(AP/Michael Dwyer)

Bernie vs. the cult of the free market: Why the right-wing case against Sanders is laughably wrong

George Will voiced the conservative argument against the Democratic socialist last week. Here's what he got wrong


Conor Lynch
October 20, 2015 10:54PM (UTC)

In a recent column by the always pompous George Will, “What Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand about economic equality,” the conservative writer explains why the unwashed masses should quit being so envious, and shut up about economic inequality already (which just so happens to be at its highest level since the Great Depression).

In Will’s opinion, people make what they’re worth, and this whole movement rallying against income and wealth inequality in America (and the world) is simply growing out of envy, which, he warns, is one of the seven deadly sins.

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“The fundamental producer of income inequality is freedom,” Will writes, “Individuals have different aptitudes and attitudes. Not even universal free public education, even were it well done, could equalize the ability of individuals to add value to the economy. Besides, some people want to teach, others want to run hedge funds. In an open society, rewards are set not by political power but by impersonal market forces, the rewards of which will differ dramatically but usually predictably.”

First of all, what Will really means in the first sentence is that “the fundamental producer of income inequality is economic freedom,” rather than freedom in a political sense, e.g. freedom of speech, expression, assembly, religion, etc. “Economic freedom” is another way of saying a free market, where, in an ideal form, the state stays out of almost all economic matters, except when it comes to the most basic enforcement of market rules, like property and contract laws. In other words, all regulations of private industry, whether they relate to the environment, consumer safety or worker rights, would be done away with for the sake of freedom (because what is freedom if not the freedom of a corporation to destroy the environment or abuse its workers?). For those who worship the free market, all of the defects of capitalism, which have historically been corrected or mitigated by the state, would eventually be solved by the market.

While Will is certainly correct that economic freedom is a part of income inequality (while capital/intellectual ownership may be called the 'fundamental producer of wealth inequality'), he goes on to say that “big regulatory government inherently exacerbates inequality because it inevitably serves the strong” (italics are mine).

As an apologist for unregulated capitalism, this notion, that regulations can only worsen the inevitable inequality of a free market, is very convenient for Will. Of course, it is pure hogwash. Regulatory agencies and the government itself can indeed be corrupted, and over the past few decades, they have been. The revolving door and the flow of money into our political system have caused this, but it is hardly an inevitability. The elimination of private campaign financing and the reversal of Citizens United, as Sanders advocates (and Will opposes), would be a start in cleaning up the government and having it work for the many. But Will doesn’t want the corruption to end, because it is a part of his argument -- i.e. that the government and its agencies will inevitably be bought by industries, so why not just eliminate them?

Will writes that “Individuals have different aptitudes and attitudes,” and that “Not even universal free public education... could equalize the ability of individuals to add value to the economy.” This is self-evident. People have different innate skills and talents, and some work is indeed worth more than other work (a profession that requires many year of education, for example, should be worth more than one that does not). No liberals, in my knowledge, deny this. But Will’s concept of value is fuzzy. He seems to believe that the top 25 hedge fund managers are simply worth the same as all of America’s Kindergarten teachers combined (about 158,000), or that they add the same “value to the economy,” because, y’know, the impersonal market is never wrong. So, 25 men (and they are all men), who move around money for other very rich people, speculating on various investments -- and who, thanks to the carried interest loophole, tend to pay lower tax rates than middle class working people -- are worth more than the education of America’s children.

Ultimately, what Will finds so unpleasant about the rise of Sanders is that he is “stoking the discontent of those who are comfortable but envious.” This is very much like Darrell Issa, the richest man in Congress, who contends that the American poor are the “envy of the world.” It is a Republican way of saying: Shut up and stop complaining.

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Of course, there are many people who do envy the the super-rich, and this is simply a part of human nature. If someone working 60 hours a week lives paycheck to paycheck, and then sees the super-rich living luxuriously on television or in the movies, there is going to discontent.

But Will has Sanders completely wrong. The senator does not promote envy of the rich. He promotes worker rights, and fair pay for one’s labor. He is running against the plutocracy that has formed in American politics, where every candidate relies on the donor class to get elected, and then goes on to grant favors to that donor class. And he is running against the greed (one of the seven deadly sins, I might add) of Wall Street and corporate America. He is, in other words, running to save American democracy.

So then, it seems a more appropriate headline for Will's latest editorial would have been: “What George Will does not understand about Bernie Sanders.” The columnist seems quite unaware of the historical reality of inequality (i.e. the higher the inequality, the greater the discontent). The distribution of wealth that Will bemoans, and the welfare state that the right would have dissolved, is the one thing that keeps the “envious masses” from truly revolting against the capitalist class. The welfare state was, after all, developed to mediate class tensions and save capitalism from itself.

“Today’s Democratic Party is frozen, like a fly in amber, in the New Deal preoccupation,” writes Will, as if the Democratic party hasn’t been a centrist “Rockefeller Republican” party for the last three or four decades. The Democrats are indeed returning to their New Deal roots, and it’s about damn time. Of course, Will is stuck in the supply-side eighties, and it’s no secret which era built, and which era destroyed the middle class. It’s time to build once again, Mr. Will.

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Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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