February 5, 2019
By David Weinberger • The Federalist
For most people, moral visions trump economic realities, and that is why so-called “democratic socialism” has growing appeal. One’s sense of compassion outweighs the pain of higher taxation.
Consider, for example, this exchange between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Rep. Tom Price:
Sanders: Congressman Price, America is the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right. Do you believe health care is a right of all Americans, whether they’re rich or they’re poor? Should people, because they are Americans, be able to go to their doctor when they need to, be able to go to into a hospital, because they are Americans?
Price: Yes, we’re a compassionate society–
Sanders: No we’re not a compassionate society. In terms of our relationship to poor and working people, our record is worse than virtually any other country on earth. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of every major country on earth, and half of our older workers have nothing set aside for retirement, so I don’t think compared to other countries we are particularly compassionate…
The inaccuracy of Sanders’ assertions is not our concern here. Rather, it is his appeal to morality that even those of us who oppose his agenda must recognize resonates with decent people, especially less-informed young voters, who yearn for meaning in our increasingly nihilistic culture. That is why, vital and correct as it is to point out the economic problems of democratic socialism, in its essence the movement is a moral vision for society, and thus it demands a moral response.
The fundamental moral problem of democratic socialism is that it elevates the state above the individual, if only to a lesser degree than its more muscular older cousin, socialism. Consider, for example, the platform of Rep. Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez. It promises us “rights” to medical insurance, housing, higher education, a “federally guaranteed” job, expanded retirement pay, and more. Yet to enact these “rights” the state must deprive us of our most basic right: keeping the fruits of our own labor.
Keeping Our Earnings
According to an analysis at Vox, which relies on non-partisan and left-leaning sources, democratic socialist proposals for nationalizing health and college would cost $42.5 trillion in the first decade. But even its most ardent proponents have accounted for merely $8.5 trillion in spending cuts. That means the remaining $34 trillion would require “doubling of federal tax revenues.” Vox notes three possibilities to do so:
What about just taxing corporations and rich families? Raising the final $34 trillion would require seizing roughly 100 percent of all corporate profits as well as 100 percent of all family wage income and pass-through business income above the thresholds of $90,000 (single) or $150,000 (married), and absurdly assuming they all continue working. (This calculation refers to individual income, not investment income.)
How about a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which is basically a national sales tax? A rate of 87 percent would be needed to collect $34 trillion under the American tax base.
What about payroll taxes? Lawmakers would need to create a new 37 percent payroll tax, on top of the existing 15.3 percent payroll tax, in order to collect $34 trillion.
In short, these scenarios demand levels of taxation in excess of 50 percent of income for many Americans, including many middle-class Americans. Don’t believe Vox’s numbers? Look at Europe, where the average tax level for workers in many countries is nearly 50 percent or more (meaning many are taxed higher than that).
As a matter of principle, if government has rights to more than half of what someone earns, doesn’t the state assume primacy over the individual? As Dennis Prager is fond of reminding us, the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. Still, the question incumbent on those who wish to persuade people against democratic socialism remains how to appropriately answer whether, on a moral level, we have a right to have others provide our health care.
Which Rights Do We Have?
The right response is a qualified yes, and to explain why that demands stronger market forces, not greater government control. While in a sense we have a right to medical care (which is rightly why nobody is refused in an emergency), we possess it only as a means to an end (the right to life), not as an end itself. Making it an end—a “human right”—signifies that it is no longer legitimate to debate the wisdom and prudence of various means of providing it. In a word, means and ends become inverted. Health care turns into a categorical imperative of government.
This opens the door to government declaring ex cathedra a “human right” to anything we may find desirable. The problem then becomes that our “rights” compete with and contradict one another. If I have a right to health care, then resources must be channeled for that purpose. But what if doing so sucks resources away from providing access to, say, food? Which right trumps which?
Some might reply that the solution to this dilemma is to simply legislate food as a “human right,” too. But that is no solution. For what, then, about housing? A “guaranteed” wage? Higher education? Transportation? Retirement? On what grounds can we reject these as “rights”?
The regrettable fact of life is that our desires are infinite, but resources are not. Thus, to respect our natural rights and our dignity as individuals, government must honor its role in securing those rights, not violate them and elevate itself at the expense of its citizens to provide “rights” that the state invents ex nihilo.
Furthermore, once the moral question of health care is answered, the issue becomes how we best achieve it. It turns out the soundest path forward is to embrace (rather than repudiate) the free market. Despite what we have been told about “free market failure,” government spends roughly half of all our health care dollars. In fact, Uncle Sam spends per capita more than all but three countries in the world. Small wonder costs have exploded when the entity picking up the tab isn’t the one incurring the expense.
Revealingly, however, the two health areas where costs have either declined or stabilized are where government is involved least: cosmetic surgery and eye surgery. We would therefore do well to encourage market forces, not increase state reach.
But while average Americans may not concern themselves with the economic realities of health policy, they feel a sense of compassion for their fellow man. That is why those of us concerned with democratic socialism need to make clear that placing the state above the individual and depriving the latter of his most basic natural rights is not compassionate, it’s wrong.
Conversely, prioritizing the individual is not only right, but the best guide for policy priorities like providing medical care. That’s a moral vision worth supporting. We just need to make the case.