Feel the Bern: Part 2: Economic Freedom & Rights

Economic Freedom & Rights

econfreedomThe core of the first video in the interview between rapper Killer Mike and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is Bernie Sanders’ discourse on freedom and rights. He equates the freedom of speech with a hypothetical right to healthcare, food,[1] shelter,[1] and education. In the form of a rhetorical question, he posits that one is not truly free if one lacks these things. He terms these services and goods as “economic rights” and claims that as the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, America can and should do a far better job of providing these rights. Also included in these rights are employment, a “decent wage” (by which he means a wage that allows you to “make it”). Essentially, he desires to guarantee a minimal standard of living for every American.

Freedom

One of the roots of Sanders’ disconnect from reality is his concept of freedom. True freedom is defined by the Wise and Benevolent Disseminator of All Knowledge as this:

the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

While this definition does not quite explicitly capture the distinction, the phrase “without hindrance or restraint” begins to shed light on the difference between true freedom (the right to be free from interference) from Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky freedom (the right to be free of want).

lemonade_girlsThe problem with sanfreedom[2] brings us back to the question of reality. True freedom can easily exist in reality. Say you drop a man on the surface of the moon. Harsh mistress though she is, the man has by default true freedom. No one will interfere with his plans to sell lemonade, to hunt moon fairies, or to vainly suck in nothingness as he inevitably surrenders to the chilling fatal embrace of the endless void.

He does not, however, possess sanfreedom. He has neither food nor healthcare; neither shelter nor additional education. Because Wal-Mart has not as of this writing claimed Luna for all of Buffetdom, there is no one there yet to provide these things. Therein lies the crucial distinction between true freedom and sanfreedom. True freedom is negative – it requires nothing to be done or created. Sanfreedom is positive – it requires things to be produced and performed. Therefore, since these goods and services must be provided, sanfreedom is entirely dependent upon their availability and – crucially – cannot be guaranteed regardless of political rhetoric or legislation. Just as vacuous pop stars come and go with the tide of fandom, so will “economic rights” come and go with the rise and fall of the economic supply-demand equilibrium (read: price).

Furthermore, a right that infringes upon someone else’s right is irrational. A right, by nature, must apply equally to all, otherwise it is a privilege. Since sanfreedoms depend on goods and services which must be produced, any would-be guarantor of sanfreedoms (such as Sanders) must have a mechanism by which to extract these goods and services from the producers. Since the guarantor does not have infinite resources, he, she, or the Brain may be forced to exchange fewer resources than the provider is willing to accept or be forced to exchange under circumstances which the provider is unwilling to accept.

Since the provider may be unwilling and the guarantor must take the provisions regardless, it follows that the guarantor will violate the producer’s true freedom (that is, his right to be free of interference). This is true even if the guarantor is entirely virtuous at heart. Since supply is finite and subject to fluctuations, the guarantor will at some point reach a crossroads where they must either fail in their guarantees of sanfreedoms or violate true freedoms. This is evidenced in the low wages of public educators and the laggardly pace at which government documents are obtained. (Which is not to say that low wages are a foregone conclusion for public educators – trade-offs do exist.)

Therefore, since sanfreedoms require the violation of rights, they cannot logically be considered true freedom.

The Logic Train Breaks Down

train_wreckIt is simple, trivial, and obvious to determine that the invalidity of sanfreedoms invalidates the basis upon which Sanders has built all the ideology he espouses in this video. And, therefore, the justification for his socialist policies of government guarantees must be discarded by any rational observer. This does not automatically prove his policies immoral or illegal, but it does leave them wanting for justification.

Philosophy

This is all not to say that Bernie Sanders’ statements are entirely with out merit. A critical statement of his follows:

bernie_sanders_twitter_profile.jpgYou don’t have food in your stomach. You don’t have a house, roof over your head. If you don’t have any education are you really free?

This is an interesting philosophical statement worthy of some consideration. It is true that the realities of human existence create constraints on our freedom to do as we will. The very nature of things requires us to perform some action (typically work) to produce or procure food, shelter, and all the rest. Therefore, we are not truly free to do as we will. However, since these constraints are imposed by the nature of a finite reality – which trends towards maximum entropy –  they cannot be removed by human policy or ideology.

Therefore, Bernie’s rhetorical question, while relevant, is a non sequitur in the context of supporting government-guaranteed services.

Wealth

I wish to take a quick moment to note that Bernie’s emphasis on America’s wealth has no bearing on my preceding arguments. Wealth is a factor, of course. Wealthy America might take longer to reach the guarantee-or-bust crossroads than, say, the Central African Republic. But reach it it would, and our wealth would only make the crisis all the more dramatic, just as our depressions and booms are more far-reaching in their effects than those of much smaller economies.

Conclusion

While Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike both seem completely earnest and desirous of helping others in need, the ideals and policies put forth in this video are self-contradictory and defy physical reality. Unless I am very much mistaken, rational people of principle and logic must therefore discard their arguments and seek policies, ideals, or at the least arguments more consistent with physics, scarcity, and internal consistency.

Engagement

As always, I welcome any criticisms or disagreements in the form of comments, messages, emails, or smoke signals. But be advised that (a) I may ignore or remove profanity or ad hominem attacks, (b) the First Amendment does not prevent me from doing this, and (c) if you inform me via smoke signal that you are a socialist, I may wonder what a socialite is doing on a political blog.

Notes

  1. implied; not explicit
  2. sanfreedom – An ancient term I just made up, meaning “freedom from want.” It works equally well as a reference to Bernie Sanders or San Francisco.
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Author: Andrew Felsher

I’m a Christian, Classically Liberal Republican. In that precise order.

5 thoughts on “Feel the Bern: Part 2: Economic Freedom & Rights”

  1. So basically what you’re saying is: while Sanders claims that by treating food, shelter, and education as rights, the amount of freedom increases, this is not true because the actions necessary to meet those needs infringe on others’ freedoms.

    (I don’t like the word freedom used in this context because it gets tossed around too glibly and with too little respect for its meaning, but since that’s the context of this discussion then I will use it too).

    One question one might raise here is whether the freedoms infringed upon are more vital and fundamental than the freedoms enabled. If I’m no longer free to drive as fast as I want through the city but it enables me to be a pedestrian without constantly worrying about dying in a fireball of mangled metal and flesh, that seems to me to be a net win. If I’m no longer free to live wherever I want but that means I can own property without having to constantly fight people who want to live there and have a bigger stick than I do, that again is an improvement. Communism and anarchy exist on a continuum, and as usual in reality the endpoints are both entirely undesirable. Socialism and free market capitalism both encroach on the midpoint as we try to figure out where on the spectrum is the most comfortable place for human society.

    The second your hypothetical moon man gets a neighbor, they will both realize that they have a better chance at maximizing their survival and prosperity if they work together, even if that means sacrificing individual freedoms. That’s called civilization.

    And I think this is where you miss Sanders’ point by getting caught up in semantics. Since I love tilting at windmills, let me try to reframe the discussion back to what Bernie is actually trying to say.

    In the late 1800s, white landowners, upset that former slaves now had the ability to vote, instituted a series of laws making it more difficult for black (and, incidentally, poor white) voters to register their ballots — the origin of the term Jim Crow laws. They couldn’t pass laws saying that black people couldn’t come to the polls — that would be unconstitutional — but they could (for instance) institute a polling fee or require voters to pass a literacy test or even hold the polling at a place that was inaccessible to underprivileged blacks in a time before motor transport. While all males were technically free to vote (women’s suffrage would not come for another few decades), practically speaking only the privileged were able to vote. A freedom available to all could only be practiced by a few.

    We look at that situation now and see it as obviously unjust. Those laws were rightfully struck down and today, while discrimination still exists, at least at the voting booth all are (to the best of my knowledge and experience) equal. In fact, the United States government goes to great lengths to ensure that those with no transportation, those who can’t take time off work, or even (such as myself) those who are living outside the country have a way to vote. This, of course, is not free to the American taxpayer. We as a society have decided universal adult suffrage is preferable to the “more free” options.

    Sanders’ point is that the poor in America are in a similar situation to black voters in the 1870s. While everyone technically have the same freedoms, the ability to practice those freedoms is very unequally distributed. And in many cases, the institution has been politically twisted such that those on the bottom will never be able to get ahead. Just like former slaves could not vote for candidates who would lessen their burden and help them achieve a foothold in the country that formerly enslaved them, the poor today cannot, in the space of a single generation, remove themselves from their situation. “Work harder” is an easy solution to say, but I can tell you stories of some of the hardest working people I know whose only hope in life is that they can maybe live long enough to help their children live a life better than they’re living. Ultimately, and ironically, in a system designed to reward maximum selfishness the only way for a poor person to break the cycle of poverty is radical selflessness — either by dedicating their lives to ensuring the next generation has a chance or by receiving “unearned” help from outside.

    (I put unearned in scare quotes because the conservative claim that this help is unearned begs the question of what constitutes earning. I leave that discussion for another day, but add the quotation marks because I do not concede the point).

    One of the most interesting (to me) parts of that video is near the beginning when Mike is telling a story about mowing the lawn of his neighbor, Miss Ruby. Her economic circumstances changed, but he kept doing the same work for less money because, in his words, “she deserved to have her lawn mowed”. I’m surprised you didn’t jump on that phrasing, because of course having one’s lawn mowed by others is not a fundamental right of humanity. But I think it demonstrates the difference in thinking between liberal and conservative. Do I mow the lawn solely as a financial transaction, equivalent exchange of wages for labor? Or do I mow the lawn because I recognize the human need of my neighbor and she pays me what she can because she’s grateful.

    Liberalism fights, tooth and nail, the system that enslaves the poor. It acknowledges that we cannot rely on the kindness and compassion of individuals to meet basic human needs, and must instead institutionalize the meeting of those needs to ensure that the ability to practice basic human freedoms is equally distributed across the population. That, I think, is what Sanders is trying to communicate.

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    1. It’s a valid point that you must weigh the value of the infringed rights versus those being “guaranteed.” However, I’d like to note a crucial distinction between the “infringed rights” you list as examples and those I’m arguing against. The former merely prohibits behavior (it is negative), while the latter requires behavior (it is positive). Obviously prohibitions are necessary for society to function (outlawing murder, etc.). But requiring individuals to perform certain actions or provide certain services are much harder to morally, practically, and legally justify. Prohibiting me from attacking my neighbor is one thing, requiring me to protect him is quite another.

      The systems proposed by Sanders consist heavily of these latter trade-offs. For example, he does not propose to make access to food easier by removing FDA restrictions or decreasing the costs of licenses and certifications[1] (which would be the former sort of trade-off). Instead, he proposes that we provide that food for free (or some TBD , artificially-lowered price). The exact nature of how that would work is not addressed in the video. Most likely he’s suggesting a massive increase in the food stamp program, but a die-hard socialist could also start requiring farmers (and farming concerns) to provide food for free, or at some particular price, much as already happens with utilities. Either way, he is mandating that some groups act in a positive manner towards other groups – either by providing services or paying taxes – rather than merely prohibiting abuses (market collaboration, hoarding, monopolies, etc.).

      This distinction is why I view taxes in a much more negative light than prohibitions, but am much more amenable to taxes tied to what they provide. I have no ideological objection to automobile property taxes, because they are required to make use of public roads, rather than to actually own a vehicle. Much as I personally hate toll roads, I view them as a perfectly legitimate way to raise money for transportation infrastructure. Conversely, I hate income taxes because the taxed individual may have never abused anyone – and may even without taxes be a net benefit to society – yet they are taxed, primarily for services like Medicare and Social Security which they may never take advantage of.

      Now laws requiring a positive behavior can’t be eliminated completely, of course. It is arguable that simply living in a country obligates you to pay for – at minimum – defense taxes (inasmuch as they are actually necessary for defense). And I have no objection to laws requiring certain types of professionals to report certain criminal behaviors (e.g. teachers reporting child abuse). But on the whole, I think such laws should be considered “guilty until proven innocent.”

      To link this to the Jim Crow laws and suffrage, it’s all about what the source of the problem is. If the source is abuse (e.g. unfair voting restrictions), then it is anti-freedom (i.e. unjust). But if the source is simply someone minding their own business (e.g. not paying for someone else’s food), then it is entirely consistent with liberty and therefore just. Basic rule of thumb – “The right to swing your fist ends where someone else’s nose begins.” This leaves very few issues in a grey area (e.g. de facto monopolies).

      Personally, as someone who has lived at or near the poverty line, I think the degree to which the system is “twisted” or “rigged” against “those on the bottom” is greatly exaggerated (especially by men like Sanders). But obviously it does happen, often on a systemic level. However, to claim that the solution is to add more twisting and red tape and government inefficiency is absurd. It makes a great deal more sense to address the true source of the problem (e.g. predatory lending, complicated tax code) rather than symptoms (e.g. price). Some of Sanders’ policies and sentiments do make sense because they accomplish the former. I very much agree with his opposition to stock market speculation (though not necessarily his proposed method for dealing with it). And of course we can all agree that the manner in which crooked businesses and their CEOs are dealt with needs to be reformed.

      But many of his propositions chase unicorns like free college and elimination of poverty rather than even remotely addressing the core problems. For example, his “solution” to the problems that come from the exorbitant spending on college educations is to make college free (i.e. enable yet more spending in the same pursuit). That is lunacy. He’ll even call for increased cost-of-business (corporate taxes, higher minimum wage), while simultaneously attacking businesses that move overseas to avoid those costs (and, incidentally, help accomplish the wealth equality that Sanders supposedly wants by moving wealth from American workers to e.g. Third World workers).

      Now admittedly there are many disenfranchised who – for whatever reason – can’t “work harder” themselves out of their situation. But there are two things to note here.

      1. Step one would probably be to not have children at all until they’ve climbed out of that hole. It may be unfair that they are poor to begin with, but to have children while in poverty and then expect others to assume responsibility for that poverty is grossly irresponsible. (Obviously there are other obstacles than supporting children – such as health issues or elderly dependents – but I’d imagine that is the single largest one.) (Admittedly, in some circumstances [e.g. agrarian] having children even while poor is economically sensible.)

      2. Even the poorest people are (for the most part) better off than they would have been a hundred years ago. If we ignore things like the abolition of slavery and wars, I would argue that government programs have contributed little to that improvement. I tend to be of the opinion that selfish rich people (with exceptions) tend to benefit society more in their greed than charity and government assistance do in their generosity. This is because (on the whole) private industry tends to enlarge the pie, while charity and government assistance tend only to rearrange it.

      Whether or not you agree, Sanders visited the USSR and saw the poverty, yet still maintained that their equal poverty was preferable to our unequal wealth. That’s what happens when equality is more valued than liberty.

      Obviously I don’t oppose charity per se. But I do think a lot of it needs re-thinking. For example, with the exception of disaster relief[2], I don’t think free food tends to improve the overall situation (though it certainly improves many individual situations). Free education (to the point of being a basically productive member of society – literate, understanding the essentials of the system, etc.) makes more sense, which is why I don’t object to publicly-funded basic education on principle.

      Correction: Liberalism desires to fight, tooth and nail, the system that enslaves the poor. Whether it accomplishes anything of the sort is another question entirely. I don’t suggest that we rely solely on the kindness and compassion of others. That’s actually what (modern) liberalism does. It just relies on that kindness and compassion being exercised through votes rather than directly through dollars. Classical liberalism, on the other hand, relies more sensibly on individuals seeking their own self-interest. Kindness and compassion are preferable of course, but selfishness is far more reliable.

      What Sanders is trying to communicate is that he has this utopian image of the world that he wants to establish via government fiat in spite of reality smacking him down time and again. (I’m not talking about the ideology or philosophy being unrealistic. I’m just referring to how he claims the USSR was something to be emulated *after* visiting it, or how he thinks failed communes that he visited or lived in are models to be followed.)

      [1] I’m not necessarily suggesting we do these things; I’m merely listing them as a contrast.
      [2] Also, I would except programs that get their free food from the gleanings or “waste” of industry, such as nearly-expired food donations to food banks. These programs can’t help but improve the overall situation, as they make use of food which would otherwise be wasted or used in a less efficient manner (e.g. fertilizer).

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      1. I appreciate the attempt to move the discussion from theoretical to practical, but I feel like you’re attacking the worst of socialism and defending the best of free market capitalism. This makes it very frustrating to have a productive discussion, because it’s quite difficult for an implementation to compete with an ideal.

        I also think you’re not acknowledging — and very possibly not understanding — that the plight of many of America’s poor stems from as much of as systematic disenfranchisement and cultural repression as that of those affected by Jim Crow laws in the late 18 and early 19oos. I think part of Bernie Sanders’ appeal to the poor is not just the promises he makes but the fact that he seems to understand, in a way that nearly all privileged white people don’t, that there is a fundamental inequality in society that creates a gap which cannot be bridged by hard work and effort alone.

        Even your point 1 above is grossly offensive and shows a complete lack of comprehension and sympathy. If I am placed in a highly disadvantaged situation due to generations of oppression and told that one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity — that of reproduction — is closed to me until I get myself out of this situation I was put in against my will and through no fault of my own, of course I’m going to despise the system that is actively dehumanizing me. And when someone comes along who not only recognizes my right to participate in society on equal footing as a human but wants to fight for my specific rights and privileges that will help me do that, of course I’m going to cling to him and his vision.

        I do think your second point has merit, but is too one-sided. We should be both seeking to enlarge the pie and to redistribute its pieces more equitably. If in order to achieve equitable distribution we slow the rate of increase, on the whole I’m OK with that tradeoff (especially because markets which support rapid increases also tend to be vulnerable to rapid decreases). There are plenty of examples from other more socialist countries to show that industry is not shut down because wealth inequality is reduced. There are also plenty of examples from less well-functioning socialist countries showing that going too far will tip the balance and create at best a stagnant economy and at worse an unsustainable economic situation. The latter does not invalidate the former, though it does suggest prudence. I’m not particularly worried about America transitioning from an oppressive free-market state to an oppressive socialist state over the course of one presidency, though, and I think Sanders resonates with me — and more importantly with the poor — not just because he promises free pie but because he demonstrates that he understands why they want pie in the first place.

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      2. Even your point 1 above is grossly offensive and shows a complete lack of comprehension and sympathy. If I am placed in a highly disadvantaged situation due to generations of oppression and told that one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity — that of reproduction — is closed to me until I get myself out of this situation I was put in against my will and through no fault of my own, of course I’m going to despise the system that is actively dehumanizing me.

        That’s a bit of an oversimplification of my admittedly clinical point. I did not say that that should be closed to people. It would obviously be a voluntary thing; this is not suggestion for some policy, but a suggestion on how a good subsection of poor individuals could improve their situation. Whether improving their situation is worth the temporary or permanent cost is for them to decide. I have absolutely no objection to poor people reproducing. I’m only bothered by doing so and expecting others to foot the bill. Moreover, I’ll note that socialism is far, far worse towards the poor. To paraphrase a quote I heard somewhere, “a free market has no fear of anyone coming or going, while a socialist country is terrified to death of poor people coming and rich people leaving.” “Coming” can mean birth as easily as immigration. Perhaps more so, since immigrants don’t require 15-25 years of incubation before becoming productive members of society.

        My overall point is that, in addition to “working harder,” there are other ways to alleviate poverty than relying on government to do so. And they tend to come with far fewer infringements on freedom and unintended consequences. As another example, many poor men tend to put a lot of money into meaningless things (on frivolities like spinners, stereos, and expensive clothing) on the rare occasion that they come into some money (e.g. tax refund). David would be a good example of this. (I have a much better example that I’m reluctant to share in such a public manner.)

        I somewhat understand this tendency – a poor person may like to quickly spend windfalls on satisfying desires because they notice that any accumulated money has a tendency to disappear (into food, repairs, etc.). But just because it’s understandable doesn’t make it sensible – or someone else’s responsibility.

        Again, I’m certainly not going to claim that all poor people are poor due to their own bad decisions or anything like that. But I think men like Sanders have a strong, strong tendency to exaggerate the pervasiveness of such situations (and to pervert statistics to suit their political agenda). (Putting aside the question of whether their proposed solutions will actually help anyone.)

        I feel like you’re attacking the worst of socialism and defending the best of free market capitalism.

        Moving on, you’ll notice I never once used the word ‘capitalism.’ While the term certainly does appropriately describe the free-market system I advocate, I like to avoid the negative things that some improperly associate with capitalism. Specifically, things like red tape which results from corporate lobbying or eminent domain abuse by men like Trump – things which are actually the result of big government and statism and are in direct opposition to the concept of “free markets,” yet somehow get inextricably linked with capitalism in some people’s minds. But this is a bit pedantic.

        More importantly, if by socialism you mean “public [i.e. government] ownership of the means of production,” then I’m attacking the “worst of socialism” because it has no “best” and no upside. I will gladly argue the ideal of socialism against the ideal of free markets any day of the week.

        If instead you simply mean increased government, social justice, and/or welfare programs relative to our own, then I very much agree – it is quite difficult for an implementation to compete with an ideal… what is the ideal you’re proposing? If instead you’d like to argue implementation vs implementation, then my hesitance to discuss the implementation is because I view many of the downsides to America’s system to be symptomatic of its deviance from capitalism rather than an effect of it.

        For example, the rise of healthcare costs obviously is due to a number of factors. But I can’t help but think that those most hurt by it – those too poor to avoid healthcare – have been most harmed by government interference. The current insurance system bears more resemblance to socialism than capitalism, yet is frequently held up as an example of failed capitalism. I have two reasons for this conclusion, the first being that public spending accounts for roughly half of America’s healthcare expenditures[1]. The other is a general decrease in liberty (in the context of healthcare). Somewhere along the line it was decided that it makes a modicum of sense to charge an uninsured person more than an insurance company for the same service. This is not socialism per se, but I view it as a direct result of government support of the insurance system through various means, including Medicare and the laws requiring employers to provide health insurance or the obaminable individual mandate to be insured. (This is a good example of how I hate government interference on behalf of industry just as much as interference against industry.) It boggles my mind how in American political discourse, “health insurance” has for all intents and purposes become synonymous with “healthcare.” Or how “uninsured” has become synonymous with “poor little victims who need saving.” I’ll readily admit that full-blown socialized healthcare might be preferable[2] to our current chimera. But I’m strongly of the opinion that a truly free system – or possibly even a hybrid like Guatemala – would be preferable to both.

        Another example would be general cronyism or meddling by the government on behalf of corporations. This frequently gets touted as a weakness of capitalism as opposed to socialism, but since government meddling is the very definition of socialism, I don’t see how capitalism can be criticized for tending towards socialism. Examples would be destructive subsidies or how the complicated tax code favors the wealthy.

        NOTES
        [1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.PUBL
        [2] In terms of quality-of-care, but not innovation.

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