Socialism these days is like the Hydra of lore: for every head chopped off, the monster regrows two. One cannot escape this metaphor when watching Bernie Sanders’s seemingly irresistible progress toward the Democratic presidential nomination. He defines himself as a socialist and clearly meets the criteria, starting with the historical models that he cites. The European social-democratic template of the 1960s, as achieved in the Scandinavian countries (the so-called Swedish model) and in France and Germany, is Sanders’s blueprint for the United States. Nostalgia likely inspires Sanders, at least to some degree—social democracy was at its peak when he was young.
The same nostalgia, mixed with a significant dose of ignorance, may explain his positive comments about Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. He could not bring himself to condemn totally a government that had launched literacy programs. This is the classic posture of the “useful idiot,” Lenin’s term for intellectual admirers of Communist regimes. Sanders shows no sympathy for Communism’s victims and voices no qualms about Castro’s violence. And he gets the facts wrong: Cuba’s people were educated before Castro seized power, and they had the most reliable health-care system in Latin America. Sanders’s admiration for Castro and other dictators in the region—he often mentions Nicaragua—reveals an attraction for the aesthetics of violence, widely shared among leftists. In Marxist parlance: one can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Sanders, perhaps, would not mind breaking some eggs to achieve his goals.
Sanders touts the proverbial free lunch: a free national health system and free education. As free lunches don’t exist, someone would have to pay for all this—presumably the rich, though Sanders avoids giving specific figures.
This vision may sound new and attractive to the young, but it has all been tried before. In Europe, where we do have national health systems and national pension systems, the results have been ghastly. The financial burden does not fall on the shoulders of the wealthy, because we don’t have enough rich people; all taxpayers foot the bill for national health-care service. France finances Social Security, which includes health and pensions, with a withholding tax. Consequently, France has a chronically high unemployment rate, around 10 percent, because the cost of labor is too high, a disincentive to recruit new employees. The cost of labor also makes our products and services less competitive. When British or French citizens go to the doctor or buy drugs, it looks “free”: we don’t pay out of pocket, because we already paid, through our taxes. Such public-health systems control how much doctors and other health workers can be paid. In the United Kingdom, they are considered public civil servants. In France, a general practitioner is paid 25 euros ($28) for an office consultation.
Predictably, many medical doctors won’t accept such miserable honoraria—and will not respect the regulations. Patients then pay the difference out of their pockets, on top of the taxes they have already paid; or they purchase private insurance to supplement their national insurance. In a nutshell: a financially sound and medically safe national health-care system does not exist. European countries try to escape this conundrum by allowing more competition from private hospitals and a growing private-insurance sector.
Free colleges follow the same rules as free national health care: when the students don’t pay, the taxpayers pay for them. Who are the taxpayers? The middle class, of course—the only ones who can be pressured. The poor are too poor, and the rich are elsewhere. If one considers a college education to be the wisest of all investments, then college graduates will enjoy a return on an investment paid by others. Is this fair? In Europe today, students are increasingly being asked to pay some annual fee, and the continent’s best business schools ask for tuitions comparable to those for their United States equivalents. On an ironic note, French colleges try hard to attract Asian students—without much success, because these students don’t trust “free college.” In many instances, they are right.
The same historical incoherence applies to Sanders’s so-called wealth tax. We had one in France, imposed by a socialist government in the 1980s. It appealed to demagogic instincts but failed to bring much money into state coffers. France didn’t have enough wealthy people to pay for all the socialist extravagances. Moreover, the rich could escape the wealth tax through creative accounting, or by moving next door, to Belgium. The tax made exiles of many French entrepreneurs. The Macron government has smartly scrapped it.
Europeans, then, having learned that socialism does not work, are trying to narrow our gap with the United States with various reforms—just as Bernie Sanders, 50 years too late, seeks to emulate Europe. Doesn’t Sanders know that his program has been applied in Europe, and failed? He must: and this would mean that his true ambition is not free health care or free college, but a deeper transformation of the United States. Perhaps he hates the free-market society and wants to replace it with a socialist, egalitarian one, overseen by the “tyranny of the benevolent,” which Tocqueville warned against.
Why would so many American voters find Sanders’s socialism attractive? For the same reasons that socialism was once popular in Europe: the love for equality over individual freedom; the illusion of a safe life, guaranteed by a benevolent state; the allure of transferring personal responsibility to a public nurse. Then as now, these offers exert a strong psychological appeal; the answer to them is reality. Socialism does not work—but perhaps one needs to live through it to be convinced.
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