Sen. Bernie Sanders wants capitalism — he just doesn’t realize it.
The Washington Post published a Sanders op-ed Thursday that lays out his typical grievances: America’s wealth is a bad thing, our prison system is broken (not that I disagree), and global warming is going to kill us all.
But what’s interesting is what he says he wants from the economy:
What do we want? We want an economy that is not based on uncontrollable greed, monopolistic practices and illegal behavior. We want an economy that protects the human needs and dignity of all people — children, the elderly, the sick, working people and the poor. We want an economic and political system that works for all of us, not one in which almost all new wealth and power rests with a handful of billionaire families.
Bernie Sanders is describing capitalism. He already has what he wants, “an economic … system that works for all of us,” but fails to acknowledge that to achieve that system, we have to harness the controllable “greed” inherent in human nature.
I’ll let Noble prize-winning economist Milton Friedman explain greed:
Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.
The record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.
Long before we had iPhones and Uber, we had lives that, as Thomas Hobbes put it, were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Humans are greedy, selfish and violent, because a long, long time ago, that was the only way to survive. Humans, like animals, have instincts. Those instincts don’t go away just because we generally don’t have to worry about starving to death or succumbing to the elements anymore. The beauty of capitalism is that it understands human nature and works with humanity’s flaws, instead of ignoring them, or arrogantly thinking we can conquer them.
“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm,” Noble prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek said.
Capitalism is the only system that preserves every person’s innate dignity, and provides a place for it to flourish, precisely because it trusts individuals to want to improve their positions.
“The heart of the liberal philosophy is a belief in the dignity of the individual, in his freedom to make the most of his capacities and opportunities according to his own lights,” Friedman said. “Subject only to the proviso that he not interfere with the freedom of other individuals to do the same.”
It is an economic system that depends on each person’s individual value, and is everything the Vermont senator is looking for.
Bernie finishes his piece with a call to remove power from the wealthy:
What do we want? We want to end the rapid movement that we are currently experiencing toward oligarchic control of our economic and political life. As Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, we want a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That is what we want, and that is what we will continue fighting for.
Perhaps Bernie also read some of President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on free markets and capitalism, like this excerpt from his 1859 speech at a Wisconsin fair:
The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.
Or his thoughts on property and wealth:
Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.
Capitalism is everything Bernie wants. It facilitates a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is the best system we have come up with to channel our flaws into prosperity for the masses. That prosperity might not mean private yachts overnight, but it means that capitalism’s poor will always be better off than any other economic system’s poor — and there will always be poor people.
If anything needs fixing, it’s the layers of crony capitalism and government overreach smothering capitalism’s — and our government’s — ability to function. Bernie should be careful to understand that the fundamental problem is government trying to play puppeteer, and human nature doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but its own.
It doesn’t matter how badly Sanders might want everyone to be economically equal, it’s madness to think he, or anyone else, can overcome human nature.
Maybe for Sanders, madness it is.