The appeal of Bernie Sanders’ socialism is a puzzle to many, but it shouldn't be, not if we understand how most people think about economics. Sanders' appeal rises when economics is understood mechanistically, subject to impersonal forces and nefarious individuals. As a result, an economy can only be directed by the macro decisions of large and powerful entities like governments. Shallow moral appeals arise to justify socialist policies where success is not measured by the objective results of the policies, but by the moral good they ostensibly foster.
It is easy—very easy—to appeal to free education, the eradication of poverty, unlimited minimum wage ceilings, and all the other promises made by those who don't have any real experience in wealth creation. Most often their supporters don't either, including the millennial followers of Bernie Sanders. We need to be patient with the ignorance of the young, but we should never acquiesce to it.
Economics is not a mechanistic enterprise. Economics is closely tied to human anthropology—the precepts that define what a human is, how one produces artifacts first for survival and then the building of culture, how one values nature, and the principles applied to refashion matter into something new.
You can say that the presuppositions of economic theory draw from the anthropological dimension of human existence and not the other way around. This turns the common wisdom on its head, but historically the assertion finds support. A materialist reading of economics arose concurrently with the rise of the great materialist philosophers, chiefly Marx and the disciples that followed him.
Economics rightly understood, then, touches on deeper, transcendental truths. And, as the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught, any discussion about materialism and transcendence must answer the fundamental question about whether the final touchstone of truth lies inside or outside the human person. The answer determines how we comprehend the world around us and how we act in it. Here the materialist and traditionalist clash, and the first battleground is always language.
This point is often poorly understood by the traditionalist and contributes to his arguments falling on deaf ears. Take, for example, the words capitalist and capitalism. The trap lies in the word itself. Capitalism sounds as bound to ideology as socialism is, albeit in different dress. It is perceived as a competing materialist economic theory. As a result, the shallow moral justifications of the socialist win the day, and the real and necessary connection between free markets and human flourishing is never comprehended.
The sad reality is that capitalist abuses abound (e.g., crony capitalism, which in fact, is a type of soft fascism). Such abuses should not be defended, but using the terms implicitly defends them.
It is difficult to rebut the shallow moral appeals of the socialist. These moral arguments appeal to the young, because they are inexperienced. Who can be against the eradication of poverty? This ignorance is aided and abetted by the tenured class who, lacking any experience in wealth creation and the risks associated with it, presume their paychecks appear as a divine right and conclude that the greedy withhold the largesse from others.
An April 2016 article in The Washington Post titled “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows” provides some insights. The article’s author, Max Ehrenfreund, writes that the rejection of “capitalism” is a view held by a majority of millennials. Ehrenfreund says that millennials see capitalism as crony capitalism, and the lurch from one financial crisis to the next during their short lifetimes affirms it. Unfortunately, Ehrenfreund collapses the term “free market” into “capitalist,” thereby subsuming human flourishing into the same materialist worldview as the people he writes about. This mars his analysis, but the data remains valuable nonetheless.
Human flourishing is an anthropological issue, but if materialism holds the day, the density of economic ignorance will intensify. Christopher Ingraham took a cursory look at the reading lists of Ivy League universities in “What Ivy league students are reading that you aren't.”
Conspicuously absent are the books that examine economics from the anthropological viewpoint. It would be good if universities added to their reading list books such as Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which rightly perceives socialism as an enslavement of the soul, or even Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which clarifies the relationship between economics and human flourishing.
Ignorance is alleviated by knowledge, but knowledge is more than information. Plato speaks of phronesis, a type of knowledge related to how to act and think in ways related to virtue, a moral understanding that penetrates deeper than immediate practicality and reaches for first principles. These concepts reach deep but appeal to a near universal yearning to comprehend things beyond their immediate appearance.
This yearning is the reason the banal moral appeals and shallow criticisms of the socialist are so powerful to the inexperienced young and their poorly educated elders. Critics of socialist ideologues can fault the shallow moralism that putatively justifies the soul-crushing bondage of slavery to the state. However, until they recognize and employ the moral dimension of economics in ways that comport to real experience (and thus the soul), they simply will not be heard or comprehended.
Let’s go back to Solzhenitsyn. He writes, “Socialism of any type leads to the destruction of the human spirit.” That premise, that truth, that touchstone, breaks the shackles that define economics as solely a materialist (and thus soulless) enterprise. It warns of the nascent totalitarianism lurking in the heart of socialism. It opens history, the real experience of real men as judges of the moral claims that hold the imagination of the socialist in paralytic thrall and seduces the inexperienced and uneducated.
Moral claims, then, are important—a point the socialist implicitly understands, but the free marketeer/capitalist often overlooks. Stories must be told that deal with the real experiences of real people. The publication of Solzhenitsyn’s multi-volume Gulag Archipelago decimated the Marxist intellectual establishment of Western Europe. These books chronicled how destructive the materialist economic theories were in practice. Socialism destroys the soul and nation. Stories revealing that destruction can penetrate seduction and lies. As Solzhenitsyn puts it, “One word of truth outweighs the world.”
Closer-to-home moral arguments could be marshaled in events such as the collapse of Venezuela, where a once-thriving culture has been brought to its knees by socialist doctrine.
One impediment stands in the way of the needed clarity. If the defender of free markets does not comprehend the need for a transcendent touchstone, if they believe that human flourishing will simply emerge as a functioning of free agents left unfettered, then they are constricted in the same way as the materialist, and will fail. Economic freedom is predicated on more than “self-interest.” It comes only when we see that our neighbor’s flourishing is also our own.