Bernie Sanders’ Conception of Economic Rights

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Senator Bernie Sanders fired up the Twitter-verse last Sunday with an impassioned tweet touting the “economic rights” of the citizen.  Everyone has the “right to a decent job, the right to health care, housing, education, [and] retirement security,” the Senator said. While such rhetoric has become the norm for the Senator, questions abound about the details of such a policy.

For starters, what are the jobs that will be guaranteed? The Senator has never really gone into explicit detail on this matter. But the likely scenario is one in which government-backed industries compete alongside private enterprises. However, this is a textbook socialist policy of “economic security” rather than “economic rights.”

Economic security promises a set standard of living for all citizens. Every person is entitled to a job with a guaranteed salary.  In doing so, the government alleviates the risk inherent to freedom of choice and opportunity. The individual no longer has to worry about being fired or a potential setback in their material means.  As the theory goes, free from the burden of economic risk, the citizen will be freer than ever before.

But this is far from the reality of the situation. For one, to enact such a policy will require that the government wield a huge amount of control over the economic activity of the state. The individuals that submit to such guarantees will not be given a choice in which job they wish to pursue. Instead, a centralized committee or department will allocate them to a job based off of their perceived skill set.  Freedom of choice will inevitably be traded for the security of income.

An additional problem with such a scheme is that it will completely distort market economics. In a free market, it is inevitable that groups of people will face layoffs. It is a burden that we all sympathize with. However, there is a valuable teaching lesson for those affected. When their job is no longer in demand, groups of people are able to allocate their resources and focus on pursuing jobs that are in demand.

Senator Sanders proposal of “economic security” poses a risk to this painful yet critical lesson of the free market. With the guaranteed job in hand, the individual has no way of knowing the usefulness of their task.  They have no standard to judge their skills by. As such, they lose the ability to see a goal to aim and strive for. 

The “economic planner” will seek to alleviate this problem as well. In overseeing the economy, the planner will likely make a centralized decision on what jobs are useful. A group of men, rather than the impersonal free market, will decide where to allocate resources. Citizens will be herded to and fro and assigned to certain tasks.

The moral problems are glaring. In the absence of choice, such people will come to resemble what John Stuart Mill called “ape-like.” For Alexis de Tocqueville, such a man “sleeps…without passion and enlightenment,” always looking to the government to make his decisions for him. He loses control of his individual life and lacks “a spirit of ownership and [is] without ideas of any improvement.”  In the hyper-centralized state, he is machine-like rather than human.

But alas, we are still human. And as humans, we are usually in need of external motivation to perform the task at hand. With a job guaranteed as our “right,” we lose the greatest motivator that is the potential for material loss. F.A. Hayek made this observation in The Road to Serfdom. With our interests no longer involved in our work, we are highly unlikely to remain productive. Balancing the “right to a job” with the problem of discipline will be an impossible task to solve.

Therefore, what we have with Senator Sanders’ proposal, is an inefficient system that reduces men to cogs in the machinery. Devoid of passion and interest, such a person will meander from assigned task to assigned task. This person will practice the skill of passivity rather than actively controlling his individual aims and ambitions.

Perhaps then it is as Benjamin Franklin popularly said. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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Adam Toomey is a Philosophy and History graduate from Augusta University. He received the Hertog Fellowship in Political Philosophy which is awarded to the top college students in the country. He will be attending St. John's College this fall. You can follow him at his newly created Twitter account, https://twitter.com/dare2besocrates

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