Ayn Rand v. Bernie Sanders REVIEW
This week I decided to read two books with opposing viewpoints back to back. Sometimes in ideas, as in art, it is the contrast that makes what you are looking at interesting. I give you Jonathan Tasini’s The Essential Bernie Sanders and Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.
First, in the introduction, Tasini says that Bernie Sanders’ views are American views. This, of course, could be contested, particularly if one is adjudicating the thesis by referencing elections. It might more appropriately be said that Bernie’s views are Vermont views (as he did win by huge margins here). Grant you, Bernie would argue that politicians who object to his views are all purchased while politicians who agree with his views are all elected. But nevertheless, Bernie’s vision for America has a passionate and broad appeal to many. To begin …
Bernie likes to establish himself on perceptual highground before stepping into any particular debate on specifics. He wants everyone to see (or believe if they can’t see) that the American middle class is in a state of collapse and that the trajectory towards a Louis XIV type world of 99% peasantry – slash - 1% aristocracy either has come into existance or is about to. Most people know that they are not aristocrats and yet know that they are not paupers but Bernie would have them see themselves as “on the verge” of anihilation as a family - the last surviving examples of an endangered species once thought of as “the middle class.” Bernie refers to wealth inequality as “the great moral issue of our time.” He will be accused by his detractors as favoring wealth redistribution (from the rich to the middle class and poor) though he asserts that things as they are are the consequence of decades of wealth redistribution (from the poor and middle class to the rich).
“There is something profoundly wrong when one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. The reality is that for the past 40 years, Wall Street and the billionaire class has rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people of this country.”
[The “last forty years” is code for “since Reagan beat Carter”] The implication here is that all wealth above a certain undefined amount is absconded wealth. He never distinguishes between kinds of wealth (just as conservatives often refuse to distinguish between different kinds of need). This strikes me as the logical fallacy of both extremes.
But it is not only the problem of wealth distribution that concerns Bernie Sanders. It is also important for Bernie that people see, or believe if they don’t see, that the country’s infrastructure is in deplorable condition. Bernie is also appalled by working conditions that require people to work 50-60 hours a week with no overtime in order to afford to live. To this, we can add his vision of the climate, health care, childcare, education, and the electoral process. In every case, Bernie’s world is one where the planet and the people who really matter are paying for a few people who matter less so to live in decadent excess.
For all this to be fixed, one remedy shines brighter than all others in his various speeches: “Make the billionaire class pay their fair share.” He provides ten ways to make that happen:
First, stop companies from locating their headquarters in places that charge fewer taxes (tax havens). (One has to ask, would a company be allowed to move to a state where taxes are lower? Or will it be only foreign countries that they will be denied the freedom to relocate to?) Second, he would place a tax on stock trades so if you want to sell one stock and use the profit to buy another stock, you have to pay the government for that privilege. He refers to this as a “Robin Hood tax.” Third, he has selected oil, gas, and coal companies as a legitimate source of state revenue and argues for removing any tax breaks or subsidies that favor their profitability. Fourth, he proposes a progressive estate tax that would essentially treat the wealth of the wealthiest differently from the wealth of all those not deemed wealthy enough to be considered too wealthy. Fifth, he would tax capital gains and investment income the same as work income. Sixth, he would simply restore higher taxes on wealthier people. He refers to this as revoking tax breaks that the wealthy should have never been given. [ a savvy Republican will no doubt argue that they are not lowering taxes on the wealthy. They are just rescinding unfair taxes that were unjustly levied in the first place]. Seven, he would do away with the limit on taxable social security income. Thus, Social Security insurance, for the wealthy would simply be another tax – not an insurance policy. Eighth he would start charging China a “currency manipulation fee” essentially driving more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Ninth, he would reduce “wasteful” spending at the Pentagon and tenth, he would force drug companies to negotiate prices with the government.
Most of Bernie’s visions come down to a fundamental belief: That people have rights to things that were once not regarded as rights but should have been – things that must be paid for with money other people have either earned or have absconded with through unfair labor practices. People have rights to health care, to parental leave, to childcare, to livable wages, and to education at least to the end of their college degrees. “Free tuition at every public college and university in the nation” is how he explains it. And, “Every worker in America should be guaranteed at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.”
By the time I finished the book, I found myself inundated with assertions to rights to various benefits once thought to be consumer options. Bernie freely dispenses with some state-sponsored blessings but withholds others. For instance, the state will pay for a public school but not a private. Some industries are targeted (oil and gas, not solar and wind). Others are not. Some freedoms are extended. Others are retracted. Some people are to be benefitted. Others are to be taxed. One learns that government needs to be made more powerful as one learns that government’s powers are almost entirely in the hands of too few people right now.
In reading Ayn Rand one is confronted with an ideological arch enemy to classical Progressivism though there are some surprising openings for agreement. Ayn Rand’s central philosophical assertion is that she has no moral obligation to expend her energies and talents for state services rendered to others (if she does not benefit from them as well).
“Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes. . . . Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own ‘selfish’ benefit.”
The purpose of the individual’s life is that individual’s happiness, Rand insists. “The achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.” Sanders would take issue with this. And yet, there is space for agreement in that Ayn Rand would condemn a businessman or woman for forcing people to sacrifice for him or her. She does not accept the morality of exploitation. To say that she believes that she should be free to profit from others though fair trade and fair exchange of services is not to say that she favors the right to exploit them. I think that she would join Bernie in his criticism of those who want benefits that others are responsible to pay for (i.e. infrastructure that they use while refusing to pay taxes to keep up).
“A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws.”
To Rand, a person has no right to say to taxpayers, “I need help, therefore, you must help.” I think she would apply this principle to banks who were going bust. “A rational man never seeks or desires the unearned” Rand says. “In this process of trade, a rational man does not seek or desire any more or any less than his own efforts can earn.” Rand criticizes all of those who want safety without efficacy – that is, who want guarantees of rewards not actually earned. Could she be a consistent Republican or a Democrat in today’s Congress I wonder?
Rand is an absolutist about wealth redistribution (of any variety – that which would exploit workers or that which would redistribute legitimately acquired welalth). “There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar” she says of wealth distribution,
“offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender—the recognition of his right to one’s property. What value or concession did the burglar offer in return? And once the principle of unilateral concessions is accepted as the base of a relationship by both parties, it is only a matter of time before the burglar would seize the rest.”
“Only individual men have the right to decide when or whether they wish to help others’ Rand insists, “society-as an organized political system-has no rights in the matter at all.”
This is probably where the political divide between right and left is most evident. The very idea of rights and where they come from is being fought over. Originally, the theory of rights was based on the idea that a right is something that was “endowed by a creator.” Lacking any basis for objective certainty in a post-theistic state, a right can now be anything that a large group of loud people can holler that they have or that some other group does not have. Rand would have you believe that people like Bernie Sanders would not stop until they had us all surrendering our very eyeballs to the state: “It is medically possible to take the corneas of a man’s eyes immediately after his death and transplant them to the eyes of a living man who is blind,” she argues,
“thus restoring his sight (in certain types of blindness). Now, according to collectivized ethics, this poses a social problem. Should we wait until a man’s death to cut out his eyes, when other men need them? Should we regard everybody’s eyes as public property and devise a ‘fair method of distribution’? Would you advocate cutting out a living man’s eye and giving it to a blind man, so as to ‘equalize’ them? No? Then don’t struggle any further with questions about ‘public projects’ in a free society. You know the answer. The principle is the same.”
Rand would respond to Sanders’ assertion of ‘rights with the question “at whose expense?”
Rand would argue against all sacrificing. Real men deal with other men as traders and producers – not looters and “Atillas.” And using the state or the exploitive force of monopoly as the mechanism by which one loots is no solution. The fact that you had the State confiscate unearned wages does not legitimatize it. The fact that the sharecropper signed the exploitive contract when he had to in order to feed his children does not legitimatize the financial advantage accruing to the employer. Perhaps what is needed in this country is a system that treats wealth gained by exploitation differently than wealth gained by industry and creativity and risk. Perhaps what this country needs is a system that treats need that exists as a consequence of behavior differently from need that exists as a consequence of ill fortune.
Question for Comment: Can a person agree with both Sanders and Rand? Or are they mutually exclusive propositions?