from history.

Common Bernie Myths

There are a number of ideas that Bernie’s platform rides on which contradict, and these are the first ones I want to touch on.

Keep Jobs Here
Two of Bernie’s greatest talking points are diametrically opposed: “Increase taxes on corporations” and “keep corporations from outsourcing jobs.” These two ideas cannot both occur. The reason corporations outsource jobs and hold their money off shore, if possible, is because the cost of doing business in America is too high comparatively. Making the cost of doing business even higher (by increasing taxes), will only cause corporations to flee America and to do business in more competitive nations – the jobs will go with them.

$15/ Hour
Another set of contradicting ideas are, “Raise the minimum wage to $15/hour” and “keep companies from outsourcing jobs.” The big myth keeping these two from occurring simultaneously is the idea that the government can determine the value of labor. The market is the only thing that can determine this value. If you remember, Detroit failed because of inflated union labor costs. American motor companies could not compete with foreign car companies manufacturing in the South. You’re talking about a pay difference of about $75/hour vs. $40/hour. The first number being artificially created, and the second number being what the market could sustain. In the same way, certain jobs are not worth $15/hour because they fail to create that much value. I’m trying to run a small business, and I am paid somewhere in the realm of $9-$10/hour – a year ago it was closer to $3/hour. Yet, as my work becomes more valuable to my clients, I will be able to pay myself (and my employees) more. What ends up happening, if labor is too expensive, is companies will be forced to manufacture oversees in order to stay competitive in a global economy.

Taxing Wallstreet
In one breath, Bernie is for the middle class, in another breathe, he is against Wall Street. What is Wall Street though? Me, as a 12 year old from the middle class, had “Wall Street” working for me when I purchased a mutual fund. Wall Street is a financial district where people collect to trade stock – much like Silicon Valley is where tech companies go.

When confronted with paying for all the new social programs, Bernie doesn’t have a plan that mathematically works out – he simply says we will add taxes to everything and everyone (including the middle class), but especially a “speculative tax” on Wall Street. In doing this, you are hurting the middle class because it’s the middle class that owns all the 401ks and mutual funds – which are managed by Wall Street.

Tax the Wealthy
This one is not a contradiction, but an untruth. Bernie’s website is full of this rhetoric, “x,y, and z, aren’t paying their fair share.” A Bernie supporter posted on a friend’s Facebook page of mine, “The wealthy don’t pay their fair share.” When I posted the following Pew research graph to dispute the claim, he didn’t have anything to say.

The first thing you should notice is that the top 2.4% of earners pay 48.9% of all our income tax. Not only do the wealthy pay their “fair share”, but they pay mine and yours too. If you break it down even further, the roughly .1% of wealthy individuals pay about 38% of our federal income tax.

Ironically, the only portion of the population not paying their fair share is the lowest income earning individuals. The bottom 20% of income earners actually pay negative income taxes – meaning they receive more money in state subsidies than they pay into the system. Now, I’m actually not really opposed to this. The system is there as a safety net for the poorest of individuals. However, the notion that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share is intellectually dishonest.

Free College Education
In one sentence, Bernie will tell you that it’s a shame even a college education can’t guarantee someone a good job. In the next, he will say we should give a college education to anyone – subsidized by our taxes. That’s a lot like complaining donuts don’t necessarily help a growing boy, but that we should give all growing boys donuts – subsidized by the government. In essence, the return on our government’s investment will be diminutive. In fact, adding to the pool of graduates will only make a diploma’s value go down given the laws of supply and demand.

This isn’t the largest issue with the concept in my personal opinion. I believe the biggest issue will come to light once people actually attend college. Having been there myself – I know not everyone is fit for college. Not everyone takes college seriously, or spends their time learning in college. I’ve had a few roommates I would rather not have to pay for them to attend college – spending their days drunk and high depending on their mood. Essentially, by removing incentive (“I’ll lose my investment”) America will be subsidizing an ever growing pool of college education wasted.

A system of scholarships and loans drives up incentive to do well in college, and weeds out under-performers. I myself received scholarships and took out roughly $27,000 in student loans. If I didn’t believe my major would lend itself to paying back my loans, I would not have taken them out. That is incentive to work hard, and to work smart. This lack of incentive is a socialist theme. Without the need to work hard and excel amongst your peers, you will not, or will be less likely to.

The Gospel of Envy

“Social­ism is a phi­los­o­phy of fail­ure, the creed of igno­rance, and the gospel of envy, its inher­ent virtue is the equal shar­ing of misery.” – Churchill

There is a moral issue inherent to Socialism: the repeated breaking of the 10th commandment – ‘Don’t Covet.” Coveting is a sin born out of envy. Envy is a proclivity towards desiring something you have not earned. For example, your neighbor may have a beautiful wife, and you’re alone, so you wish you had his. Another example, the top 1% of your nation has more money than you, and you don’t, but you wish you had theirs’. Apart from corruption of the heart, coveting can sometimes lead to stealing. You may try to forcefully take your neighbor’s money. You may break in and steal his art collection so you can more properly appreciate it in your own home. We call these people thieves. Yet, in modern society, there is a more civil way to take your neighbor’s money – taxation and ‘redistribution.”

The majority of rhetoric coming from Bernie supporters seems to revolve around this idea that someone else in our society has more than they do (or someone else), and to remedy this we should take those things from the person that has more, and give it to ourselves or others. The way they want to take it, though, isn’t by their own hands, but by the hands of the police. They want the government to threaten the owner of said property with a prison sentence – if they don’t hand over money they’ve earned. Earned is an important word here. Some people do not earn their money, and otherwise take it via fraud, these people should – and are – prosecuted. Those who have actually earned their money – or perhaps their fathers before them, have not broken any moral law that even Jesus Himself could prosecute.

It comes down to this ‘gospel of envy’ that Churchill was getting at. Your neighbor has something that you want, so you try to take it. I believe this is the most disastrous moral issue revolving around Bernie’s fiscal policies.

Our National Debt

I mentioned early on that Bernie hasn’t done very well with Senior Citizens, and this is primarily (from reading interviews) due to the fact Bernie’s plans are unfeasible. It’s estimated, even by liberal economists, that the social programs he wants would add another $18 Trillion (with a T) to our national debt, on top of the $19 Trillion we currently owe. I myself used to be a socialist thinker in high school. I watched Michael Moore movies and was impacted by ‘Sicko’ – I hadn’t yet taken a course on economics until I attended college, however. I now reside in an intermediate camp. I believe national healthcare is good so long as it’s 100% funded by the government (not ObamaCare which forces itself upon the private sector), and is competitive with the private market. The largest factor that would have to be in place for me, though, would be we are not in debt – but maintain a steady surplus. This is not the current atmosphere – and some would argue that if we have a surplus then we are taxing too much.

We are in grave financial debt, and Bernie still wants to drive it up with social programs. That is how economies collapse; that is why Greece is the laughing stock of the EU. That is why the majority of countries that Bernie cites as paradises of socialism are in far greater debt per capita than America.

Debt/capita is the amount of debt a nation has compared to the number of citizens. Basically, if you have a nation of 10 people with a debt of 100 dollars, then they’d have a $10 debt/capita – or $10 for every person. America has about $60,000 per person, while a lot of the nations Bernie wants to model after have far higher: Iceland ($283,000), Netherlands ($226,000), Switzerland ($193,000). These nations will one day have to face their debt, and so will we if we continue down the path Bernie vies for.

What Drives the Economy, on Capitalism

As I previously mentioned, the Marxist and the capitalist agree on a certain concept – that capitalism develops a nation. Where the Marxist jumps off is when he claims the nation can continue to prosper without the free market. Historically, and perhaps this has been forgotten, or is no longer taught in our schools, Capitalism has created the Middle Class.

In fact, the Middle Class was once called the “Capitalist” class – defined as a group of people who would take investment from the upper-class, and through ingenuity and hard work, would make a living out of it. Prior to capitalism’s widespread adoption, there were really only two classes – the wealthy and the poor. Capitalism has ended more poverty than any other economic force by elevating the poor to the Middle Class. It’s important to examine the chart below when we try to compare what government intervention has actually been able to accomplish.

In the 60s, the War on Poverty began as part of the ‘Great Society’ policy. Up until this point, poverty had been dropping steadily due to the capitalist boom following WWII – men fought Nazis, came home, married women, built families, and started small business. Since the War on Poverty began – along with many of its social policies (ones Bernie would like to expand) – poverty has stagnated, on average. Despite funneling in trillions of dollars, we have not solved the issue of poverty.

I believe the reason for this comes back to an old adage: give a man a fish, feed him for a day – teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. People, without incentive, who are simply given something in life, stay children. They do not grow up, build a business, move out of the house, and then give their time and money out of their surplus. Instead, they raise more people dependent, without the knowledge or drive, to grow. This is passed down generationally until future generations begin to feel entitled instead of charged with responsibility. This is not to say all who receive a fish a day adopt such an ideology.

In the middle of all of this, prior to the end user receiving social benefits, and the initial taxation, comes government bureaucracy – a necessary system that also destroys economic advancement if cash if funneled through it. To break this down. When I give my dollar to a homeless man on the street, the homeless man receives my dollar. When I am taxed a dollar to be taken into the government, then ‘redistributed’ to the homeless man, he only receives a tiny percentage of the dollar – the rest is spent and wasted on a middle man called the Federal Government. Once again, the federal government is necessary, but it is a failure at taking care of the poor. Individuals, families, non-profits, and churches excel in this area – capitalism feeds them all.

In fact, although capitalism will forever be incapable of ridding poverty, it has alleviated the conditions of the impoverished by making appliances more affordable. Take a look at some of these statistics gathered by the Heritage Foundation in 2014:

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, at the beginning of the War on Poverty, only about 12 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Nearly three-quarters have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and a quarter have two or more.
  • Half have a personal computer; one in seven has two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • Forty-three percent have Internet access.
  • Forty percent have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • A quarter have a digital video recorder system such as a TIVO.
  • Ninety-two percent of poor households have a microwave.

None of this is to place an indictment on society having a safety net at all. A safety net is necessary to alleviate suffering where others can’t easily recognize it. Not everyone has family, friends, non profits, and their church to lean on. In such cases, government assistance is paramount. Yet, we should never over-reach in our belief that the government can be anyone’s savior. It has historically failed to move the needle on our poverty rate by spending money. It is only good at maintaining the status quo. In order to actually lift others out of poverty it will be a more intimate, complex, time-taking, and sacrificial endeavor. It will also require a passionate desire on the part of the impoverished to see their children not endure the same life they have.

Final Thoughts

“…the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.”
– Slavoj Žižek –

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
– C.S. Lewis –

Post Script: I realize Slavoj is not necessarily on my team. I do not commit a reverse ad hominmen in quoting him, rather I simply approve of his words as a good summation of Lewis’ quote beneath. Slavoj is a Marxist scholar if you were wondering.

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

Written by James Thayer