Libertyhangout.org is looking for donations to pay for enrolling presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Walter Block’s economics course at Loyola University in New Orleans. Of course no one expects Sanders to take the course even if the necessary $3,096 is raised. But it draws attention to what some people believe is a serious flaw in his thinking, that socialism is a defensible economic system.
(Note: Mises Academy offers a year’s worth of online courses (plural) in free market economics at 3% of the price above.)
But to Sanders and many like him, it doesn’t matter if socialism is deeply flawed. I’m sure he would say it isn’t but that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that it’s not even an economic theory but a political agenda of confiscation and redistribution. In case you missed it, Sanders’ socialism is not the kind that went bloody, like those in the USSR, North Korea, Cuba, China, and Nazi Germany. According to Wikipedia, “Sanders favors policies similar to those of social democratic parties in Europe, particularly those instituted by the Nordic countries.” He wants Americans to surrender their wealth to government bureaucrats obediently, then wait in line for their fair share while the anointed try to figure out what it is.
Recently, Mises Institute published articles removing the shine from two socialist paradises, Sweden and Norway. As one of the authors points out, the Nordic countries have looked prosperous because they’ve been consuming their capital, much like a family that heats its house by burning its furniture.
But none of this really matters. What matters is that these regimes hold the moral high ground, much as the USSR did in the 1930s. They were born of an inspiration to raise mankind through sacrifice of the individual to a higher calling. They placed “society” above any of its members, unless those members controlled the levers of power.
As collectivists, socialists are morally corrupt, not economically ignorant. They need to learn not to touch what’s not theirs. They need to learn to keep their hands to themselves, not in someone else's pockets. They need to learn that theft is wrong, even if it’s done by majority vote.
Leonard Read launched the Foundation for Economic Education on March 7, 1946. A week earlier Ayn Rand had written to Read explaining why she thought the organization’s program would not succeed, based on its prospectus. She wrote:
The mistake is in the very name of the organization. You call it The Foundation for Economic Education. You state that economic education is to be your sole purpose. You imply that the cause of the world’s troubles lies solely in people’s ignorance of economics and that the way to cure the world is to teach it the proper economic knowledge. This is not true—therefore your program will not work. You cannot hope to effect a cure starting with the wrong diagnosis.
The root of the whole modern disaster is philosophical and moral. People are not embracing collectivism because they have accepted bad economics. They are accepting bad economics because they have embraced collectivism. . . . (emphasis added)
When the social goal chosen is by its very nature impossible and unworkable (such as collectivism), it is useless to point out to people that the means they’ve chosen to achieve it are unworkable. Such means go with such a goal; there are no others. You cannot make men abandon the means until you have persuaded them to abandon the goal. . . .
The moral and social ideal preached by everyone today (and by conservatives louder than all) is the ideal of collectivism. Men are told that man exists only to serve others; that the “common good” is man’s only proper aim in life and his sole justification for existence; that man is his brother’s keeper; that everybody owes everybody a living; that everybody is responsible for everybody’s welfare; and that the poor are the primary concern of society, its holy shrine, the god whom all must serve.
This is the moral premise accepted by most people today, of all classes, all stages of education and all political parties.
How are you going to sell capitalistic economics to go with that? How are you going to get them to accept as moral, proper, and desirable such conceptions as personal ambition, economic competition, the profit motive and private property?
It can’t be done. Their moral ideal has defined these conceptions as evil and immoral. — Letters of Ayn Rand, Michael S. Berliner, Ed., pp. 256-258, 1995
No matter what evidence the free market offers for providing material abundance, for slashing the prevalence of disease, child mortality, and poverty, for promoting peace among people through trade, it is still, at base, premised on the idea of rational self-interest. This is nothing new. Adam Smith:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Notice Smith’s use of “humanity,” as if only charitable activities constitute a moral undertaking and anything resulting in a perceived advantage is somehow bereft of human decency.
People engage in free trade because both parties perceive it as a benefit. I buy a hamburger because I value the food more than the money to pay for it, the seller of the hamburger regards the money received higher than the hamburger sold. There is no theft. There are no guns involved. There is a mutual advantage through voluntary agreement. It's a win-win.
This is the free market: People producing and benefiting through voluntary exchange. No theft, no guns, no role for a coercer like the State. Though people need protection of their property, the State has proven itself grossly unfit for the job.
Gary North has rewritten Hazlitt’s masterpiece and called it Christian Economics in One Lesson. He adds something missing from Hazlitt’s presentation: Explicit reference to theft as a violation of morality. Being a Christian, he presents his moral case with references to Biblical passages.
Regardless of what you might think of his approach, most people view theft as wrong and harmful. The problem arises when the thief is the government in the guise of a savior. It is never a savior, except for the well-connected, and however grand and glorious it might seem it is always a thief in action.
Never forget this.
What Sanders and other social planners need to learn is not economics so much as common morality.