With an unabashed demagogue as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, it is easy to overlook the problems of the one person who has mounted a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Sanders campaign is all about social justice. He wants to expand our welfare state, make college and healthcare “free,” and force the “One Percent” to share the wealth. In Sanders the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 has finally found a plan: democratic socialism, as Bernie put it, “like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway.”
Unfortunately for Sanders, few if any of his policies would get us what the Scandinavians have — which isn’t really socialism. In fact, it’s not even close.
Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway all rate in the same category as the United States (“Mostly Free”) on the Heritage/Wall Street Journal 2016 Index of Economic Freedom. The Fraser Institute’s 2015 Human Freedom Index even places Denmark, and Sweden in their top 10, well above the U.S. at twentieth place.
Indeed, in his trip to the U.S. last November, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen insisted that the Nordic Model is not socialist. “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy,” he said. “Denmark is a market economy.” If Danish capitalism is what the senator really meant by democratic socialism, I might have even voted for him in the Michigan primary! But alas, it isn’t.
Sanders’ policy proposals tell a different story. As Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Center put it, “If you want Danish levels of social spending, you need Danish middle-class tax rates and a relatively unfettered capitalist economy.” Bernie has pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class. Instead, he wants to soak the rich. France tried that and found that, as it turns out, the rich can afford to move. Ever since the repeal of their short-lived and insane 75 percent top marginal income tax rate in 2012, many wealthy French are still migrating, contributing to a general “wealth drain.”
Bernie Sanders wants more regulation (again, like they have in France) when what he needs to achieve his Nordic dream is less. Even the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute has recently recommended liberalizing international trade, reducing regulation, and lowering corporate and income taxes — all things that Sanders opposes. Thus, Bernie wants what the Danes have, but he wants to get it through French policies. Shouldn’t he expect French results instead?
The dissonance doesn’t end there, however. Public social spending actually varies widely among the Nordic countries. Norway’s public social spending as a percent of GDP is 22 percent. Ours is currently a comparable 19.2 percent. And in total net social spending, we blow Norway out of the water. This suggests to me that either the policies of a country with the population of Colorado aren’t scalable to one 60 times larger or perhaps what we need is not more but better social spending.
Add to that the fact that the minimum wage in Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway is zero. Sanders, by contrast, wants to raise ours to a disastrous $15 per hour. I’ve argued in the past that, at best, a national minimum wage is a blunt and ineffective instrument for seeking social justice. Indeed, it cannot be considered just, because justice renders to each what is due, paying attention to the particulars of circumstance, whereas national minimums cannot factor in regional differences in cost of living or demographic issues, such as the various needs of the young and independent compared to those raising a family.
As if this isn’t enough, raising minimum wages disproportionately hurts the unskilled, the young, and minorities, which of course would include many immigrants. Thus, Sanders’ minimum wage policy would hurt his immigration goals as well. This is a shame since America’s ability to assimilate immigrants into our culture is something that generally sets us apart from Europe.
According to Samuel Gregg, due to depressed birth rates in Europe, “those working will have to pay even higher amounts to fund [their] pension systems,” speeding up the insolvency of the welfare states Sanders wants us so badly to imitate. In the case of immigration, Sanders wants us to be as welcoming as Sweden, which is exceptional for Europe. But locking down low-skill newcomers’ prospects for legal employment and quashing entrepreneurship with regulations doesn’t strike me as the most welcoming posture. Nor would it improve assimilation.
So, while Sanders’ goals may seem comparable to Scandinavia, there’s little Nordic about his means. It all reminds me of a quip from the Russian Orthodox philosopher S. L. Frank, a refugee from the brutality of actual, Soviet socialism. “The leaders of the French Revolution desired to attain liberty, equality, fraternity, and the kingdom of truth and reason, but they actually created a bourgeois order. And this is the way it usually is in history,” Frank wrote. Sanders wants Scandinavia, but his policies would put us on a track more in line with Argentina or Greece. Good intentions are not enough.
Finally, I can’t help but ask: How good are Sanders’ intentions in the first place? His indiscriminate railing against the “One Percent” (more than three million of our fellow Americans) and all “millionaires and billionaires” betrays a grossly materialistic ethic. For Sanders, to be rich is to be evil, as if moral character could be measured in money. And he encourages others to think this way, as well.
Rather, as the fourth century Church father St. John Chrysostom put it: “Neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth; nor is poverty a virtue, but the having made a virtuous use of poverty.”
Wealth does bring greater temptation, but it doesn’t force anyone’s hand. Simplicity can build virtue, but it can also breed bitterness and envy. And it is the latter, I’m afraid, that constitutes the “moral” core of Sanders’ message.
This article first appeared at The Stream.