February 11, 2016

Is There a Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders?



Andrew Kirell of the Daily Beast has asked the question. The answer is actually very easy, but it’s not one I’ve seen anyone give. Yes, there is a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders. Here it is.

According to the libertarian Fraser Institute’s preliminary 2015 Human Freedom Index, which combines measures of personal, civil, and economic freedoms, here are the top ten freest countries in the world:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Switzerland
  3. Finland
  4. Denmark
  5. New Zealand
  6. Canada
  7. Australia
  8. Ireland
  9. The United Kingdom
  10. Sweden

The United States—city on a hill, conceived in liberty, beacon of freedom unto the world—ranks a humiliating 20th, just behind the island nation of Mauritius and just ahead of the Czech Republic, which was part of a communist dictatorship when I was in high school. If this is America’s “libertarian moment,” then color me underwhelmed.

The libertarian case for Bernie Sanders is simply that Bernie Sanders wants to make America more like Denmark, Canada, or Sweden … and the citizens of those countries enjoy more liberty than Americans do. No other candidate specifically aims to make the United States more closely resemble a freer country. That’s it. That’s the case.    

Is it really that easy? I think so. But perhaps you’re skeptical. Let me explain myself more fully. Join me, won’t you, on a brief philosophical foray.

Thomas Reid, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, pointed out that there are two ways to construct an account of what it means to really know something, rather than just believing it to be true. The first way is to develop an abstract theory of knowledge—a general criterion that separates the wheat of knowledge from the chaff of mere opinion—and then see which of our opinions qualify as true knowledge. Reid noted that this method tends to lead to skepticism, because it’s hard, if not impossible, to definitively show that any of our opinions check off all the boxes these sort of general criteria tend to set out.

That’s why Descartes ends up in a pickle and Hume leaves us in a haze of uncertainty. It’s all a big mistake, Reid said, because the belief that I have hands, for example, is on much firmer ground than any abstract notions about the nature of true knowledge that I might dream up. If my theory implies that I don’t really know that I have hands, that’s a reason to reject the theory, not a reason to be skeptical about the existence of my appendages.

According to Reid, a better way to come up with a theory of knowledge is to make a list of the things we’re very sure that we really know. Then, we see if we can devise a coherent theory that explains how we know them.

The 20th century philosopher Roderick Chisholm called these two ways of theorizing about knowledge “methodism”—start with a general theory, apply it, and see what, if anything, counts as knowledge according to the theory—and “particularism”—start with an inventory of things that we’re sure we know and then build a theory of knowledge on top of it.

The point of all this is that an analogous distinction applies to our thinking about politics.

Suppose you’re especially interested in liberty, as I am. If you’re a theory-first methodist, what you’re going to do is concoct a general theory of liberty and then use it to tell you what a maximally free regime looks like. I think the analogy to theories of knowledge is very good here, since strong theory-first libertarians often come to the conclusion that no state-based regime can ever qualify as fully free. This amounts to deep theory-driven skepticism about government that’s a lot like deep theory-driven skepticism about knowledge. But then, well… what? I can’t tell you for sure that I’m not stuck in a computer simulation, so I don’t know that I have hands. And I can’t tell you for sure how to square my intuitions about coercion and consent with the legitimacy of government (or property, for that matter). Okay. Sure. So what now? We’ve got to get on with life. What gloves should I buy for my maybe-computer-simulated hands? What kind of maybe-illegitimate government should we want to live under?

Thomas Reid’s way is a better way. If you’re a data-first libertarian particularist, what you’re going to do is identify the regimes in which people enjoy the most freedom, and then try to come up with a theory of freedom that makes sense of the pattern of apparent facts.

But wait! How can you tell which regimes are freest without starting with an implicit theory of freedom? Great question. You can’t, really. But it’s not that big a problem.

The Fraser index breaks freedom down into personal, economic, and civil domains. Surely, there’s some sort of theory behind that. And the authors make a ton of assumptions about what counts as more or less freedom in each of those domains. But they’re all fairly reasonable assumptions, largely based on ordinary, commonsense ideas about freedom. At least they’re reasonable to me.

The important thing to note, in this case, is that the scholars making these assumptions, Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, former Cato Institute colleagues of mine, are libertarians who understand freedom as “the absence of coercive constraint.” And when they apply that notion of freedom and stick all their Koch-funded assumptions into an index and add everything up, Denmark, which is what Bernie Sanders thinks of as a model of “democratic socialism,” comes out a lot freer than the United States. Canada, which has precisely the sort of single-payer health-care system Bernie Sanders wants, comes out a lot freer than the United States—on a libertarian index of freedom.

You might notice that Scandinavian social democracies and somewhat more American-style Anglophone capitalist welfare states both feature heavily in the top ten of liberty. If any of the candidates in the race were touting Hong Kong (questionably ranked, in my opinion, in the age of de jure Chinese control) or New Zealand as models they wish to emulate, it would be pretty reasonable for libertarians to prefer those candidates. But there aren’t any. Only Bernie Sanders is pointing at regimes in which people enjoy more freedom than they do in the United States and saying, “Let’s be a lot more like that.”

Bernie Sanders wants to make the United States more like countries that are significantly more free than the United States, according to an index of overall freedom built on libertarian assumptions about the nature of freedom, and no other candidate does. That’s the libertarian case for Bernie Sanders. As long as you’re not allergic to starting with data rather than theory, it’s really pretty strong.

The biggest problem with my particularist, data-first libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders is that Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to actually understand that Denmark-style social democracy is funded by a free-market capitalist system that is in many ways less regulated than American capitalism. As I wrote a few month’s ago:

The lesson Bernie Sanders needs to learn is that you cannot finance a Danish-style welfare state without free markets and large tax increases on the middle class. If you want Danish levels of social spending, you need Danish middle-class tax rates and a relatively unfettered capitalist economy. The fact that he’s unwilling to come out in favor of either half of  the Danish formula for a viable social-democratic welfare state is the best evidence that Bernie Sanders is not actually very interested in what it takes to make social democracy work. The great irony of post-1989 political economy is that capitalism has proven itself the most reliable means to socialist ends. Bernie seems not to have gotten the memo.

Which is to say, democratic socialism, according to Bernie Sanders’ superannuated understanding of it, may have a dash too much Venezuela in it. That said, I think Sanders, if he had his druthers, really does want us to be more like Denmark, as it actually is, and that his dustier vintage socialist ideas are largely a function of the fact that American socialists have never had to reconcile themselves with capitalism because they’ve never governed.

Bernie is something like the mirror image of libertarian idealists in this respect. In the unlikely event that libertarian idealists ever manage to come into political power, they’d find it necessary to reconcile themselves with redistributive social insurance in order to sustain political support for a lightly-regulated dynamic market economy—just like practical, governing socialists have in fact found it necessary to reconcile themselves with relatively free markets.

Of the top ten freest countries, New Zealand probably has the most recognizably “libertarian” character, and is probably the best real-world example of what a counterfactually “libertarianized” America might look like under the governance of a bunch of pragmatically libertarian Rand Paul types (if they weren’t pretending, badly, to be conservative). The fact that New Zealand doesn’t function all that differently from Denmark, and the fact that Denmark and New Zealand enjoy indistinguishable levels of freedom, illustrates just how unworried libertarians ought to be about the possibility of a Denmark-admiring, single-payer-wanting, democratic socialist president.

I’ll be surprised if Sanders prevails against Hillary Clinton in the primaries. And I’ll be gobsmacked if he wins the general election. But if he does somehow survive the onslaught of red-baiting and became president, where he’d take us, if he could get anywhere at all, isn’t that far from where libertarians in power would take us, if they could get anywhere at all. If we’re lucky, we’ll live to see Bernie Sanders’ America and experience a future in which the United States, made great again, manages to knock Mauritius down a peg on the world freedom league tables, seizing the inestimable glory of 19th place.