Bernie Sanders was carried to the center stage in national politics by his unrelenting message on "inequality" and economic redistribution:
Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.
This message is resonating with Millennials, primarily because they came out of school just before, and during the Great Recession. They have had to struggle just to find gainful employment, and when they do, they find it hard to get ahead economically.
It is worth noting that Obama did not exactly help building a sense of self determination among this generation. His administration doled out food-stamp coupons like candy, and the Obamacare reform gave many people the illusion that they should not have to work to provide themselves with any essentials in life.
With these two points in mind, nobody should be surprised by the Millennial support for Sanders. The question is not why they are drawn to a socialist politician; the question is how to present a meaningful counterpoint. In a recent article on HumanProgress.org, Chelsea Follett makes a brave attempt to reach out to those young Americans who are infatuated with socialism:
Marx and his followers, sadly, did not realize that capitalism-driven industrialization ultimately creates widespread prosperity, and they ended up hurting the very workers they aimed to help. Thanks in part to the factories that Marx detested, the United Kingdom’s average income was three times higher when he died than when he was born. After communists seized power in Russia a century ago, in the name of equality, anyone who was too well-off had to be identified and punished. Those with specialized knowledge, such as engineers, or those who had “non-labor income” were suspect. In the Russian countryside, any farmer who produced enough food to sell as surplus, as opposed to any farmer who produced only enough for his family, was labeled a “kulak”—a class enemy, engaged in the alleged crime of enrichment through trade. Any farmer who hired help, who owned a creamery or other machine, or who rented out agricultural equipment, was also labeled a “kulak.” The kulaks’ poorer neighbors were encouraged to take away their homes and steel their possessions.
Follett, managing editor of HumanProgress.org and affiliated with the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, sadly misses the entire point with Millennials' appreciation of socialism. Her point, that capitalism produces prosperity while socialism leads to misery, flies straight over the heads of the Millennials. As I explain in my new book The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America, the modern left in America does not care about growth. Many of its pundits - among them Bernie Sanders - suggest that economic redistribution is more important than growth.
Add to this the fact that the left believes in global warming, and economic growth actually ends up on the political black list in the eyes of many young minds.
While it is important to argue the case for economic growth - and to counter the global warming mythology - the essential point in any outreach to the Millennials must be to reach through their belief in economic redistribution. To do so, conservatives and libertarians must learn two things:
a) to understand the egalitarian argument for economic redistribution, where it comes from and what it means in practice; yes, once again, you get the whole story in my new book, including the ugly ideological roots of egalitarianism, how it made its way to America and has come to define our welfare state;
b) to counter, point by point, the policy reform agenda that egalitarians like Bernie Sanders put forward.
Point b is the one that conservatives and libertarians all too often shy away from. Let me offer a quick example of where to start. The following are some of the items that Bernie Sanders put on his to-do list when he ran for president.
Let us start with his battle cry:
We must come together and reduce income and wealth inequality
Right here, conservatives and libertarians have their greatest challenge. They accept the term "inequality" without contest. It is being used by people on the right, as casually as any other word. Yet the term in itself is a moral statement: equality is preferable to inequality.
Once the semantic stage has been set, the left can lead the conversation by defining equality as a lack of differences in outcomes; by accepting the premise that inequality is bad, it is difficult, if not impossible, for conservatives to counter this argument. They have already accepted that equality is better than inequality; to argue against outcomes while accepting the premise, is a rather feeble endeavor.
A better approach - which I take in my book - is to use talk about differences instead of inequality. This term is value neutral and emphasizes the descriptive nature of the issue at hand, namely that people have varying levels of income and wealth. Once we have reconfigured the conversation this way, the left will now have to explicitly make their case that inequality matters.
In that leg of the conversation, the conservative can proudly make the case that the only equality that matters is the one where everyone has the same chance to advance in their lives from the point where they started. What matters is not where you are compared to your neighbor, but where you are compared to where you started from. Since the left does not care about the journey, only the outcome, they now have to argue why hard work and entrepreneurship should not be rewarded.
The proverbial shoe is suddenly on the other foot.
When it comes to policy issues per se, here are a couple of example of issues that fall under the Bernie Sanders battle cry against "inequality", and how to counter them:
Demanding that the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes. Corporations must stop shifting their profits and jobs overseas to avoid paying U.S. income taxes. There must be a progressive estate tax on the top 0.3 percent of Americans who inherit more than $3.5 million. We must also enact a tax on Wall Street speculators who caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes, and life savings.
A simple question: What is "fair share"? This is essentially the same question as: When are taxes high enough?
Both questions call out the left, pulling them in the direction where they eventually have to provide an economic rationale for why higher taxes are better than lower taxes. Then we individualize the argument: If government took 70, 80, 90 percent of your income, would you continue to work just as hard as you do now? (This argument presumes that the egalitarian in question is in fact working.) Most people will, in good conscience, admit that there is an upper limit to their own willingness to pay taxes. They will then resort to the idea that there is an untapped cornucopia of taxes that can be levied on the "rich" - which opens for an empirical conversation about economic facts (one that well-studied conservatives simply cannot lose).
Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2020. In the year 2015, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.
Why is poverty bigger now than it was when the War on Poverty started half a century ago? Because the Johnson administration changed the definition of poverty: today we use a relative definition of poverty, where a percentage of the population will remain poor - so long as there are income differences. It does not matter at what level of income they live (which did matter under the previous, absolute definition of poverty); the only way to eliminate poverty under our current definition is to eliminate income differences, period.
The assumption defines the conclusion. Plain, simple and devious.
Creating 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans by investing $5.5 billion in a youth jobs program. Today, the youth unemployment rate is off the charts. We have got to end this tragedy by making sure teenagers and young adults have the jobs they need to move up the economic ladder.
This idea basically fuses the "job guarantee" idea put forward by the left since at least the late 1990s, with the more recent and more fashionable "basic income" idea. This form of so called active labor market policy has been tried, and failed, in Europe where youth unemployment is two to three times higher, or even more in some countries, than it was in the United States at the depth of the Great Recession.
Making tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout America. Everyone in this country who studies hard should be able to go to college regardless of income.
Why should those students who are fortunate enough to get higher grades, be rewarded with something that less fortunate students with lower grades do not get? Would it not be more in line with the fight against "inequality" to redistribute grades among students, so as to reduce their grade inequality? A better idea would be to tax an A down to B and give the balance to a student with a D; to tax a B+ down to a B- and redistribute the grade points to a student with a C; and gradually increase the grade tax until all students receive a C+ or a B-.
Once grade inequality has been eliminated, everyone can go to college for free, regardless of how hard they work. Egalitarianism in practice.
Guaranteeing healthcare as a right of citizenship by enacting a Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system. It’s time for the U.S. to join every major industrialized country on earth and provide universal healthcare to all.
This is the left's next big issue, and Republicans have paved the way for it. If the left ever makes an argument in its favor - instead of assuming that single-payer is axiomatically good - it is that health care is an essential product we all need to survive. The immediate question then is: should we also have single-payer clothing? Single payer food? Single payer housing? The leftist will either say "yes" to all of these, whereupon you can have a conversation about the merits of the Cuban experiment, or he will tell you that your questions are absurd. At that point you ask him to rationalize his argument, which he won't do. Case closed.
On the empirical side, a good way to counter the single-payer argument is to study up on the practice of fiscal eugenics (chapter 4 in my new book), a horrendous consequence of single-payer health care that the left carefully tries to ignore.
Requiring employers to provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave; two weeks of paid vacation; and 7 days of paid sick days. Real family values are about making sure that parents have the time they need to bond with their babies and take care of their children and relatives when they get ill.
I have presented my case against general income security in this paper.
Enacting a universal childcare and prekindergarten program. Every psychologist understands that the most formative years for a human being is from the ages 0-3. We have got to make sure every family in America has the opportunity to send their kids to a high quality childcare and pre-K program.
Here we go. Single-payer health care, general income security and universal child care are the three remaining institutional reforms to complete the egalitarian welfare state here in America. Once these programs are in place, there is no turning back. The United States will be a Scandinavian welfare state, plain, simple and terrible.
As a conservative or libertarian, you have to learn to argue against economic redistribution. Presenting the horrors of socialism as practiced in the Soviet Union or Mao's China won't do the trick. Making the case for prosperity through capitalism won't do it either. Only a solid argument against egalitarianism can do it. That argument must be based on:
1. A solid understanding of where egalitarianism comes from;
2. Refusal to accept the inequality semantics;
3. A relentless pursuit of the egalitarian's own work ethics; and
4. Superior understanding of the horrible downsides of single-payer health care.
Study up on, and master these points, and the socialist-leaning Millennial simply can't escape your argument.