The Great Debaters

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I feel that I should say something about the presidential debates. I don’t want to do it. Probably you don’t want to read it. But it’s as inevitable as someone going to a wake and saying, “Doesn’t he look natural?”

“Natural,” of course, would not be the right word for our current debaters. Most of them look deranged, and their talk confirms the impression. I think one sample will suffice. It’s the now-famous outburst from Bernie Sanders, standing next to his alleged opponent, Hillary Clinton, and screaming, “"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. . . . Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.”

Can’t you just hear the Witch of the West cackling, “Helping the little lady along, are you, my fine gentleman?” In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter. But why would anybody say what Sanders said? It’s not the kind of thing you say if you actually want to beat your opponent.

Media speculation holds that Bernie wants a high position in a Clinton administration, and one can imagine many posts for which he would be qualified. As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, he’s suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation. Maybe he could rise as far as Executive Director of the Steam Locomotive Bureau.

In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter.

My own speculation is that Sanders simply hates Republicans so much that he is willing to do anything to express contempt for them. Because that’s what his statement was — a mere declaration of contempt. No reasoning about the evidence, no consideration of the many problems that Clinton’s “damn emails” have brought up, and of course no interest in the, after all, very interesting question of why he thinks he can speak for “the American people.” The same populace that he pictures as alternately vomiting over the email scandal and trying to sleep it off (“sick and tired”) is depicted by the polls as actively concerned with the issue and actively engaged in revising its opinion of Hillary Clinton — downward. Why wouldn’t Sanders use this as a campaign talking point, or at least leave it lay, unless he was mastered by his vindictive spirit? The reason his campaign got traction is that even Democrats consider Clinton a hateful, dishonest person. But with his carefully plotted debate outburst, Sanders showed that for him, nothing is worth so much as reviling the Republicans. This is ordinary for Democrats. The family that reviles together, stays together.

But to do Sanders the justice he is never willing to do other people, we need to consider his own explanation of his motive — his belief that discussion of Hillary’s “damn emails” crowds out discussion of “the real issues facing America.”

(I like quoting “damn emails,” because it’s such a dumb thing to say. “Damn” is the default term of abuse. It’s what people say when they can’t think of anything else. It’s exactly what a dumb, befuddled, obnoxious old coot would say about any problem in daily life. “Damn junk mail! Why do they send me the damn stuff? Damn toaster! Burns the bread every damn time! Damn kids! I’m sick of the damn kids in this neighborhood!”)

As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, Sanders is well suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation.

So let’s consider his belief. The essential idea is one he shares with most of the other candidates, Democratic or Republican — the notion that there is a giant pile of issues out there, as tall as Mt. Everest and just as gnarly, and that America has to face those issues,and would be busy doing so if Americans could only see them. The candidate’s mission is to reveal the existence of those issues, now cleverly concealed behind the opponents’ lying contemptible hateful hate-filled propaganda. No one else is willing to undertake this mission.

If this is true, it’s surprising that political candidates almost never initiate a dialogue about the issues that is remotely similar to anything that normal people do when they have a real issue to discuss. Normal people try to find the facts, and if the facts turn out not to be alarming, they are happy not to argue about solving a problem that no one can find. But if there is a problem, and it’s apparent enough to be a subject of debate, they try to sharpen their arguments and communicate them clearly and concisely. They entertain objections and attend to plausible counterarguments. And they present a clear plan of action. They don’t go on and on about how the door needs to be fixed; they say, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll call up Dave the Fixit Guy and see what he’ll charge to take care of that door.”

Political candidates address the issues in a different way. They declare, usually out of the blue, that they have discovered an issue that must be faced. Then they invent facts to support their statements, denounce anyone who takes a more optimistic view of the situation, declare that the problem must be solved instantaneously, and exclude any possibility of solving it except by taking all the money out of other people’s bank accounts. This is not what you or I mean when we urge other people to face an issue. Still stranger is the fact that the political discussion, or national dialogue, never reaches the level of argument. It’s all declarations and demands.

Sanders is a convenient, and hilarious, example. When, during the Democrats’ debate, Anderson Cooper asked him whether he was electable, given his history — he supported the Sandinistas, honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and bills himself as a socialist — Sanders replied by saying that in the last election “63% of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. 80% of young people didn’t vote.” He implied that these people would vote for him. Some discussion.

As for his positive program, consider this masterpiece of argumentation:

And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90% — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57% of all new income is going to the top 1%.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Sanders has a remarkable ability to make things up — remarkable for a human being, that is, but not for a presidential candidate. Their custom is just to say things, convinced that their audience won’t even take the trouble to check with Wikipedia. Very well. When you do subject yourself to that enormous task and find the Wiki article “Wealth in the United States,” you will not discover that one one-thousandth of the American population owns “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%.” That’s just something that Sanders goes around saying, or yelling. He yells a lot.

But suppose you don’t care about piddling matters of fact. Suppose you care only about mighty matters of morality. What is the argument that allows Sanders to get from the existence of income inequality to the claim that income inequality is immoral? What is the argument that allows him to go, for instance, from the idea that people who receive $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits should be recompensed by taking 15% of incomes over $118,000 a year and giving it to them?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense.

There is no argument. He never presents one. He just says things. To go back to the Wiki article, why shouldn’t Sanders demand that families headed by people between 65 and 74 years of age surrender huge amounts of money to households headed by people under 35 years of age? After all, the median net worth of the former is $232,100, and the median net worth of the latter is $10,460. And how about childless couples? They have a median net worth of $213,730, which is more than twice that of couples with children, and about 15 times that of single people with children, or single people under 55 years of age, without children. Shouldn’t these culprits, these viciously immoral childless couples, be compelled to give their wealth to those less fortunate?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense. If he had any, wouldn’t he hesitate to tell one lie after another? Wouldn’t he hesitate to say, for instance, that “we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth”? Ah, Haiti — famous for its medical and family paid leave. Burma — a paradise for early childcare. Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

In either case, he shouldn’t be shouting about morality. Even if he does believe that his visible audience consists of mindless oysters, why should he assume that everyone else is? “When you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby” — as if mothers with newborns were as unwitting as Sanders’ followers, and simply allowed their offspring to be snatched away from their passive arms.

Most voters have something like free will. So if liberty and prosperity are snatched from them by the likes of Bernie Sanders, it’s their own fault. In the last sentence I originally typed “liberty and responsibility,” but “responsibility” may be the problem — that word is apparently so detestable to some of our fellow citizens that they’d rather hear Bernie Sanders bleating away, like the guy in the restaurant whom you ask not to be seated next to, than take a few moments to fulfill the duty of reflective thought.

Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

Nevertheless, I doubt that many voters are as fearful of their own free will as are the media that attempted to fry Ben Carson for his answer to a question about what he would do if he were attacked by a mass murderer. He said he would try to take the guy down. He suggested that the targeted victims should act together to do that. In response, this headline appeared, typical of many:

2016 Contender Ben Carson Defends Remarks Criticizing Victims of Oregon Shooting

The preposterous idea was that Carson had criticized the victims for not having attacked the maniac who was assaulting them. He did no such thing. It seems that the media will settle for nothing short of “Carson Commends All Americans Who Plan to Cower and Be Killed.” Certainly the media were pleased enough when other presidential candidates suggested that the only acceptable options are (A) shivering like a sheep before any lunatic with a gun, and (B) keeping guns out of the hands of sane people.

I hope that if I am ever targeted by a lunatic, I will follow Dr. Carson’s advice. I know that if Carson happens to be with me, I can trust him to lead the charge. But I can never stand up to another Bernie Sanders debate. I’d rather be shot.




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Hurting the Poor, Helping the Rich

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Coming from Randian roots, I have a deep appreciation for the virtues of business, and of wealth that has been earned. I do not consider myself to be a liberal-tarian. I usually agree with the Right and disagree with the Left. But the more I look around, the more I see that socialism is really a tool by means of which millionaire elites keep the poor masses from rising up. Libertarianism or “classical liberalism,” on the other hand, can accurately be described as the friend of the poor and the enemy of the rich. I have already written in Liberty (January 2010) about how capitalism helps the poor. What I want to focus on in this Reflection is how statism helps the rich, especially the old money aristocracy, the metaphorical James Taggarts of the United States.

The evidence is overwhelming. Look at education. Rich people send their own children to expensive private schools, which put them on track for Ivy League universities and white collar jobs; meanwhile the political establishment makes sure that the only choice available to poor children is a horrible public school system that teaches nothing and trains students only for low-income jobs. The public schools are controlled by teachers' unions that oppose merit-based pay and favor a seniority system, which is a terrible model for achieving high educational excellence. The modern liberal reply is to say that the system is broken but could be fixed by raising taxes to give more funding to public schools. The real solution is to use school vouchers so that poor children can attend the rich children’s schools — a prospect that few wealthy parents care to consider.

Or look at business. Statism helps wealthy corporations in many ways — not by giving them tax breaks as the modern liberals complain, but by giving them rentseeking handouts such as farm subsidies and defense contracts. Ending all subsidies and all pork barrel spending would be a huge loss for rich people with political connections, yet the modern liberals have bamboozled the poor into thinking that statism actually helps the poor and hurts the rich. On Wall Street, the SEC’s maze of rules makes legal compliance so difficult that it is virtually impossible for newcomers to compete with the old established investment banks. Established businessmen use taxes and regulations to stifle competition from start-up entrepreneurs and up-and-coming small businessmen who can’t afford to hire compliance lawyers and tax consultants, as their old money rivals can. Yet small business is precisely the engine of opportunity for hard-working ambitious people from poor backgrounds.

Now look at the professions. Affluent professionals in the medical and legal fields enjoy salaries that are artificially increased because the AMA and the ABA maintain systems of doctor licensing and lawyer licensing that restrict the supply of new doctors and lawyers. I predict that if ObamaCare does lead to a socialist single-payer national healthcare system, that system will be run by AMA-approved bureaucrats whose inefficiency and nepotism will drive up the price of healthcare, allowing doctors favored by the state to make more money than they would have in a free market. In the ObamaCare nightmare the rich will probably be able to afford to obtain treatment from high-quality doctors, but the poor will be faced with no alternative to the low-quality healthcare that the system is certain to produce. ObamaCare will be a disaster for the working poor.

In every situation mentioned, above socialist measures help the rich and hurt the poor, creating a caste system in which vast fortunes can be inherited but cannot be built up from scratch. The instances described above have all been justified on the ground that they benefit society as a whole or protect the whole public from the dangers of free markets — in itself a distinctly socialist justification. But a logical person would expect socialism to favor the wealthy, because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and one would expect the upper class to have the means to exploit that power. The rich are the ones most likely to be able to afford to run for office and to purchase influence among politicians by means of campaign contributions and special interest lobbying.

Socialism favors the wealthy because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and it is the upper class that has the means to exploit that power.

What I am offering is not an empirical claim but a deductive argument: the wealthy are inherently better positioned than the poor to exploit the state’s power; therefore, the more powerful the state becomes, the more advantage the rich have over the poor in terms of the opportunity to make money. Ayn Rand hinted at this idea when she contrasted “the aristocracy of money,” that of people who earn wealth, with “the aristocracy of pull,” that of people who exploit the state to obtain wealth. But in the end I think Rand loved the rich so much that she failed to see how socialism may actually be a plot by the rich against the poor.

My criticism is directed mainly at wealthy members of the socialist or extreme-leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous Democratic politicians who preach that they are the champions of the poor graduated from Ivy League universities that most poor people could never get into because they could not afford to attend the most prestigious private high schools. Many of these millionaires could not possibly imagine what it is like not to have enough money to pay your bills or to have to work two shifts to make ends meet.

Consider Democratic presidential candidates, past and present. President Obama comes from Harvard Law. John Kerry has the Heinz fortune. Bill and Hillary Clinton were products of Yale Law. And the members of Joe Kennedy’s clan have vast amounts of wealth and several Ivy League degrees behind them. Looking farther back, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the champion of the socialist New Deal, was a man of wealth and privilege; the Rockefeller family inherited an enormous fortune, yet produced many left-leaning politicians, one of them a presidential candidate. People like the ones just mentioned have no right to say that they speak for the poor and underprivileged. Such people are merely exploiting leftism to maximize their already substantial influence.

It is true that the higher taxes championed by modern liberals would hurt the rich. But the bottom line is that in the American capitalism-socialism hybrid, the leftist rich retain the ability to own their vast fortunes while also exploiting the advantages of socialism to prevent ambitious poor people from competing with them. While socialist interference in the economy drives up prices and eliminates jobs, the rich retain their connections, their ability to land good jobs, and their ability to pay for what they want to buy. By contrast, the poor have no choice other than to accept whatever goods and services the government-ruined markets have to offer, and they must desperately seek jobs in a market crippled by taxes and regulations.

The socialist wing of the Democratic Party thinks that decades of the welfare state have made the American poor so lazy and dependent upon government charity that they can be controlled like dogs and trained to bark at capitalism whenever the leftists blow the whistle. This twisted scheme has worked to some extent: common sense and conventional wisdom now hold that lower-class economic interests are aligned with the welfare state.

Libertarians would be well served to focus our ideological energy on fighting this myth. The working poor in the United States have enough trouble to worry about as it is, and it’s not fair to them to tolerate a political system that hurts the poor and favors the rich.




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