2016 Elections

A Libertarian Case for Sanders? It's Fun But Not Convincing

Denmark is more free, by some measures. But even a socialist president couldn't turn the U.S. into Denmark.

Libertarians' best bet?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Getty Images

Who should libertarians support this election?  Will Wilkinson argues that they should consider supporting … the socialist.

This may seem counterintuitive to you. So let me quote:

The libertarian case for Bernie Sanders is simply that Bernie Sanders wants to make America more like Denmark, Canada, or Sweden … and the citizens of those countries enjoy more liberty than Americans do. No other candidate specifically aims to make the United States more closely resemble a freer country. That’s it. That’s the case.

Wilkinson cites the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index, which ranks the U.S. 20th, between Mauritius and the Czech Republic. (I have some serious quibbles with these rankings. If you're going to stop reading this piece when your microwave burrito is done, feel free to skip ahead to those. )

Now, I love me some contrarianism. And I have a sneaking fondness for Sanders, who reminds me of any number of folks from my Upper West Side childhood. Nonetheless, I am not convinced. Let's look at a few libertarian priorities and assess where they are in sync with what Sanders is saying, and where they are at odds.

In his first post, and a follow-up, Wilkinson makes basically two arguments. The first is that whatever Sanders thinks he wants, to actually get the redistribution and the huge welfare state he desires, he’s going to need to do what Scandinavia does, and deregulate the heck out of markets, so that they will generate the income needed to pay for the welfare state. The second is that even apart from that, there are a lot of kinds of liberty out there, and you can be a “good libertarian” while simply placing a higher weight on Sanders’s highly desirable non-interventionist foreign policy, than on his less-than-desirable massive growth of the state. In particular, it is more than reasonable to gamble that his domestic agenda will be stymied, while his foreign policy ideas will have free rein. Thus, says Wilkinson, “If you’re not ready to consider the possibility that the politics of a liberal socialist like Bernie Sanders might be on the whole more pro-liberty than, say, Ted Cruz’s, then you’re simply not ready to think seriously about the politics of liberty.”

I am perfectly ready to consider this. However, I think there are some other things we need to consider too.

Which of these things can Sanders actually do something about?

One of the things that causes America’s ranking to fall in the Fraser Institute index is our homicide rate. Our homicide rate is terrible. Anyone think that Bernie Sanders is going to meaningfully reduce it? Me neither. For that matter, many of the things that might reduce it, from draconian gun control to more aggressive policing, are things that libertarians oppose for other reasons.

Even where libertarians might want the same things Sanders does, I recognize that a Sanders presidency isn't going to change much. Think mass incarceration. Drug legalization. Due process and other protections from the law enforcement apparatus. Most of the action on mass incarceration happens at the state and local level, with prosecutors deciding what charges to bring and local judges deciding what sentences to hand out.

Even at the federal level, there are a lot of things that cannot be changed without the cooperation of Congress. Sanders would have some administrative discretion over how zealously various agencies pursue the laws on the books. He would also, presumably, be able to appoint more liberal judges -- but “more liberal” does not mean “can allow obviously guilty people to walk because the law under which they have been charged should never have been enacted.” And "appoint" does not mean "get confirmed."

This finite power is a comfort to libertarians who disagree with Sanders on issues like massively increasing the size of the state and raising taxes to stratospheric levels.

But he probably can get some things done, especially after a few Supreme Court appointments. Libertarians won't like his gains on commercial speech, gun rights, labor law, trade, religious liberty, regulation more generally.  They will like his gains on national security -- reducing the size of the military and avoiding interventions abroad.

To support Sanders, libertarians would have to value this really, really highly in order to accept the downsides: undoing Heller, Hobby Lobby, Citizens United and a dozen other libertarian-friendly cases; accepting and expanding the Obama administration’s push to deprive rape suspects of due process on campuses; much more heavily regulating every industry under federal control; opposing trade; and so forth. It’s perfectly fair to say that you’re a libertarian who cares so much about national security issues that basically everything else is a distant second, but it’s not the only definition of "libertarian."

What are the odds that Sanders will come around to Denmark-style unfettered-capitalism-plus-redistribution?

I’m afraid I peg the probability at somewhere between “Bernie Sanders orders Marines to invade Canada” and “Megan McArdle tapped to play first base for the New York Yankees.” Why not?

  1. It took Scandinavians a few decades to realize that they needed the free market to go with the big welfare state. Why would we think Sanders would learn the same lesson in five years? Especially since many countries didn’t learn this lesson even after decades of poor growth, and continue to combine sizable welfare states with inefficient, illiberal market policies. The current economic rhetoric of Sanders’s campaign, heavy on magical thinking and light on sound economics, certainly doesn’t give one any reason to think he’s ready for market-friendly policy; as a friend recently joked, he sounds like he’s running for president of Sweden -- in 1970. 
  2. Most (not all) of the worst regulation in America happens at the state and local level. Local government is more corrupt, inefficient, self-dealing, and all-around inefficient than the federal government. It is also, by constitutional design, beyond the reach of Sanders or any president to much improve upon it.
  3. Our government and our culture are not Danish, so our regulation really can't be either. We have multiple levels of regulations -- required because of our federalist constitutional structure. We have an adversarial process -- required because businesses need hard-and-fast rules to protect them from liability suits, and inspectors need hard-and-fast rules to protect the government from discrimination suits. Unless you think that Bernie Sanders is going to unmake the last 80 years of civil rights and liability law, we’re stuck with it. In our larger urban agglomerations, where most Americans live, we’re also stuck with a relatively low-trust culture that makes it hard to have the kind of collaborative, principles-based regulation that Scandinavia enjoys, even if we could somehow overcome the legal and institutional hurdles. Incidentally, local government does work this way in some places in the U.S. -- notably in low-population Midwestern areas with a heavy Scandinavian influence in their history.
  4. Sanders would wisely avoid fully embracing Danish economic policy. Some of it absolutely stinks. Bankruptcy in Scandinavia, for example, is draconian by American standards, leaving failed entrepreneurs in a sort of debt slavery that seems profoundly unliberating.

But what if the Sanders social safety net is exactly what we need to make us secure enough to unleash the market? Maybe -- but color me skeptical. We heard a similar argument about Obamacare spurring entrepreneurship, which sounded splendid except for the total lack of evidence that national health care schemes had caused entrepreneurship to surge anywhere.

But if we do take this argument seriously, then surely we also have to offer the same deference to other traditionally non-libertarian policies. For example, Marco Rubio is considerably more hawkish than I am. But maybe he's onto something. Shouldn’t I weigh the possibility that a world in which the U.S. adopted Denmark’s foreign policy -- all soft power -- might be a world in which large numbers of people were considerably less free?

Unlike the highly theoretical gut renovation of our regulatory and legal systems, this is something that Sanders could actually do all on his own. He could sit tight and refuse to act while China and Russia and Iran and other regimes that are not noted for their love of individual liberty exerted vastly more influence than they do now. There’s not much Congress could do about it short of impeaching him. And while I’m pondering counterfactuals, I have to admit that there’s some chance that this could result in a net destruction of freedom.  

That may sound uncomfortably like “war is peace.” But then, is that really much crazier than “socialism is libertarian”?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.